We’ve blogged about Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who wrote in the London Guardian that the poetry of George Herbert helped to convert her to Christianity from atheism. She is following up that essay with a series of articles on particular poems from George Herbert, exploring them and showing how they are relevant to people’s spiritual conditions today. We blogged about what she said about Herbert’s treatment of Prayer.
After the jump, an excerpt and link to her discussion of Herbert’s poems on his spiritual struggles, particularly with his vocation as a pastor.
One of the things that is most striking about George Herbert’s poetry, taken as a whole, is how unhappy he seems to have been for much of the time. The poems are full of tortured self-doubt, agonised examination of his motivations, and complaint. Usually these are resolved in a neat couplet at the end of the poem, recalling the poet to God’s promises or presence, in typical psalmist style. Some of these neat resolutions are more convincing than others.
I suspect that this honesty about the struggles, fears and doubts of life as a Christian is a large part of Herbert’s continued appeal as a poet. His doubts and agony about his vocation in life resonate even with many who do not share his faith. For those of us who do, it is refreshing and reassuring to know that we are not alone in finding being a faithful Christian difficult at times. As a member of the clergy, I take great comfort in knowing that even Herbert – the quintessential Anglican Divine – sometimes railed against and agonised about his vocation.
In his recent and very comprehensive biography of Herbert, Music at Midnight, John Drury makes clear just how anguished Herbert was about what he was to do with his life and talents. He had a charmed early life: born into a noble family, Westminster school, Cambridge University. On graduating, he quickly became a fellow and began assisting the university orator. Soon after, he gained the plum job of orator himself. The orator’s job was to write speeches and letters on the university’s behalf to all sorts of influential people – the King, courtiers, nobles, foreign dignitaries – as occasion arose. It was a key post in the university hierarchy, and a court appointment seemed to beckon. According to his contemporary biographer, Izaak Walton, Herbert at that point hoped eventually to be appointed as secretary of state.
However, Herbert had also always considered being ordained, and greatly enjoyed the academic study of divinity. The pull and tug of these three vocations is on display in several of his poems, particularly the autobiographical Affliction (1), which Drury dates to late in Herbert’s time at Cambridge. Eventually, in 1624, he left the university, but it was only in 1630, after six years of soul-searching, that he finally became a country parson.
Fearing that he is not being fruitful, wishing to be a simple tree and know what he was for, is a common theme in his poems. Herbert worried that he was not fulfilling his early potential, that he was letting everyone down, that he wasn’t doing whatever God wanted for him. Most people have endured similar periods of soul-searching: how can I be happy? How can I best make a difference? And, if a Christian, how can I best know God and follow Jesus’s example?