A notable feature of the religious scene today is the outcropping of a passionate desire to intensify spiritual devotion. This desire seems strongest among young people, especially those known as the “Jesus people.” In part, the attempt to recover the Spirit stems from a reaction against a cold orthodoxy guilt of arid intellectualizing about the faith. The danger thus arises of divorcing the life of the spirit and the life of the mind, of cutting off devotion from learning.

To guard against this, we might well take a look at one of the finest exemplars of wholeness and balance in the spiritual life, the seventeenth-century English poet and divine George Herbert. Here is the devotional poet par excellence. Here is a man who gave up wealth, status, and fame to answer the call of God. Herbert came from one of England’s leading families. He became the public orator of Cambridge University and was apparently slated to become the nation’s secretary of state, but he gave all this up to become the rector of a tiny country parish in Bemerton. Such was the compelling power of his devotion that when Herbert crossed the lane from his home to pray in the church at regularly scheduled hours, the men working in the fields would stop their work and kneel in prayer, joining their parson in spirit. He became known throughout England as the Holy Mr. Herbert.

Herbert’s enduring devotional poetry is intentionally simple, so simple that some of his readers have concluded that he was a naïve rural parson. He was not, of course. Yet he did assiduously avoid the learned, allusive poetic style that his contemporaries Milton and Donne cultivated. And for good reason. Like the greatest and most learned of the apostles, St. Paul, he did not want to risk having any prideful parading of his learning interfere with his all-consuming passion for intimacy with God. But also like Paul, Herbert leaves footprints of his learning in his writing.

Herbert wrote two poems entitled “Jordan” in which he explained his purpose in his poetry. This passage is from the second:

When first my lines of heav’nly joyes made mention,

Such was their lustre, they did so excell,

That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;

My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,

Curling with metaphors a plain intention.

Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,

Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:

I often blotted what I had begunne;

This was not quick enough, and that was dead.

Article continues below

Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,

Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,

So did I weave my self into the sense.

But while I bustled, I might heare a friend

Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!

There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d

Copie out onely that, and save expense.

So there is is. He could embellish his poetry; he knows the techniques and devices. But he’ll abstain, he says. Yet while saying so, he employs a clever variety of images, beginning with the ambiguous allusion of the title (the baptism of Jesus? the crossing into the promised land by the children of Israel? the washing of Naaman, as counseled by Elisha? Jordan as Herbert’s Helicon?). This proponent of simple verse was also a technical virtuoso who, in the 169 poems in his collection The Temple, used 140 different stanza forms.

Herbert speaks explicitly about learning in a few of his poems. One of them is “The Pearl—Matthew 13:45,” which begins this way:

I know of 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 it self, 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:

And these stand open, or I have the keyes:

Yet I love thee.

The second and third stanzas recount the temptations of “the wayes of Honour” and “the wayes of Pleasure.” The fourth and final stanza summarizes and concludes:

I know all these, and have them in my hand:

Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes

I flie to thee, and fully understand

Both the main sale, and the commodities;

And at what rate and price I have thy love;

With all the circumstances that may move:

Yet through these labyrinths, not by groveling wit,

But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,

Did both conduct and teach me, how by it

To climbe to thee.

Once again there is a recognizable parallel between Herbert and Paul. In the first chapter of First Corinthians, Paul notes the limitations of human wisdom. Man’s unaided reason cannot, he says, comprehend the ways of God. Only faith exercised toward divine revelation will suffice for that. Both Herbert and Paul, then, warn clearly against a solely intellectual approach to Christianity, “that no flesh should glory in his presence.”

Another poem that sounds a warning against excessive reliance on human knowledge is “Divinitie”:

Article continues below

As men, for fear the starres should sleep and nod,

And trip at night, have spheres suppli’d;

As if a starre were duller then a clod,

Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav’n they serve,

Divinities transcendent skie:

Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.

Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.

Could not that Wisdome, which first broacht the wine,

Have thicken’d it with definitions?

