Anglican Notables – George Herbert – 27 February

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

George Herbert

Born 3 April 1593 (Montgomery, Wales) – Died 1 March 1633 (Bemerton, Wiltshire, England)

Priest; Poet (among the so-called Metaphysical Poets).

Notable Works: The Temple, The Country Parson, Jacula Prudentum

[The featured image is based on a 1674 drawing of Herbert by Robert White.]

Though George Herbert died on 1 March, he is commemorated by both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the United States of America on 27 February.  This is “to avoid conflict with other commemorations,”[1] most notably, I would assume, that of St. David of Wales.  But since Herbert was born in Wales and came from an eminent Welsh family, he would have no doubt been glad to step aside for the patron saint of Wales.

Whether scholars of literature would agree, my bias as a musicologist and as a church musician ranks Herbert as among the most gifted of the so-called Metaphysical Poets.  This is because his poetry has served as the basis for a number of anthems and hymns in the Anglican musical heritage, some of them peerless in their quality because the poet has brought out the finest of the composer’s art.  The George Herbert entry in _Grove Music Online_ states that within the same century in which Herbert lived there were settings of his poem to music, including six settings “by John Jenkins and one each by John Wilson … and George Jeffreys. Solo settings survive by Henry Lawes, Blow and Purcell….  John Playford provided settings of The Altar and of seven psalms in metrical versions [in 1671] that he attributed … to Herbert. In the 18th century Herbert’s poems were adapted as hymns by the Moravians and Methodists; … John Wesley published 49 adaptations in hymnbooks and collections of sacred verse. Several 20th-century composers, including Walford Davies, Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, [Herbert Howells,] and Britten, have produced settings; the best-known are those in Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs.”[2]

Among the most sublime moments in all human achievement—both as theology and as art—are the words of Herbert’s poem “Love” (III) from The Temple (first line: “Love Bade Me Welcome”) as set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the collection referred to above, Five Mystical Songs.  There is poignant beauty in Vaughan Williams’s setting in the fact that when the choir enters at the end of the anthem in a wordless, unison melodic line, it is a magnificent paradox on several levels.  This wordless choral sound is Vaughan Williams’s perception that conveying the meaning of the sacrament of the altar—“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat”—is beyond the expressive ability of even the finest of theological poets.  There is poignant beauty too in the fact that while Herbert lived in a period when culture and aesthetics celebrated grandeur and complexity, not least in music, Vaughn Williams accompanies the words of this country priest to a simple, lyrical line.  It is the magnificence of humility.  Prevalent in England in Vaughan Williams’s day was a yearning to retreat to rural idyll’s “away from the disordered stresses of modernity.”[3]  But there is something theological as well in Vaughan Williams’s perception.  Though not reputed to have been a believer in Christianity’s claims and promises, Vaughan Williams loved the Church of England on a cultural level, at least.  By a kind of cultural osmosis, then, if nothing else, Vaughan Williams understood that music evoking a simple folk tune and accompanying the words of a country priest was the way to get closest to English spirituality’s monastic roots, which have always thrived in the rural rather than the urban.

It is possible to overstate the image of Herbert as a country priest.  Magdalene Herbert, George’s mother, was widowed when George was still a child, which resulted in the family eventually moving to London.  There, Magdalene Herbert ran a household that was alive with learning and culture.  Herbert claims he learned much about writing from his mother.  But there were other intellectual and artistic influences as well.  John Donne was a friend of the family.  And “among the guests for supper in 1601 were the composers John Bull and William Byrd, and the historian William Camden.”[4]  George Herbert was only eight years old at the time and might have been relegated to the nursery that evening, as was the custom in more recent times.  But this seems unlikely, since there is every indication Magdalene Herbert lost no opportunity to improve her children’s educations.  When George went to Cambridge, he excelled.  So secure was he in wit and erudition, moreover, that he was named the university orator.

