Know God: George Herbert’s poems as conversations with a god known
Not always is it necessary to be aware of the life of a writer in order to read their work. In George Herbert’s case, his life as a priest of a small parish in the rural village of Bemerton, though only for three years, is inseparable from his poetry. As T. S. Eliot determined, despite having lived much of his life outside the parish, Herbert’s ‘whole source of inspiration was his religious faith.’ This essay will focus on three poems, ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III),’ and demonstrate how, when read as conversations, the poems make manifest Herbert’s relationship to God. The poems are conversations between two voices familiar to one another: Herbert and his god, a god who is close and known.
A ‘conversation’ is defined as an ‘interchange of thoughts or ideas; familiar discourse or talk.’ A conversation, then, requires two agents in order for ‘interchange’ to take place. The poems ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III)’ all contain two voices. ‘Love Unknown’ most explicitly takes the form of a conversation with this kind of interchange, and is recorded in the present: ‘Dear Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad…’ As the narrator recites his ‘tale,’ there are comments made by an italicized, decidedly other voice, that of the addressed ‘friend,’ Jesus. After hearing how the persona’s ‘heart’ was thrown into a ‘font’ (fountain) of ‘blood’ and ‘washt, and wrung,’ the listener reflects that this action may have been justified: ‘Your heart was foul, I fear.’ Other trials receive the same, slightly tailored, response, ‘hard,’ and ‘dull’ in place of ‘foul.’ In each instance the narrator agrees with the observation made, conceding ‘Indeed it’s true.’ The poem concludes with the listener’s response to the narrator. He gives an evaluation, ‘…your Master shows to you / More favour then you wot of...’ He explains each trial in turn, such as ‘The font did onely, what was old, renew.’ Finally, He offers consolation, ‘Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full…’ In ‘Love Unknown,’ Herbert imagines a conversation with Jesus in which he complains and He consoles.
‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III)’ are conversations of a different kind. In ‘The Collar,’ the second voice has only one word, ‘Child!’ This voice is perceived at a remove, ‘Me thoughts I heard one calling,’ distinct from the immediate address in ‘Love Unknown.’ Despite its’ brevity, the power and weight of the voice is enough to halt the narrator’s spiraling, tumultuous, and wild revolt, ‘…Child! / And I reply’d, My Lord.’ Here the conversation comes in an unexpected form, but two voices (Herbert’s and his god’s) interchange.
‘Love (III)’ describes a back-and-forth exchange with God that is not only given verbal representation, but also physical representation. The beginning of the poem, ‘Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,’ exemplifies the back and forth movement at the physical level. This occurs with language too: God (‘Love’) ‘sweetly question[s]’ and the narrator ‘answer[s].’ Here, more than ‘Love Unknown’ and ‘The Collar,’ the two voices commune to and fro, and are balanced. Every second line is indented, giving the visual sense of a musical round in which one voice starts a moment later, but progress in harmony together, circulating back and forth.
In ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III),’ Herbert, in imagining a conversation with God, creates a dialogue of sorts whereby God’s speech is scripted. This act of scripting, the clarity of the voice Herbert imagines and can ‘write,’ lends an understanding of the strength of his religious faith. Helen Vendler talks about the ‘palpability’ of the ‘invisible listener’s presence on Herbert’s page’ in ‘A True Hymne,’ and Herbert’s ability to create a ‘credible human presence on the page’ in ‘Love Unknown.’ This kind of ‘presence’ that is created with language indicates the closeness of Herbert to his god. In these poems, as in many of his poems, the second voice is present, and the two commune with familiarity.
The ‘intimacy’ of Herbert’s relationship with God is apparent in the characterisation of the divine in these three poems. In ‘Love Unknown,’ Jesus is a ‘Deare Friend;’ in ‘The Collar,’ God is as a ‘father;’ and in ‘Love (III),’ he is simply, benevolently, and wholly, ‘Love.’ In her treatise on Herbert’s address to God in Invisible Listeners, Vendler writes how Herbert found the relationship to God offered by the church, in prayer and other means, inadequate and lacking in intimacy. In his poems, as in these three, the exploration of how to appropriately address God is evident in his adoption of different models of intimacy.
Herbert brings God closer by adopting the father-child relationship. The father-child model retains the distance of hierarchy, but is a recognizable, human relation. In response to the call ‘Child!’ in ‘The Collar,’ however, Herbert does not use the address ‘father.’ Instead, the persona seemingly falls back on the well worn ‘my Lord’ as a signal of submission. After behaving badly, Herbert’s persona hesitates to assume the familiarity of ‘father.’
