Volume 6 in the Swans Are Not Silent series explores how God used the poetic eloquence of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis to build the church and spread the gospel.
About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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"While I Use I Am with Thee"
The Life and Poetry of George Herbert
If you go to the mainstream poetry website Poetry Foundation and click on George Herbert, what you read is this: "He is ... enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist of this or any other time." This is an extraordinary tribute to a man who never published a single poem in English during his lifetime and died as an obscure country pastor when he was thirty-nine. But there are reasons for his enduring influence. And some of those reasons are why I have written this book.
His Short Life
George Herbert was born April 3, 1593, in Montgomeryshire, Wales. He died a month before his fortieth birthday on March 1, 1633. He was the seventh of ten children born to Richard and Magdalene Herbert, but his father died when he was three, leaving ten children, the oldest of which was thirteen. This didn't put them in financial hardship, however, because Richard's estate, which he left to Magdalene, was sizeable.
It was twelve years before Magdalene married again, this time to Sir John Danvers who was twenty years younger than she was and just two years older than her eldest son. But he was a good father to the family during the eighteen years of marriage until Magdalene's death in 1627. George Herbert kept in touch with his stepfather and eventually made him the executor of his will. Herbert never knew him as a father in the home because the year John and Magdalene married was the year Herbert began his studies at Trinity College Cambridge.
Herbert had been an outstanding student at a Westminster preparatory school, writing Latin essays when he was eleven years old, which would later be published. And now at Cambridge, he distinguished himself in the study of classics. He graduated second in a class of 193 in 1612 with a bachelor of arts, and then in 1616, he took his master of arts and became a major fellow of the university.
In 1619, he was elected public orator of Cambridge University. This was a prestigious post with huge public responsibility. Herbert wrote to his stepfather what it meant to be elected the orator.
The finest place in the University, though not the gain fullest. ... For the Orator writes all the University letters, makes all the orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University, to requite these pains, he takes place next to the Doctors, is at all their assemblies and meetings, and sits above the Proctors. ... And such like Gaynesses. Which will please a young man well.
This is going to be one of the most important insights into his life because the academic stimulation, the prominence even in the king's court, and the pleasures of it all would prove the great battleground over his call to the pastoral ministry.
Eleven years after his election to the oratorship, on the day of his induction to the parish ministry at Bemerton, he would say,
I can now behold the Court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud, titles and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary and painted pleasures: pleasures that are so empty as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed.
But for now, there seemed good reasons to give himself to public service for the sake of the university and its relation to the wider civic life of the country. On top of the oratorship, he added a one-year term in Parliament in 1623–1624.
But the conflict of his soul over a call to the pastoral ministry intensified that year. And a vow he had made to his mother during his first year at Cambridge took hold in his heart. He submitted himself totally to God and to the ministry of a parish priest. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1626 and then became the ordained priest of the little country church at Bemerton in 1630. There were never more than a hundred people in his church. The last three years of his life, he was a parson to a remote country parish.
At the age of thirty-six and in failing health, Herbert married Jane Danvers the year before coming to Bemerton, March 5, 1629. As the name suggests, she was a kinswoman of his stepfather. We only know about Herbert's marriage because of Izaak Walton's Life of Mr George Herbert, published in 1670. He says it was a happy four years. He and Jane never had children, though they adopted three nieces who had lost their parents. After fewer than three years in the ministry, Herbert died of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from most of his adult life. He was thirty-nine years old. His body lies under the chancel of the church, and there is only a simple plaque on the wall with the initials GH.
His Dying Gift
That's the bare outline of Herbert's life. And if that were all there was, nobody today would have ever heard of George Herbert. Even the fact that he wrote a short book known as The Country Parson would probably not have secured his place in memory. The reason anyone knows of George Herbert today, and the reason he is included in this volume, is because of something climactic that happened a few weeks before he died.
His close friend Nicholas Ferrar sent a fellow pastor, Edmund Duncon, to see how Herbert was doing. On Duncon's second visit, Herbert knew that the end was near. So he reached for his most cherished earthly possession and said to Duncon,
Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it: and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.
