Analysis of George Herbert’s Poems

The Temple is unquestionably one of the most inventive and varied collections of poems published in the seventeenth century, and a reader can go a long way toward appreciating George Herbert (1593 – 1633) by studying this inventiveness and variety. At the same time, though, the full range of Herbert’s intentions and impact may be missed if his technical virtuosity is seen as an end in itself. Everything known about Herbert suggests that he would not want to be described as a master craftsman or skilled technician of poetry unless it was also stressed that every effort of his artistry served a central purpose: helping him to know, love, and praise God, and to understand better his place in a world filled with sin but governed and redeemed by Christ. Such poems as “Jordan” (I) and (II) and “The Posie” are in fact critical of certain styles of poetry and show that Herbert is more than occasionally impatient with the subterfuge, indirection, and even pride that seem inevitable in producing a wellwritten work. Ultimately, however, poetic creativity and devotion are welded together in The Temple. As the title suggests, Herbert imagines himself to be a builder, and nearly all the details, both large and small, of the structure he raises show it to be a place of intricate beauty as well as sacred worship.

The Temple

Understanding the design of The Temple as a whole is no easy matter, in part because Herbert’s natural inclination seems to be to “play” with structure, rather than to adopt a fixed schema as the pattern for the entire work. The Temple is divided into three parts, as though the reader is going to be led stepbystep through a physical temple. “The Churchporch,” by far Herbert’s longest single poem, offers a great deal of advice on moral matters to prepare a youth who is otherwise not yet ready for more serious devotions. After such an initiation, the reader is ready to enter the section called “The Church,” a collection of lyrics that continues to describe various places or objects in the church (the altar, stained glass windows, and so on) but that in doing so dramatizes the spiritual conflicts of a believer trying to secure his faith. The final section, “The Church Militant,” turns from the life of the individual believer to the corporate body of the church, which, like each individual, must endure a series of successes and failures throughout its history. While the tripartite structure of The Temple thus has a certain obvious coherence, there are limits to the usefulness of such a scheme. Though Herbert never completely drops his theme of tracing out the contours of the physical temple, he quickly shows that his main interest is in exploring the temple within the heart and mind of the worshiper.

Herbert’s flexible and open-ended play with structure, his ability to make patterns that are stable enough to support a great weight of meaning but loose enough to avoid dull predictability, is seen to a great advantage in the way he arranges the poems of “The Church.” Far from being a random miscellany, “The Church” is a carefully ordered collection in which the individual poems are placed in sequences and other kinds of groups, sometimes with poems that stand nearby in the volume, at other times with ones located many pages away. Although even a superficial reading of the poems soon advises the reader that he must watch closely how they relate to one another, Herbert provides a good description of his method and a clue to where he learned it in his poem “The H. Scriptures” (II). Despite its many parts, the Bible, he suggests, has a basic unity, and in order to understand any particular story the reader needs to trace how “This verse marks that, and both do make a motion/ Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.” Like the Bible, “The Church” has a basic unity, and the reader understands the poems fully only when he or she takes into account how they comment on and echo one another.

Sometimes the patterns and sequences of the poems are rather straightforward. “The Church” opens with a series that moves through the events celebrated during Easter Week, and the cumulative effect of such poems as “The Sacrifice,” “The Agonie,”“Good Friday,” “Easter,” and “Easterwings” is to reinforce a sense of the importance of this part of the Christian calendar. In another group, the typical progress of a Christian life is reflected in the succession of titles: “Affliction,” “Repentance,” “Faith,” “Prayer,” and “The H. Communion.” Even when Herbert does not fully develop a sequence, there are many examples of paired poems, where one answers, corrects, or otherwise responds to another. “Church-monuments,” one of Herbert’s most impressive poems even though its theme is the body’s inevitable decay, is immediately followed by “Church-musick,” which focuses on the high-flying freedom of the soul once it is released from the body. The desperate pleas that fill “Longing” are short lived; by the first line of the next poem, “The Bag”—“Away despair! My gracious Lord doth heare”—the pleas have been answered.

