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A year with George Herbert

A Year with George Herbert

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

Jim Orrick, Professor of Literature and Culture at Boyce College, has written a little gem of a book, A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems. When it comes to devotional material outside of the Bible, the poetry of George Herbert is difficult to match for artistry, theology, imagination, comprehensiveness, and simple Christian piety. Nonetheless, I’ve often scratched my head trying to unravel the archaic or enigmatic lines of this 17th century divine. Dr. Orrick has done all lovers of the Christian imagination a profound service by writing this guide, and he was gracious enough to sit down for a few questions concerning his book.

Tell us a little bit about George Herbert the man, the poet, and the theologian.

George Herbert was born in 1593, and he died of tuberculosis in 1633 when he was just shy of his fortieth birthday. During his life he was appointed to a prestigious academic position at Cambridge, and he also was a Member of Parliament, but late in his life he left it all behind to become pastor of a small country congregation. He died about three years later.

Herbert was an unusually gifted poet, and he worked hard at his craft. He wrote poetry in Greek and Latin as well as English. The Temple, his most famous work, includes nearly all of his English poems.  All the poems in The Temple are religious poems. Herbert is amazing for his technical poetic skill, but it is the substance of his poems that first attracted me to him. He writes so honestly and profoundly about the spiritual life. He also wrote a small pastoral treatise, The Country Parson, which is delightful. I was acquainted with this work before I was aware that Herbert was a poet. A British clergyman told me that The Country Parson continues to be quite influential in England.

 Can you comment on Herbert’s theological orientation and convictions in relation to the puritans of his era?

I have been carefully reading Herbert’s poetry for many years, and I care very deeply about theology, but before I could answer this question with confidence, I would have to go back and read Herbert’s works again with this question in mind. I think that is telling. (Not, I hope, that I am a superficial reader or shallow theologian, but that Herbert is not a polemical poet). He writes as a Christian most of the time, and he writes as an Anglican Christian the rest of the time. Since I am a Baptist and Herbert was an ardent Anglican, I inevitably disagree with some of his ecclesiology, but I believe that anyone who is earnestly endeavoring to love and follow Christ will find a kindred spirit in George Herbert. Richard Baxter highly prized Herbert’s poetry. So did C. H. Spurgeon.  I know that I almost never disagree with his theological positions, and I am quite sympathetic with the puritan theological orientation.

 Give us an idea how you have designed this book and envision readers using it.

I cannot tell you how grieved I am that students today have almost no exposure to poetry. Poetry is a golden chest of jewels that has been thrown overboard to make space for sacks of garbage. I am grieved for the culture in general, but I am almost sick that Christians no longer read poetry. I feel so strongly about this, first, because poetry is such a treasure of joy and pleasure. For centuries civilized people have relished poetry. Second, poetry is such a powerful tool for the schooling and redemption of the emotions. Therefore (and third) a huge percentage of the Bible is written in poetry. The Holy Spirit speaks in poetry in the Bible about one third of the time! We cannot afford to be ignorant of how to read poetry.

So I want to help people learn how to read and enjoy poetry. In my book, I have chosen fifty-two of Herbert’s best loved poems and explained them for the average reader. Someone who knows nothing about poetry can study my book and understand every poem in it. The book could even be used as a hands-on introduction to poetry in general even though only one poet’s work is treated. It is a short book, so someone could read it in a few hours, but I suspect that it will be most pleasurable and beneficial if read at a more leisured pace. If a person were to read only one poem per week then he or she would read through the book in one year.

 You reference C.S. Lewis’ debt to Herbert in these words: “Here was a man who …[conveyed] the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment.” What did Lewis mean by this?

I think there are two ideas in Lewis’ comment. First, I think he is expressing appreciation for Herbert’s honesty. If I might speculate how Lewis would fill out his idea, perhaps he would write, “Some writers write about how the Christian life ought to be lived, and that is a necessary kind of writing, but George Herbert writes about the Christian life as it actually is lived by sinners who are striving to become saints. It takes courage and humility to write with this kind of honesty.” Another way of saying this is that Herbert is more remarkable for his descriptions of the Christian life rather than for his prescriptions for the Christian life.

Second, I think Lewis is expressing admiration for Herbert’s description of spiritual psychology in the way that one thought or emotion succeeds another in the mind of the believer: the way it actually unfolds. In quite a number of Herbert’s poems we see the poet change his mind about something as he speaks truth to himself.

I believe the first stanza of “the church porch” seeks to answer a question we all, especially busy seminary students and pastors,  might ask: “why should I spend time reading poetry?” As you have in the rest of your book, could you comment on what Herbert is trying to say to us here?

 Thou, whose sweet youth and early hopes enhance
Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure;
Harken unto a verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.

 In this stanza, Herbert is capitalizing on the fact that during his day students would read poetry for pleasure. Even persons who might avoid hearing a sermon would enjoy reading poetry. Herbert urges such a reader to read his poetry; maybe it will do him some good. I find it interesting that in the twenty-first century, many – perhaps most of those reading Herbert are those who study his poetry in the academy. Along with John Donne, Herbert is considered to be among the most prominent of the metaphysical poets. Many who might never hear a sermon hear the truth of the gospel in Herbert’s verse.

Jim Orrick is Professor of Literature and Culture at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville.


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