That little book was a collection of 167 poems. Herbert's friend Nicholas Ferrar published it later that year, 1633, under the title The Temple. It went through four editions in three years, was steadily reprinted for a hundred years, and is still in print today. It established Herbert as one of the greatest religious poets of all time, though not one of these poems was published during his lifetime.
Centuries Of Accolades
Forty-eight years after Herbert's death, Richard Baxter said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in this world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books." William Cowper cherished Herbert's poetry in his struggle with depression. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, nineteenth-century poet and critic, wrote to a member of the Royal Academy, "I find more substantial comfort now in pious George Herbert's Temple [the collection of his poems] ... than in all the poetry since the poetry of Milton."
Herbert's poetry is found in virtually every anthology of English literature. He is one of the very few great poets who is loved both by specialists and nonspecialists. He is loved for his technical rigor and his spiritual depth. T. S. Eliot said, "The exquisite variations of form in the ... poems of The Temple show a resourcefulness of invention which seems inexhaustible, and for which I know no parallel in English poetry." Margaret Bottrall agrees that Herbert "was an exquisite craftsman." He was part of an era that prized meticulous care with language and poetry. Peter Porter writes that the fact "that Herbert is perhaps the most honest poet who ever wrote in English does not prevent his being also one of the most accomplished technicians of verse in the whole [Western] canon."
Reformed, Poetic Ministry for an Opium Addict
We will come back to his craftsmanship shortly. But linger with me over the power of his poetry to minister deeply to the likes of an opium addict such as Samuel Coleridge. One of the reasons for this is the solid rock of God's sovereignty that Coleridge felt under Herbert's poems. This is a dimension of Herbert's poetry that, I would guess, few English literature classes address. But it is essential for understanding his poems. Gene Edward Veith wrote his doctoral dissertation on Herbert as a representative of reformation spirituality. He comments, to the surprise of many,
Serious studies of George Herbert invariably come upon his Calvinism. Rather than its being seen as a solution, though, it has been treated as something of a problem. How is it that a theology associated with determinism, austerity, the impoverishment of the liturgy, and "Puritanism," with all of its negative connotations, can produce such winsome religious verse?
Not What We Often Think About the Earliest Protestants
In partial answer to this question, Veith points out,
Calvinism, attacked now for its strictness, was originally attacked for its permissiveness. Far from being ascetic, Calvinism was in conscious reaction to monastic asceticism, which rejected marriage and sexuality and insisted upon fasts and mortification of the flesh. Far from being a "theology of fear," Calvinism offered to believers, who had been taught to continually be terrified of hell, the assurance that salvation is free and that it can never be lost.
Unless we put ourselves back into that period of history, we will likely bring some wrong assumptions to the task of grasping Herbert's Calvinism. C. S. Lewis wrote what remains one of the most authoritative histories of sixteenth-century literature, overflowing into the early 1600s. In it he makes this same point as he tries to free modern readers from misconceptions about the earliest Calvinists. Lewis observes that Charles Dickens's nineteenth-century character, "Mrs. Clennam, trying to expiate her early sin by a long life of voluntary gloom, was doing exactly what the first Protestants [of the sixteenth century] would have forbidden her to do." Their experience was radically different:
It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience. ... The experience is that of catastrophic conversion. The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from nightmare into ecstasy. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. ... His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. ... From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang. ... Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes.
The implication of this, Lewis says, is that "every association which now clings to the word Puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them." For the Roman Catholic — Thomas More, for example — the Puritans were "dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of mind and vayne gladnesse of harte." "Protestantism," Lewis concludes, "was not too grim, but too glad, to be true."
The Reformation doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty over the world, Lewis says, was "unemphasized because it was unquestioned, that every event, every natural fact, and every institution, is rooted in the supernatural. Every change of winds at sea, every change of dynasty at home, all prosperity and all adversity, is unhesitatingly referred to God. The writers do not argue about it, they know."