Toward the end of “The Church,” the speaker in the poem “The Invitation” calls outto God, inviting him to a feast; the following poem, “The Banquet,” shows not only that the invitation has been accepted but also that the feast is far more glorious than the speaker had imagined. The more the reader follows the many links drawing the poems closer and closer together, the more apparent it becomes that one aspect of Herbert’s design in “The Church” is to use the entire collection to trace a believer’s gradual attainment not only of wisdom but also, more important, of peace. Read as one long, continuous sequence, the poems of “The Church” do seem to have a general plot, as the tribulations so much in evidence early in the work gradually give way to a more subdued questioning and heightened moments of bliss. Many commentators have noted that Herbert marks out this general plot very clearly for his reader: At the beginning of “The Church” the reader is invited to “approach, and taste/ The churches mysticall repast,”and the final poem in the section, “Love” (III), concludes quite simply—“So I did sit and eat”—showing that this task has been completed.

Without disregarding the broad movement in “The Church” from immaturity to maturity, pain to comfort, it is equally important to note that Herbert by no means presents a simple tale of easily achieved spiritual progress. The plot traced out by the lyrics in “The Church,” while ultimately a hopeful one, is at the same time densely textured, complicated, filled with moments of weakness, backsliding, and lessons improperly learned. Numerous short sequences suggest that humanity’s needs are answered by Christ, who is always nearby; for example, the momentary sense that Christ has vanished, and that even when he is near he is unapproachable, expressed in “The Search,” “Grief,” and “The Crosse,” gives way to the blooming of joy in “The Flower”—joy that is both surprising and expected: “How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean/ Are thy returns! ev’nas the flowers in spring.”

If comfort is predictable, though, so is despair, and many short sequences show how quickly people move back again from wonder to worry; the exhilaration of “The Temper” (I), for example, is extremely precarious, over and done with, even by the time the next poem, “The Temper” (II), begins: “It cannot be. Where is that mightie joy,/ Which just now took up all my heart?” As confusing and frustrating as these constant oscillations may be, Herbert’s purpose is not to undermine the reader’s security. By linking his poems in a variety of ways, often teasing and challenging his reader, Herbert expands the limits of the lyric form, setting the entire collection up to do what no one lyric possibly could: to dramatize and analyze the various moods and rhythms of a faithful believer.

George Herbert.

Poetic Structure

Herbert’s structural skill is evident not only in the overall plan and order of The Temple but also in the individual poems. His playful sense of poetic structure, though, has often been misunderstood and held against him. Such obviously patterned poems as “The Altar” and “Easter-wings,” both of which are typographically shaped to resemble the objects named in the title, often strike some readers as quaint at best. Eighteenth century critics, for example, viewed these poems rather condescendingly as typical of Herbert and did not hesitate to consider him as a “false wit,” incapable of more noble and creative effects.

Looked at more sympathetically, though, “The Altar” and “Easterwings” are typical of Herbert only in suggesting how important poetic form is for him. Besides being a statement and a dramatization, a poem by Herbert is also an artifact, whose structure, sometimes simply, at other times subtly, reinforces a particular theme. At one end of the scale, there are directly imitative poems such as “Paradise,” a poem about pruning in which the rhyme words are, in fact, pruned; “Heaven,” in which the last word of the speaker’s questions echoes in a following line as an answer; and “Trinitie Sunday,”composed of a trinity of three line stanzas. Other poems show more subdued but nevertheless effective pictorial designs: The shape of the stanzas in “The Agonie” suggests the image of the winepress mentioned in the poem, which calls to mind the association between Christ’s sacrificial blood and sacramental wine; and each stanza in “The Bag” seems to contain an open space, literally like the bag mentioned in the poem used to take messages from humans straight to God.

Such directly imitative devices help to prepare the reader for Herbert’s far more challenging uses of poetic form in other places in The Temple. The structure of “Church-monuments,” for example, is meant not so much to imitate a gravestone, as the title seems to suggest, as to help the reader imagine the decay described in the poem that will sooner or later overcome gravestones, bodies, and the entire physical world. Because the lines are only occasionally endstopped, the rhythm becomes somewhat unsettling, even ominous, and since the word “dust” is repeated again and again, the entire poem momentarily becomes like the hourglass mentioned in the last few lines, “which holds the dust/ That measures all our time; which also shall/ Be crumbled into dust.”

