By: George Herbert (1593-1633)
These poems, from Herbert’s book The Temple, show the evolution of a soul’s relationship with God. Sudden reversals of mood are common, for although Herbert is best known for his quiet tone, he was not a tranquil man but proud and ambitious. He achieved tranquility by active effort. His works may be read autobiographically, for they are intensely personal. Yet through his personal experience we perceive a reality larger than the personal. For example, his many homely comparisons—to bowling, pulleys, laxatives, a blunted knife, sweeping a room—serve “for lights of Heavenly Truths,” as he says of scriptural references to matters of daily life like “a plough, a hatchet, leaven, boyes piping and dancing.” Hence we find in Herbert a startling simplicity of spirit, an almost mystical ability to make every sensory experience sacramental and to express deep and subtle emotions with perfect tact. But there are also angry, frustrated, nearly despairing moments when he longs for the worldly paths he might have taken, the academic honors, the seat in Parliament that he once held, “the ways of Pleasure, the sweet strains, / The lullings and the relishes of it.” But at such moments God is always at hand to throw him a lifeline—whispering in his ear, recalling him to a far deeper and older level of emotional experience.