Selected by Dan Clendenin
George Herbert (1593–1633)
The Altar from The Temple (1633)
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name;
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctifie this A L T A R to be thine.
(A “shaped” or “patterned” poem.)
[The formatting available on Medium.com does not permit accurate recreation of the original shape of this poetry. — Ed.]
Born to a noble family in Wales, George Herbert was only three when his father died, leaving his mother (a friend and patron of John Donne) to raise him and his nine siblings. After graduation from Cambridge, he served the university as its “Public Orator,” an important post in which he gave voice to the university sentiments on public occasions. Later elected to Parliament, Herbert anticipated a distinguished career in politics and public service, but that was not to be. When King James I, some important patrons, and then his mother all died, he gave up his political ambitions to enter the parish. His friends objected, suggesting that the life of a pastor was beneath his dignity and skills as a scholar and statesman. To this Herbert replied,
It hath been formerly judged that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven should be of the noblest families on earth. And though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible; yet I will labour to make it honourable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities to advance the glory of that God that gave them. . . . And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and meek example of my dear Jesus.
In 1629 Herbert became the rector at Bemerton, a small village near Salisbury, where he spent the rest of his short life.
In Bemerton he preached, wrote poetry, served the pastoral needs of his people with loving distinction, cared for the poor, and even helped to rebuild the church using his own resources. By all accounts Herbert was a deeply pious man, known in his village as “Holy Mr. Herbert.” His book, A Priest to the Temple (1652), offers practical advice to country pastors. Four years later, a month before his fortieth birthday, Herbert died of tuberculosis.
None of Herbert’s poems had been published when he died, but upon his deathbed he gave them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, asking them to be published only if they might help “any dejected poor soul.” This “little book,” as he called it, contained “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 found perfect freedom.” Ferrar did publish the poems under the title The Temple, and they became an enormous success. Published in 1633, by 1680 the book had gone through 13 editions. The poems reflect his lifelong struggle between his privileged background and worldly ambitions as a Member of Parliament and the Cambridge faculty, and his choice to live as a poor country cleric in rural England. Today scholars esteem Herbert as one of the most skilled and important poets of his day, some even suggesting that his work surpasses that of John Donne.
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