Similarly, the theme and mood of the speaker in “The Collar” are powerfully and immediately conveyed by its structure: The poem is apparently unshaped, with irregularly alternating lines of different length to suggest the disordered mind of a man who has lost all control. By the concluding lines, though, the structure of the poem communicates the achievement of order. As the speaker exhausts himself to a moment of calmness, “normal” poetic form also surfaces in the relatively stable abab rhyme scheme of the last four lines: “But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde/ At every word,/ Me thoughtsI heard one calling, Child!/ And I reply’d, My Lord.” Because he so often shapes his poems to have a visual impact, Herbert is compared with the emblem writers of his time, whose verses were either appended to illustrative plates or were at least meant to call to mind and interpret such illustrations. Such poems as “Churchmonuments” and “The Collar,” however, show that one of Herbert’s particular skills is an ability to use the structure of his poems to imitate not only objects and static scenes but also dramatic processes.


Herbert’s attention to structure is matched by his loving care for the language of his poems. Especially when compared with other works of his period, The Temple seems remarkably simple and direct, with little of the straining against meaning that characterizes so many of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, and with hardly any of Donne’s self-conscious roughness and almost inconsiderate obscurity.

As many critics have noted, though, Herbert’s simplicity marks the triumph, not the abandonment, of art. The language of The Temple is that of the Bible (especially in the King James or Authorized Version, published in 1611) and the Book of Common Prayer: austere but resonant and multileveled. Herbert’s delight in language reflects not only the deep influence of God’s words, the Holy Scriptures, but also his awareness that human words, returned to God in prayer, praise, song, and poetry, are at least an acceptable celebration of God’s Word made flesh in Christ.

Throughout “The Church,” Herbert struggles with the dilemma that humans in poetry, as in all things, can give to God only what God has already given them; but though this undermines any pretense of human self-sufficiency, it is an arrangement in which Herbert ultimately finds a great deal of comfort. The heartfelt simplicity of the three poems titled “Praise” and the two titled “Antiphon,” among many others in “The Church,” signifies not only a poetic choice but also an acceptance of humanity’s subservient place in God’s world.

At the same time, however, Herbert’s humility allows him to exploit the richness of the English language. Modern readers who consider puns to be at best a low form of wit need to be reminded that Herbert, like most other seventeenth century poets, used puns and wordplay not only for comic effects but also for much more serious purposes: to indicate deep correspondences between various things in the world, between language and reality and between different levels of experience.

In “The Sonne,” Herbert confesses “I like our language well,” in part because it lends itself so easily to one especially significant pun: The reader is led quickly through the multiple meanings of the title word, from “son” to “sun,” and finally to Christ, who combines these meanings as Son of Man, Son of God, and the guiding and warming light of Christians: their sun. There may well be even another concealed pun here; “The Sonne” is written in the form of a sonnet. The title “The Holdfast” is also a pun that takes the reader into the central conflict of the poem: A “holdfast” is something one can cling securely to, in this case God; in addition, “holdfast” is a term for a stingy, self-reliant man, such as the speaker of the poem, who must first relax his hold on himself before he can truly understand “That all things were more ours by being his,” that is, Christ’s.

Though it is sometimes difficult to determine where Herbert’s wordplay leaves off and the reader’s invention begins, the title “The Collar” sets off a series of associations that are relevant to the lines that follow: The collar is perhaps first and foremost the Christian’s yoke of discipline and obedience from which the speaker flees; this word also suggests “choler,” the anger and distress of the speaker as he raves on and on; finally, by a slight adjustment it also sounds like the “caller,” alluding not only to the situation of the speaker calling out in anguish but also to the infinitely patient God who calls even his unruly servant “Child.”

Herbert occasionally uses puns and wordplay to construct a puzzle, the explanation of which points the reader toward a comforting observation. In “Jesu,” for example, the title word is “deeply carved” in the speaker’s heart. When his heart is broken by “A great affliction,” the letters become scattered, but even so they spell out an important message: the fragments J (often printed as I in the seventeenth century), ES, and U form the statement “I ease you,” a welcome affirmation of the power of Christ. Not all Herbert’s poems are puzzles, but his constant reliance on puns keeps his otherwise short and compact lyrics from one dimensional simplicity. Even the smallest details in a poem are liable to expand into several important meanings. In “Christmas,” for example, when he describes the “glorious, yet contracted light” of the Christ child, he not only marvels at how the greatness of God has taken the diminutive form of a baby, but also celebrates the fact that humanity is bound, by legal contract or covenant, to God.