And jagg’d his seamlesse coat, had that been fine,

With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,

Was cleare as heav’n, from whence it came.

At least those beams of truth, which onely save,

Surpasse in brightnesse any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray.

Do as ye would be done unto.

O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!

Who can these Gordian knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his bloud for wine.

Bid what he please; yet I am sure,

To take and taste what he doth there designe,

Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then bum thy Epicycles, foolish man;

Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.

Faith needs no staffe of flesh, but stoutly can

To heav’n alone both go, and leade.

Herbert lived at the time of the beginnings of modern science. Astronomy especially seemed to some (and later to more and more) to pose a threat to faith. Herbert’s problem was not that of Donne, that the “new philosophy calls all in doubt.” Rather, it was that this new learning, while not erroneous, was causing men to shift from a reliance on God to an unfounded confidence in themselves. Once again, Herbert warns against the extreme to which intellectually oriented believers might be susceptible.

And yet Herbert was learned, and his poetry covertly shows it. Perhaps the best place to observe this learning at work is in his imagery. Whatever Herbert’s themes, he uses as images whatever aspects of reality he knows well. Herbert belonged to a group who have since become known as metaphysical poets and one of the characteristics of this school is the use of intellectual imagery. That is, the appeal which the imagery makes to the reader is not to his senses (as in, for example, “O, my luve is like a red, red rose”) but to his intellect. These poets specialized in drawing comparisons between items apparently unrelated. What, for example, do Christ’s pierced side and a mail bag have in common? Nothing, it seems. Yet one of Herbert’s most effective poems, “The Bag,” is based on this comparison. After picturing Christ as a traveler come to earth, he has Christ begin to return to heaven:

Article continues below

But as he was returning, there came one

That ran upon him with a spear.

He, who came hither all alone,

Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,

Receiv’d the blow upon his side,

And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d,

If ye have any thing to send or write,

I have no bag, but here is room:

Unto my Fathers hands and sight,

Beleeve me, it shall safely come.

That I shall minde, what you impart,

Look, you may put it very neare my heart.

Or if hereafter any of my friends

Will use me in this kinde, the doore

Shall still be open; what he sends

I will present, and somewhat more,

Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey

Any thing to me. Harke, Despair away.

This image does not allow the reader’s mind to remain dormant; his intellectual powers must be brought into play if he is to enter into the moving devotional theme of the poem. A sentimental gush of emotion will not do. The poem demands the response of a whole man, both head and heart.

Almost all Herbert’s images require this kind of response, sometimes specifically because they grow out of the poet’s polished education. In fact, his learning is on display in the very poems that speak of the dangers of “the wayes of Learning.”

The last four lines of “The Pearl” (quoted above) borrow an image from classical mythology. The silk twist was the device by which Theseus could avoid losing his way as he entered the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur. Another of Herbert’s relatively rare images from classical learning is found in “Divinitie” (also quoted above); the reference in line 20 to undoing Gordian knots highlights the difficulty humans have in comprehending (to the extent of acting upon) the simple commands in the Bible. A third classical image, this one in “Praise,” is based on the lachrymal vases in which women stored their tears:

I have not lost one single tear:

But when mine eyes

Did weep to heav’n, they found a bottle there

(As we have boxes for the poore)

Readie to take them in; yet of a size

That would contain much more.

But after thou hadst slipt a drop

From thy right eye,

(Which there did hang like streamers neare the top

Of some fair church, to show the sore

And bloudie battell which thou once didst trie)

The glasse was full and more.

Not only is the classical reference to a little-known detail, but there is also an echo of an obscure Bible verse, Psalm 56:8: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?”

Herbert’s learned images are not restricted to the learning of the past. He was also aware of the new currents in learning, as “Divinitie” shows. The first two stanzas and the first two lines of the last stanza of this poem depict the work of the astronomers as they chart the courses of the heavenly bodies. It would be somewhat ironic if Herbert were using a relatively learned image to say that learning itself was to be shunned. But, of course, it is the abuse of learning that he warns against.

