restricted access George Herbert
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412 ] George Herbert1 The Spectator, 148 (12 Mar 1932) 360-61 In The Oxford Book of English Verse, George Herbert is allotted five pages, the same number as Bishop King and many less than Robert Herrick.2 This does, I imagine, gauge pretty accurately the measure of Herbert’s reputation : he is known as the author of a few fine devotional poems suitable for anthologies, which serve to illustrate his debt to Donne; and his figure is preserved, chiefly by Walton’s Life, as one of genuine though rather conventional piety.3 For poetic range he is compared unfavourably with Donne, and for religious intensity he is compared unfavourably with Crashaw. This latter opinion, it may be suspected, is supported by those who choose to take a view of the Church of England into which a very temperate and “reasonable” kind of personal devoutness will best fit. The author of the Introduction to the little “World’s Classics” edition seems to me representative of this attitude.4 “The strength and support of that branch of the Catholic Church militant in our own country,” he says, “has always lain upon the middle way; it has never been her method either to ‘waste in passionate dreams,’ or to protest overmuch with the voices of prophecy or denunciation.” But he adds, with true British tolerance, “To say this is not to presume to depreciate the excellence of those kinds of enthusiasm which are congenitally foreign to the English character” [iii]. He completes his picture of the Church of England in the spirit of Tennysonian pastoral: “Here, as the cattle wind homeward in the evening light, the benign, white-haired parson stands at his gate to greet the cowherd, and the village chime calls the labourers to evensong” [iv]. In our time such a happy picture of a social fabric of moderate and complacent piety – a picture which at once idealizes society and travesties the Church – may provoke a smile; yet it does represent the false setting in which we still place the figure of George Herbert. We know little of his life, it is true; but what we do know, and the very much more that we know about his period, concur to demonstrate the falsity. Whatever Herbert was, he was not the prototype of the clergyman of Dickens’ Christmas at Dingley Dell.5 Walton’s portrait is certainly formalized and starched, but probably true so far as it goes; suggesting, as it does, that he was not himself [ 413 George Herbert imaginative or spiritually minded enough to appreciate, though he could respect. Of all the “metaphysical” poets, Herbert has suffered the most from being read only in anthologies. Even in Professor Grierson’s admirable specialized anthology of metaphysical verse, he is at a disadvantage compared with several writers of less importance. The usual opinion, I believe, is as I have already said in other words, that we go to Donne for poetry and to Crashaw for religious poetry: but that Herbert deserves to be remembered as the representative lyrist of a mild and tepid Church.6 Yet, when we take Herbert’s collected poems and read industriously through the volume we cannot help being astonished both at the considerable number of pieces which are as fine as those in any anthology, and at what we may call the spiritual stamina of the work. Throughout there is brain work, and a very high level of intensity; his poetry is definitely an oeuvre, to be studied entire.7 And our gradual appreciation of the poetry gives us a new impression of the man. All poetry is difficult, almost impossible, to write: and one of the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a peculiarly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless – on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation , the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between the...


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