God is brought even closer still with ‘Love Unknown,’ nearing the equal relation of friend to friend. This cannot be entirely equal because he is conversing with the divine, and there is the sense of advice being handed down. Yet the second voice does reciprocate the address of ‘friend,’ and the tone of their advice is gentle, with soft ‘f’s and ‘w’s, ‘I fear,’ ‘Wherefore,’ ‘Who fain…’
In ‘Love (III),’ the poem that comes last in The Temple sequence, the relation is beyond human definition. This model of intimacy is perhaps the most intimate yet. Here, Herbert uses verbs to characterise God in terms of his benevolence. ‘Love’s’ actions are directed towards the narrator, and are supremely gracious in feeling, ‘bade me welcome,’ ‘observing me,’ ‘drew nearer,’ and ‘took my hand, and smiling…’ The epitome of the considerate host, God gently insists with the imperative invitation, ‘you must sit down.’ The narrator calls God in this manifestation by the intimate, ‘my Deare.’ This address is repeated twice, and is seen as more appropriate than the singular, more formal, address ‘Lord.’ Herbert can be seen to, as Vendler argues, ‘revise the conventional vertical address to God until it approaches the horizontal address to an intimate friend.’ In doing so, God is brought closer through poetry than church prayer, and the relationship becomes more personal than institutional.
Herbert’s style is notable for his use of simple language. Eliot comments how in his religious career as ‘the shepherd of a little flock of rustics,’ Herbert educated ‘in a language they could understand,’ and so this simplicity has a functional purpose. The poems are made accessible to Christians, so that they could, as Herbert hoped, ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul.’ The poems are ‘true to the poet’s experience’ and by extension universal Christian experience, and are crafted with a register of language found in the everyday. Insincerity is addressed with honesty in ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘…when I pray’d, / Though my lips went, my heart did stay behind,’ and spiritual struggle with frustration and straightforward physicality in ‘The Collar,’ ‘I struck the board.’
The simple language conveys an immediacy of feeling, appropriate for religious verse. In ‘Love (III),’ a profound communion with God is placed in the domestic sphere, made both intimate and universally recognisable. The reader is oriented into a space they have been before, and where God is now present, too. The poem proceeds between a first person ‘I’ and responding ‘Love.’ This is an ‘I’ that can be anyone’s and everyone’s, and as ‘Love’ implies, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’ Guilt, sin, worthiness, and ungratefulness are addressed in turn, and ‘Love’ reminds ‘I’ that it was he who ‘bore the blame’ (voluntarily) and died at the cross. With utmost simplicity ‘I’ pledges faithfulness to God, ‘then I will serve,’ and is welcomed, ‘So I did sit and eat.’ Here, as in other poems, Herbert weaves together monosyllables to encapsulate faith with brevity and weight: ‘Speak not at large; say, I am thine,’ ‘With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done,’ and, of course, ‘My God, My King,’  There is no wading through meaning, deciphering, or ‘catching the sense at two removes’ with Herbert.
The characteristic simplicity of Herbert’s language witnesses a particular kind of relationship with God. When compared with one of John Donne’s religious poems, ‘Holy Sonnet XIV,’ the steadiness with which Herbert lives with God is highlighted. Instead of a polite ‘knocke,’ Donne appeals to God for a violence of action in claiming him back from his ‘enemie’ to whom he is ‘betroth’d.’ The verbs come one after the other, ‘o’erthrow,’ ‘bend,’ ‘breake, blow, burn,’ ‘imprison mee,’ ‘enthrall mee,’ and finally, ‘ravish mee.’  These verbs are highly descriptive, imperative, and full of force. When compared with ‘Love (III),’ and the verbs involved in that conversation, it seems that there is no intimacy in this address to God. The honesty and immediacy of expression found in the simple, unembellished language used by Herbert, demonstrates how, as Richard Baxter comments, ‘Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God.’
In a letter accompanying The Temple sent to Nicholas Ferrar, Herbert wrote that the work held
‘…a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have past 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.’
As such, in exploring the ‘many spiritual conflicts,’ Herbert’s poems in The Temple take many different forms, but all evidence a tight control and come back to Herbert’s faith in his ‘Master.’ ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III),’ are demonstrative of this: they are different in structure and voice, yet end aligned with God’s will. ‘Love Unknown,’ progresses as a conversation does, and the relaxed stanzas are loosely separated by an aside, ‘(I sigh to say).’ The first voice, sighing, wronged, relays their tale, ‘And,’ ‘Then,’ ‘When,’ ‘But…’ and the second voice, the critic, is thoughtful. In contrast, ‘Love (III)’ is comprised of three stanzas of six lines each, alternately pentameter and trimeter, and regular rhyme scheme (ABABCC). There is a tender voice and a timid voice. Both end with God’s will, ‘Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick’ and ‘So I did sit and eat.’