Article continues below

Herbert was an accomplished musician and often drew images from music. One of these is found in the third stanza of “The Pearl”:

I know the wayes of Pleasure, the sweet strains,

The lullings and the relishes of it:

The propositions of hot bloud and brains;

What mirth and musick mean.

Though the lines seem simple, they are not. Edward Naylor, in his book The Poets and Music (London, 1928), explains that the “strain” was “eight bars (or, perhaps, twelve or sixteen) of a pavan, maybe.” The “relish” was a technical term for “an ornament in playing the lute or viol.” The “propositions” were “a form of proposta, subject, riposta, answer, of a fugue or movement of fugal character” (pp. 75, 76).


Odd shaped pebbles roll

and tumble round the Rock which

smooths them into five smooth


one of which will

kill a giant.


Legal imagery is another category upon which Herbert draws, occasionally revealing technical knowledge of the subject. In “Decay” he speaks of God’s dwelling in the heart of the believer:

But now thou dost thy self immure and close

In some one comer of a feeble heart:

Where yet both Sinne and Satan, thy old foes,

Do pinch and straiten thee, and use much art

To gain thy thirds and little part.

F. E. Hutchinson, who edited the standard modern edition of Herbert’s works (Oxford, 1941), explains: “Thirds (usually in the plural) was a legal term, specially used of the third part of a deceased husband’s real property, to which the widow was entitled. Sin and Satan seek to oust God from the third part of the heart, which is all that is left to him when they are in possession, so that he must still retreat (1. 18)” (p. 512).

These few examples of images give a hint of Herbert’s wide-ranging erudition, which he always used as a means to a higher end, that of praising God. He felt no need to deny his mind in order to exercise his spirit. Mind and spirit are not mutually exclusive but harmoniously compatible.

Some readers have concluded that Herbert was a serene soul who had overcome the problems that plague us mere mortals. No, indeed. Herbert was one of us. He seems to have achieved a state of peaceful equanimity more often than most believers do, and such poems as “The Call” and “The Odour—2 Cor. 2:15” reflect this mood. But more often his poetry expresses his wrestling with God. He wrote five poems entitled “Affliction.” Other titles were “Sighs and Grones,” “Dulnesse,” and “Deniall.” “Artillerie” employes military imagery throughout to discuss Herbert’s often uneasy, tense relationship with God. Perhaps his best-known poem of spiritual struggle is “The Collar”:

Article continues below

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?

Have I no harvest but a thorn

To let me bloud, and not restore

What I have lost with cordiall fruit?

Sure there was wine

Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn

Before my tears did drown it.

Is the yeare onely lost to me?

Have I no bayes to crown it?

No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?

All wasted?

Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,

And thou hast hands.

Recover all thy sigh-blown age

On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute

Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,

Thy rope of sands,

Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee

Good cable, to enforce and draw,

And be thy law,

While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.

Away; take heed:

I will abroad.

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.

He that forbears

To suit and serve his need,

Deserves his load.

But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde

At every word,

Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!

And I reply’d, My Lord.

Here is the pastor who has become weary in welldoing. The clerical collar has become a confining yoke. He desires self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice. But the ending—what other poet was capable of it? Herbert had learned the hard lesson that the greatest self-fulfillment cannot come apart from self-sacrifice. This lesson was learned, the triumph gained, only after a bitter fight. First struggle, then submission.

And what else could we have expected from an intelligent, learned poet like Herbert? He cannot settle for a mindless devotion. The tension within him makes for a tough-fibered, storm-weathering devotion. It is the quality of his intellect—and here is the point—that refines his devotion and makes his poetry, not a superficial emoting, but a powerful force for the promotion of truly spiritual living.

Edward E. Ericson, Jr., is chairman of the department of English and Modern Languages at Westmont College. He received the B.A. degree from Hope College and the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Arkansas.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.