George Herbert’s most famous poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
George Herbert (1593-1633) published none of his poetry during his lifetime, instead sending his poetic works to a friend shortly before his death, with the instruction that if his friend thought the poems worth publishing, he should do so. Thankfully, they were published, in The Temple in 1633, a few months after Herbert’s death. The following poems are what we consider the ten greatest George Herbert poems (although other readers will doubtless have their own top ten list). The title of each poem leads through to the text of the poem.
Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?
A poem calling for plain speech in poetry, rather than clichés or needlessly obscure and convoluted metaphors. This may strike us as somewhat odd given Herbert’s fondness for elaborate conceits and analogies elsewhere in his poetry, but Herbert’s main objection appears to be to lazy poetic tropes which are complex but unoriginal. This is neatly exemplified by the implied comparison of the river Jordan (in the poem’s title) with the feeble streams of inferior pastoral poets.
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Herbert’s speaker seeks to reject belief in God, to cast off his ‘collar’ and be free. (The collar refers specifically to the ‘dog collar’ that denotes a Christian priest, with its connotations of ownership and restricted freedom, though it also suggests being bound or restricted more generally. Herbert, we should add, was a priest himself.) However, as he rants and raves, the speaker comes to realise that God appears to be calling him – and the speaker duly and dutifully replies, the implication being that he has recovered his faith and is happy to bear the ‘collar’ of faith again.
While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I intomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last …
The poem is a memento mori – a reminder that we will die – but one with an altogether more stoic and positive outlook on death than many such poems. It sees Herbert lying in a tomb in order to accustom his body and soul to the fact that he will one day lie at rest in such a grave – forever. The poem is especially notable for its gendered depiction of the body (as male) and soul (as female).
I know the wayes of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the presse, and make it runne;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of itself, like a good huswife, spunne
In laws and policie; what the starres conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and historie;
All these stand open, or I have the keyes:
Yet I love thee …
In this poem, Herbert tells us how he is well-acquainted with certain key pursuits and benefits in life – learning, honour, and pleasure – but that these things are nothing when laid beside Herbert’s love for God. Once you’ve found God, nothing can top or topple him.
‘Easter Wings’. The layout of this poem is the first thing that strikes the reader: when it was first published in 1633 it was formatted sideways on adjacent pages, with the lines arranged to form the shape of a bird’s wings. Herbert wasn’t the first person to write such a poem: the classical poet Simmias of Rhodes had done so nearly 2,000 years before. Nor, for that matter, was Herbert the first English poet to write a poem in the shape of wings: Stephen Hawes had written ‘A Pair of Wings’ over a century before Herbert. But Herbert certainly helped to popularise the writing of ‘concrete poetry’ among English poets.
‘A Wreath’. Since this poem is about a wreath, Herbert creatively suggests the shape of a wreath through the rhyme scheme of his poem. The progression of its lines, and its rhyme scheme, both reflect the wreath’s circularity, a symbol of totality and connection. So the movement from one line to next forms a chain: the first line ends with talk of ‘deservèd praise’, so the second line begins by talking about ‘praise deservèd’; this second line in turn ends ‘unto Thee I give’, leading into the third line which begins ‘I give to Thee’; and so on, until we end up where we started, with ‘a crown of praise’ returning us to the first line of the poem, ‘A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise’.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing …
In this poem, which begins with the famous line ‘Love bade me welcome’, Love is personified as a host inviting Herbert in to dine with him as a guest. ‘Love’ here, as in so much of George Herbert’s finest poems, is more or less synonymous with God.
Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
To a full consent …
In this poem, Herbert asks God to use love rather than punishment when dealing with him, beseeching God to throw away his ‘rod’, the instrument used to inflict punishment, and his ‘wrath’ (i.e. his anger) and instead to ‘[t]ake the gentle path’. Herbert is fully amenable to God’s will, and will consent to whatever God wishes. Okay, he may falter occasionally, but he does so in his attempt to please God and reach heaven and God’s ‘throne of grace’. Love is more powerful than fear of punishment.
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing …
One of Herbert’s most widely acclaimed lyrics, ‘The Flower’ uses the metaphor of greenness and life returning to plants and flowers in the spring to convey the return of the poet’s strong sense of God.
‘The Pulley’. A Creation poem, this, which imagines God making man and bestowing all available attributes upon him – except for rest. Work is important so that man should worship the God who made Nature, rather than Nature itself. We suppose one way of looking it is to say that God is advocating hard work as its own reward, and justifying having just one day of the week as a ‘day of rest’ on which to worship Him. Man should be ‘rich and weary’ – rich not only in a financial but in a moral and spiritual sense, too, we assume.
If you’re looking for a good, affordable edition of George Herbert’s work, we recommend The Complete Poetry (Penguin Classics). Continue to explore the world of Metaphysical poetry with our short overview of the life of George Herbert and our pick of John Donne’s greatest poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Tomb-monument of Lord Stourton (photo: Mike Searle), via Geograph.org.uk. Image (bottom): A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.