George Herbert's Musical Portrait of Spiritual Struggles
a reflection by parishioner Kathleen Davies
On Sunday, June 17, 2018, our hymns at the 9:45am service are all from the 1982 hymnal based on texts of the great Metaphysical poet, George Herbert. The prelude is from the grand body of organ works by British composer, Herbert Howells and Rich Williams sings Vaughn Williams’ setting of the Herbert text, “I got me flowers” from his epic poem of 1633, “Easter.” - Doug Starr, Director of Music and Arts
Outside the walls of the Church, George Herbert (1593-1633) is perhaps less celebrated than his contemporary, John Donne. But, like Donne, Herbert was a Metaphysical poet who reveled in wordplay and complex ideas. Born into a prominent family and apparently destined for greatness from an early age, Herbert seemed content with a little life and little poems. After excelling at Cambridge and serving as the university’s “public orator,” Herbert left that prominent post to become the rector of an out-of-the-way parish. He brushed aside the concerns of friends who thought that he was squandering his gifts in such humble pursuits: he asserted that he would dedicate “all my poor abilities to advance the glory of that God that gave them.” The “Holy Mr. Herbert” became known for his piety and selflessness in his brief ministry. When he died after just three years in service, he sent a slim volume of his writings to his friend, Nicholas Ferrer, urging him to destroy the book if Ferrer did not think that it could be “used to the advantage of any poor soul.” Luckily, Ferrer had a better opinion of Herbert’s writings than their creator did. The Temple, which Herbert described as a portrait of his own spiritual struggles, contained a host of memorable lyrical poems meshing form, language, and theme. Those poems include “Easter Wings,” in which the outline of the poem’s stanzas mimic the shape of a pair of wings as the poet’s voice pleads with God to “let me rise,” and “The Altar,” which movingly asks God to accept the poem as a sacred offering. Herbert’s ability to marry the formal aspects of his verse to their content reflects his belief that all life – prayer, writing, visiting the sick – shaped a single act of devotion. Today, we sing Herbert’s song of praise and offering to God (“King of Glory, King of Peace”), his joyful exhortation to worship (“Let all the world in every corner sing”), and his beautiful meditation on John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth and the life”). While Herbert did not set these poems to music himself, he was a musician who valued song as a medium of praise; according to a friend present at Herbert’s deathbed, he roused himself from his final illness to play the lute! Given Herbert’s love of music and his commitment to the daily life of his parish, it’s fitting that many of his poems have become staples of the Church hymnal.