When Herbert questions, in the ominously titled poem “Discipline,” “Who canscape his bow?” the various interpretations of the last word provide comforting associations. Besides being a weapon of war and traditional instrument of justice and wrath, the “bow” also calls to mind Cupid’s bow and arrow, which are instruments of love; the rainbow, the sign after the Flood that God will change his ways of wrath; the bowlike cross, a common comparison found in many biblical commentators; and Christ’s “bowing,” taking human form to save humankind. Throughout The Temple, Herbert carefully avoids the two most common dangers of the pun—he is rarely ostentatious or ridiculous—and as a result his wordplay almost always adds a great deal of allusiveness and depth to his poems.

The Church

What makes Herbert an enduring poet is not simply his structural and stylistic expertise but also the application of these technical skills to themes of great importance. The general subject of The Temple is, in Herbert’s own words as reported by Izaak Walton, his seventeenth century biographer, “the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my Soul.” Knowing this, it should be no surprise to see that the poems in “The Church” are constantly dramatic, most often revolving around a dual focus: humanity’s inevitable sins and misunderstandings, and the processes through which humanity is comforted, instructed, and corrected.

Before telling humanity’s tale, however, Herbert places human life within the frame of one larger event, the Crucifixion. Christ’s drama must be told first, and, accordingly, the poem on “The Sacrifice” is placed near the beginning of “The Church.” Although this poem is in many respects unusual for Herbert—it is very long, and uses Christ not only as the subject but also as the speaker—its pattern recurs in many other places: Unlike such poets as Donne and Crashaw, who often try to sustain a high dramatic pitch for an entire poem, Herbert, here and elsewhere, normally works with quick, unexpected, striking dramatic moments. “The Sacrifice” has a startling immediacy as Christ narrates the humiliating events of his crucifixion, and yet the reader also senses a curiously triumphant detachment. Even though Christ’s repeated refrain is “Was ever grief like mine?” his voice is calm and ironic as he lists in obsessive detail the incongruities of his situation, the Son of God tortured by the people he offers to serve and save. After more than two hundred lines showing Christ’s rather impassive power, Herbert breaks his carefully established format: Christ suddenly cries out in anguish “My God, my God—,”a broken, unfinished line that the reader presumably completes by adding, “why has thou forsaken me?” The refrain then changes in this stanza to the simple statement, “Never was grief like mine.” Because of this sudden breakdown, the reader is drawn more surely into a fuller understanding of the sacrifice: Christ is not only serene and all powerful but also, at least for one moment, vulnerable, human. Once “The Sacrifice” establishes to what extent Christ, despite his torment, is humanity’s benefactor, the reader can realize more fully that the “spiritual Conflicts” in Herbert’s poems are not truly between humanity and God but between humans and themselves.

Throughout “The Church,” the focus is on the many ways that people find to resist God. Like Donne, Herbert is convinced of humans’ basic and inescapable sinfulness, and some of his poems, like Donne’s Holy Sonnets, explore arrogant intellectual pride(“Vanitie” [I] and [II]), disobedience (“Affliction” [I], “The Collar”), and the general blackness of the human soul (“Sinne” [I] and [II]). Beyond these themes, however, and in a manner that distinguishes him from Donne, Herbert is primarily interested in dramatizing far more intricate modes of selfdeception and far less obvious subtleties of pride. The speaker in “The Thanksgiving,” for example, seems genuinely moved by his meditation on Christ, and his exuberant plant to dedicate his life to charitable works probably strikes every reader as praiseworthy. In a turn that is characteristic of Herbert, however, the last two lines suddenly undermine all that has come before. At the height of his confident offering to Christ, the speaker stumbles: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that—/ Alas, my God, I know not what.” Herbert is by no means ridiculing the speaker or banishing exuberance and charity from the devotional life, but he dramatizes very effectively how evasive one can be even when trying to dedicate oneself to following Christ’s example.

A similar reversal occurs in “Miserie.” Here the speaker clearly abhors sin and spends most of his time criticizing humanity’s foolishness in choosing a filthy life of “strange pollutions” over the moral purity that might have been within reach. The accusations are extreme but compelling, and it takes little arguing to convince the reader that humanity is “A lump of flesh, without a foot or wing/ To raise him to a glimpse of blisse:/ A sick toss’d vessel, dashing on each thing.” The last line, however, changes the focus of the poem entirely: After seventy seven lines describing the “strange wayes” around him, the speaker suddenly realizes that “My God, I mean myself.” In this way, Herbert shows that abhorrence of sin, while perhaps admirable, may be a mode of pride unless one includes oneself in the indictment.