Lewis ventures a comparison to help us break out of our misconceptions of the early Calvinists. He admits the analogy is risky: "It may be useful to compare the influence of Calvin on that age with the influence of Marx on our own; or even Marx and Lenin in one, for Calvin had both expounded the new system in theory and set it going in practice." The point he's making is not about communism but about the youth and revolutionary impulse of the Calvinists:
This will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. ... The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists.
So when Gene Veith writes an entire book on George Herbert's Calvinism, we must be careful not to import our own misconceptions. He was not a Puritan in his own time. He was a high-church Episcopalian. "During Herbert's lifetime, however, Calvinism was the norm, both for Episcopalian factions and for Presbyterian ones." "The Anglican Church of Herbert's day, in its mainstream, was both ceremonial in its liturgy and Calvinist in its theology."
What Made the Difference from John Donne
But not all clergy in the Church of England embraced Herbert's Calvinistic reformation spirituality. It is illuminating to note that John Donne, the close friend of Herbert's mother, did not share Herbert's Calvinism. Though his style influenced Herbert significantly, there is a marked difference in their devotional poetry. Here's the way Gene Veith puts it:
It has been observed that Herbert never worries about hell, in marked contrast to John Donne's obsessive fear of damnation. This is perhaps the clearest evidence of Herbert's Calvinism, the point where dogma touches religious experience. For a Calvinist, hell is not a possibility for a Christian. Herbert believed in the perseverance of the saints, a doctrine that is perhaps the litmus test of a truly Calvinist spirituality.
Therefore, as Veith shows, "The dynamics of Calvinism are also the dynamics of Herbert's poetry." The heart of these "dynamics" is the sovereign intervention of God's grace into the rebellious human heart to subdue the mutiny against heaven and give a new allegiance to the true king of the world, Jesus Christ. Herbert experienced this, wrote about this, preached this, and prayed this.
Thou hast exalted thy mercy above all things, and hast made our salvation, not our punishment, thy glory: so that then where sin abounded, not death but grace superabounded — accordingly, when we had sinned beyond any help in heaven or earth, then thou saidest, Lo, I come!
When there was no help from anywhere — when the case of the human heart is hopeless in its rebellion — God breaks in and saves. That is the heart of his Calvinism. Veith says Herbert's poem "The Collar" is "the supreme Calvinist poem,"
dramatizing the depraved human will that insists on serving itself rather than God, in a state of intrinsic rebellion and growing chaos until God intervenes intruding upon the human will in a way that cannot be resisted, calling the sinner, effecting a response, and restoring order.
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?
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, Childe:
And I reply'd, My Lord.
The Best News Coleridge Ever Heard
In other words, just as Herbert had prayed, "When we had sinned beyond any help in heaven or earth, then thou saidest, Lo, I come!" This sovereign intervention into the rebellious human heart — like the opium-addicted heart of Samuel Coleridge — was the best of news, and Coleridge saw more clearly than most people in his day that the criticisms of Calvinism often obscured the comfort of the doctrine itself. Here's the way he put it:
If ever a book was calculated to drive men to despair, it is Bishop Jeremy Taylor's On Repentance. It first opened my eyes to Arminianism, and that Calvinism is practicallya far more soothing and consoling system. ... Calvinism (Archbishop Leighton's for example) compared with Taylor's Arminianism, is the lamb in wolf's skin to the wolf in the lamb's skin: the one is cruel in the phrases, the other in the doctrine.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: "Not with Lofty Speech or Wisdom" Does the Bible Warrant Poetic Effort? 17
1 "While I Use I Am with Thee": The Life and Poetry of George Herbert 43
2 "I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher!": The Life and Eloquence of George Whitefield 79
3 C. S. Lewis-Romantic, Rationalist, Likener, Evangelist: How Lewis's Paths to Christ Shaped His Life and Ministry 113
Conclusion: Speak God's Wonders-In His World and in His Word 143
Index of Scriptures 149
Index of Persons 153
Index of Subjects 157
desiringGod.org: A Note on Resources 159