Most of the poets I use on Sunday were of the faith, but Herbert, unlike most, was careful, conscientious, and considered a saint in his time. He’s no pimp: he’s a priest — who gave up a seat in Parliament and the court to pastor a parish.
After the death of King James, Herbert’s interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In his mid-thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as the rector of the little parish of St Andrews Church, Lower Bemerton, Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan called him “a most glorious saint and seer”. Never a healthy man, he died of consumption at the early age of 39.
Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets. Charles Cotton described him as a “soul composed of harmonies”. Some of Herbert’s poems have endured as popular hymns, including “King of Glory, King of Peace” (Praise): “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing” (Antiphon) and “Teach me, my God and King” (The Elixir)
I know that later poets, particuarly Byron, considered that one had to dissolute to appreciate truth, beauty and honour, and that virtue could be found in vice. I like Donne (more than Byron) and I’ve had many of his poems, including his holy Sonnet cycle here. He has the same reformed attitude to this life as Herbert, but came to his final calling late. At the same age, Herbert was ill.
But Herbert gives a better answer to what the British Church was than Donne, who crossed the Tiber from the recusant faith of his family.
Those who say vice is needed for art lie, and the lie makes them foolish.
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. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines ;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.