“The Thanksgiving” and “Miserie” are also good examples of how Herbert typically includes the reader in his dramatic revelations and reversals. Although it might be overstating the case to say that Herbert traps his readers, many assent to and often identify with his speakers from the start of a poem. Because they accept their premises—the statements in both “The Thanksgiving” and “Miserie” seem plausible, if not praiseworthy, until the very end—they also share in their fall. The self-deception and pride of the speakers in many of Herbert’s lyrics are thus, in a certain sense, duplicated in the reader, and as the speakers are dramatized, explored, and corrected, so is the reader.

Lyrics of Comfort

Throughout The Temple, Herbert’s subject is not merely the correction of humanity’s numerous flaws: Equally dramatic are the lyrics of recovery and comfort where the speaker overcomes not pride but feelings of unworthiness, uselessness, and weakness. For all his moments of self-scrutiny and criticism, Herbert is a remarkably gentle poet,and he knows when to remind his readers how securely he feels that they are ground in God’s mercy. Without God, he explains, human beings are nothing—a premise that many modern readers find extremely discouraging—but he goes on to add that human beings need not be without God. For Herbert, humans are constantly cheered and renewed by God’s presence: In “Aaron,” feelings of worry about being a priest give way to calm confidence as soon as one sees that Christ “is not dead,/ But lives in me while I do rest”; in “The Flower,” sadness about the fragility of life and poetry turns into a heightened sense of joy and beauty, truly “thy wonders”; and in “The Elixir,” all human effort, as long as it is done “for thy sake,” becomes “drudgerie divine,” pleasant and ennobling.


God’s voice and presence appear throughout the volume, but nowhere so movingly as in the last poem of “The Church,” “Love” (III). Here God and man meet face to face, and though a lesser poet might not have been able to withstand the temptation to over-embellish the scene, Herbert’s dramatic lyric is as understated as it is powerful. God is love, “quickey’d Love,” whose every word and movement is meant to comfort an extremely shy human guest who is humbly aware that he is “Guiltie of dust and sinne.”Humanity’s unworthiness, however, is finally beside the point: Stated in its simplest possible terms, God knows, forgives, accepts, and redeems humanity.

Simple words of paraphrase, however, can never tell the whole story. “Love” (III) is not a statement but an enactment, not a bit of theological argument or explanation but a dramatization of a devotional gesture. From the beginning of “The Church,” as he notes at the conclusion of “The Reprisall,” one of Herbert’s main tasks is to show how “In thee[Christ] I will overcome/ The man, who once against thee fought.” The particular action and quiet tone of the last lines of “Love” (III)—“You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:/ So I did sit and eat”—confirm that the battle, against God and against himself, is over, celebrated by a meal that is simultaneously a lover’s banquet, a communion service, and his first true taste of heavenly joy.

Major Works
Nonfiction: A Treatise of Temperance and Sobrietie of Luigi Cornaro, 1634 (translation); Outlandish Proverbs Selected by Mr. G. H., 1640 (also known as Jacula Prudentum, 1651); A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life, 1652 (wr. 1632; also known as The Country Parson).
Miscellaneous:The Works of George Herbert, 1941, 1945 (F. E. Hutchinson, editor).

Blythe, Ronald. George Herbert in Bemerton. Salisbury, England: Hobnob Press, 2005.
Clarke, Elizabeth.Theory and Theology in George Herbert’s Poetry: Divinitie, and Poesie, Met. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Cruickshank, Frances.Verse and Poetics in George Herbert and John Donne. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2010.
Hodgkins, Christopher.Authority, Church, and Society in George Herbert: Return to the Middle Way. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
_______, ed.George Herbert’s Pastoral: New Essays on the Poet and Priest of Bemerton. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010.
Malcolmson, Cristina.George Herbert: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Miller, Greg. George Herbert’s “Holy Patterns”: Reforming Individuals in Community. New York: Continuum, 2007.
Stewart, Stanley. George Herbert. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Strier, Richard.Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Vendler, Helen.Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Categories: ELIZABEHAN POETRY AND PROSE, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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