Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: George Herbert – part 1: The early 17th century clergyman wrote the most fiercely intelligent poetry, grappling with Christian doctrines and our relationship with God
I blame George Herbert for me becoming a Christian.
I first encountered Herbert's poems at the very beginning of the lower sixth, when they were a set text for my A-level English class. Being the rather keen and serious teenager that I was, I read them that first weekend. And by the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.
My teenage self was rather proud of being a "cultured despiser of religion". I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable. But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.
I didn't become a Christian there and then. But I can date the story of my conversion back to that classroom, where I first grasped something of the beauty, the mystery, the attraction and the struggle of faith.
George Herbert was born in 1593 and died in 1633. His life was in many ways typical of the educated gentry of the Stuart period: Westminster School, Cambridge University, with a promising career at court beckoning. But then he took an unusual turn and became a country vicar, an abrupt change of direction that was a cause for speculation and gossip in Cambridge for decades afterwards. It was only after his tragically early death that his poetry was published and became known beyond his inner circle.
The poems are, in effect, a spiritual autobiography. Although they are not individually dated and so cannot be directly related to different phases of Herbert's life, many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet's own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.
The contemporary spiritual resonance of Herbert's poetry stands in marked contrast to his other work, The Country Parson. This vicar manual has not stood the test of time. While some clergy still refer nostalgically to Herbert's patriarchal vision of the vicar in his parish, rather more agree with the tongue-in-cheek title of a recent book: If You Meet George Herbert On The Road, Kill Him. Herbert's guide is a symbol of an outdated "father knows best" view of the church. He expects the vicar to know medicine as well as religion, and advises him to find out what everyone is doing, specifically so that he can rebuke them where necessary.
Yet the same man wrote some of the best loved English religious poetry, still popular today. In this series I'll be exploring some of Herbert's themes that have particular resonance for me, but behind them all runs the timeless thread of emotional intelligence.
Certainly the poems are unashamedly intelligent. They are an example of the metaphysical school of poetry, which deliberately piled metaphor upon metaphor, and drew those metaphors from the cutting edge of contemporary science and philosophy. They flatter the reader by assuming a breadth and depth of political, theological and scientific knowledge.
They are also full of genuine emotion. This makes them feel much more modern than their date would suggest. For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. Nobody reading these poems can be left in any doubt as to Herbert's emotional engagement with his subject matter. The question Herbert's poetry raises is eternally contemporary. The poems don't ask us "Is this true?" but "How do I feel about this?"
It is this question that slipped under my guard as a teenager. It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.