Nonetheless, Herbert’s eventual retreat to Bemerton to serve in the parish there was something he evidently embraced, even to the extent of writing his prose handbook, A Priest to the Temple, which is also known as The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life.  And Nicholas Ferrar, who also retreated to the countryside (Little Gidding) for a life of prayer, cannot have been as impressed with Herbert as he was had Herbert given any indication of pining for the corridors of power in London.  Herbert, who had been “the university orator who addressed King James I became the priest who asserted that preachers should not be ‘witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy.’”[5]

Scholars continue to debate why Herbert, so promising a student at Cambridge and having shown some interest in rising politically (he briefly served as the borough of Montgomery’s representative in Pariliament), should have finally chosen the obscurity of being a country vicar.  One explanation might be the influence of the Book of Common Prayer on Herbert as both a poet and a Christian.  Ramie Targoff and Rosemary Van Wengen-Shute are two scholars who have shown the influence of the Prayer Book in Herbert’s poetry.[6]  But the Book of Common Prayer also assumes an almost-monastic sense of stability in a small community: a common office, empirical guidance within the family, rubrics relating to residential qualifications for marriage and burial, and an emphasis on the Word being preached “in a settled church.”[7]  Living in London precludes none of this, as Herbert knew from experience.  But the Prayer Book was written in a cultural context that was still very agrarian.  It was therefore in a country parish that a priest could hope to set the deepest pastoral roots.

As a musicologist and as a church musician, I end with this entire paragraph from the “George Herbert” entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and then with a full quotation of Herbert’s “Church-musick”

“In addition to his work as rector and his intense poetic activities [during his years at Bemerton], Herbert was also afforded the opportunity to enjoy what he termed (in his lyric ‘Church Music’) ‘the sweetest of sweets’—liturgical music—and to practise his own considerable skills as a musician. Twice a week, according to [Izaak] Walton, Herbert walked from Bemerton to Salisbury to attend evensong at the cathedral, followed by a ‘private Musick meeting’ at which he would ‘sing and play his part’ (Walton, [The life of Mr George Herbert (1670)], 60). One of Walton’s most memorable (though no doubt apocryphal) anecdotes about Herbert concerns a musical evening at which the rector arrived in a dishevelled state, having helped a ‘poor man, with a poorer horse’ while on his way there. Unruffled by the critical reactions of his fellow musicians, Herbert is said to have defended his charitable act (which ‘would prove Musick to him at Midnight‘) and, without any further ado, concluded, ‘And now, let’s tune our instruments’ (ibid., 62–3). According to Aubrey, Herbert ‘had a very good hand on the lute’ ([Aubrey’s] Brief Lives, 295) and was thought to have set some of his own poems to music, and Walton recounted that Herbert rose from his deathbed to sing verses from ‘Sunday’ and ‘The Thanksgiving’ (Walton, 77). The frequent use of musical forms and metaphors in his English lyrics certainly bears witness to a creative partnership between poetry and music.”[8]

Church-Musick

Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure / Did through my bodie wound my minde, / You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure / A daintie lodging me assign’d.

Now I in you without a bodie move, / Rising and falling with your wings: / We both together sweetly live and love, / Yet say sometimes,God help poore Kings.

Comfort, I’le die; for if you poste from me, / Sure I shall do so, and much more: / But if I travell in your companie, / You know the way to heavens doore.

[from the George Herbert window at St. Andrew’s Church, Bemerton, Wiltshire, England]

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

 
 
 

[1] George Herbert (satucket.com)

[2] Herbert [Harbert], George | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

[3] Terry Gifford, “Towards a Post-Pastoral View,” 52.  See also Terry Gifford, Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 26-54.

[4] Herbert, George (1593–1633), Church of England clergyman and poet | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com)

[5] Herbert, George (1593–1633), Church of England clergyman and poet | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com).

[6] Targoff, Ramie, “George Herbert and the Devotional Lyric” in his Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Rosemary van Wengen-Shute, Rosemary, “George Herbert and the Liturgy of the Church of England.” PhD Thesis, State University of Leiden, 1981.

[7] Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, 258.

[8] Herbert, George (1593–1633), Church of England clergyman and poet | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com)

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