Hearken Unto a Verser

We ought to consider a figure who deserves to be better known in Evangelical circles: the early seventeenth-century Anglican poet, George Herbert.

Though he belongs more to the age of Perkins and Hooker, Herbert deserves to be better known both as a great Protestant and a great poet. He was a pastor firmly dedicated to sacrificial ministry in his local congregation. Much of his poetry relates to the church and the spiritual life. His influence extends from John Milton to Emily Dickinson, Tim Keller, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Calvinist author, Marilynne Robinson. C. S. Lewis wrote of Herbert, “Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment.”

 

Last year was the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation and so we were all busy celebrating the major figures, reconsidering their key doctrines, and evaluating their legacies. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others took center stage at conferences, on blogs, and in journals. Meanwhile we heard far less about the cultural, and especially literary, fruit of the Reformation. That is why we ought to consider a figure who deserves to be better known in Evangelical circles: the early seventeenth-century Anglican poet, George Herbert.

Though he belongs more to the age of Perkins and Hooker, Herbert deserves to be better known both as a great Protestant and a great poet. He was a pastor firmly dedicated to sacrificial ministry in his local congregation. Much of his poetry relates to the church and the spiritual life. His influence extends from John Milton to Emily Dickinson, Tim Keller, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Calvinist author, Marilynne Robinson. C. S. Lewis wrote of Herbert, “Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment.”

Born in 1593 and thus a later contemporary of Shakespeare, Herbert came from an aristocratic family and went to Cambridge, where he excelled in classical languages and rhetoric. Elected to the post of University Orator, he gave a ceremonial address to King James in 1623. A political office seemed likely for the talented young man, but then his friends in high places began to die off and his career stalled. Poems like “Affliction” (I) and “The Collar” vividly record his wrestling with God over his disappointment and pastoral calling–eventually to a little country church near Salisbury.

Some Protestants today may be put off Herbert’s Anglicanism; and there werePelagian, Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England during Herbert’s ministry. But there is nothing formalistic and empty about either his poetry or his ministry. He took pains to preach the clear, profound truth of the Gospel and to explain the “high church” service to his simple parishioners–what the Creed, congregational responses, and various steps in the liturgy all meant.

His poetry, though complex and witty, always returns to simple metaphors borrowed from work and home, from nature and Scripture. His poetry is filled with profound and sometimes painfully honest reflections on the Church and its liturgy, on the Gospel story, and on the Christian life. And his poetry is deeply Protestant in three other ways: its reliance on Scripture, it’s focus on salvation by grace, and its emphasis on personal holiness.

Focus on Scripture

The Reformation largely centered on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the teaching that the very words of Scripture should be the basis for coming to new life in Christ and then living it. As Chana Bloch has written, “Herbert doesn’t simply read the Bible, he believes in it; and it marks his poetry so distinctively because it first molds his life.” In one poem, “The H. Scriptures”, Herbert describes the Davidic longing we should have for biblical truth.

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