Different again, ‘The Collar,’ an episode of ‘spiritual conflict,’ is tumultuous in form as it is in temper. The lines are carefully crafted to enact a wildness of freedom, as the poem’s persona declares, ‘My lines and life are free.’ The lines vary in length, and Herbert resolutely resists any regularity in rhyme (ABCDAEFAE…), until the final four lines, (PQPQ). The many questions betray a sense of confusion, ‘What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?’ and there is a constellation of negations, signaling misconduct, ‘No more,’ ‘not restore,’ ‘Have I no…,’ ‘Not so, my heart,’ ‘wouldst not see…’ Following this ‘raving,’ all the more pronounced is the power of those final four lines in which Herbert is pulled into instantaneous submission to God’s will. Martz comments on the way in which, ‘The Collar,’ like ‘The Crosse,’ and ‘Affliction,’ explores a spiritual struggle ‘in all its ramifications.’ And yet, these poems end the same: ‘all concluding…in a whiplash of self-control and conformity.’
The endings of Herbert’s conversations with God are, as Louis L. Martz suggests, ‘predetermined.’ This is because of the sometimes wavering, but ever-present assurance in God’s love that Herbert possessed. In another poetic conversation with God, Donne’s ‘A Hymne to God the Father,’ such assurance is absent. Donne’s poem is centred around the question, repeated four times, ‘Wilt thou forgive that sinne…?’ Donne has ‘a sinne of feare,’ that after death he will not be accepted into Heaven and will ‘perish on the shore.’ He entreats of God, ‘Sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne / Shall shine as he shines now.’ Though Herbert experienced ‘spiritual conflicts,’ and these formed his poems, unlike the doubt present in Donne’s poems, Herbert’s are rich with the undercurrent of assurance.
Herbert knows God. By reading Herbert’s poems as conversations with God, the strength of Herbert’s religious faith and his close relationship with God is witnessed. The centrality and constancy of God’s will to Herbert’s being emanates from their multifarious forms, from the interplay of his voice and his god’s, from the intimate ‘horizontal address,’ and from the language free of distractions. In ‘Love Unknown,’ ‘The Collar,’ and ‘Love (III),’ Herbert imagines, hears, and speaks with his god. ‘Perfect freedom’ is found, ‘So I did sit and eat.’ The endings of these conversations are present from their beginnings:
‘While we never know how a true conversation will develop in end, in Herbert, as we sit down and read, we are uncertain only of how the conversation with God will develop; we always know how it will end.’
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Hutchinson, F. E., ed. The Poems of George Herbert. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.
Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in the Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
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Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.
 T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1962), 18.
 “Conversation, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/Entry/40748.
 George Herbert, “Love Unknown” in The Poems of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 121, line 1.
 Herbert, “Love Unknown, 121, line 60-66.
 George Herbert, “The Collar” in The Poems of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 144, line 35.
 Herbert, “The Collar, 144, lines 35-36.
 The poem ‘A True Hymne’ ends, ‘O, could I love! and stops: God writeth, Loved.’ Vendler writes, ‘the presence of the invisible listener is made palpable on Herbert’s page by God’s participation in their jointly written poem.’ The ‘listener’ is given an action, amending the persona’s expression, and so becomes present. Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 15-16.
 Vendler likens the second voice in ‘Love Unknown’ to ‘the modern notion of the ideal therapist – suggesting what a credible human presence Herbert can create on the page.’ Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 3-4.
 George Herbert, “Love (III)” in The Poems of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 180, line 17.
 Vendler, Invisible Listeners, 9.
 Eliot, George Herbert, 26.
 Hutchinson, The Poems of George Herbert, xvi.
 Eliot, George Herbert, 25.
 Herbert, “Love Unknown,” 121, lines 55-56.
 Herbert, “The Collar,” 143, line 1.
 Herbert, “The Quip,” 101, line 23.
 Herbert, “The Crosse,” 156, line 36.
 Herbert, “Jordan (I),” 49, line 15.
 Ibid., line 10.
 John Donne, “Holy Sonnet XIV,” in John Donne: A Selection of His Poetry ed. John Hayward (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1972), 171-172, lines 3-4, 10, 12-14.
 Hutchinson, The Poems of George Herbert, xvi.
 Ibid., xv-xvi.
 Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 133.
 Ibid., 135.
 John Donne, “A Hymne to God the Father,” in John Donne: A Selection of His Poetry ed. John Hayward (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1972), 176-177 lines 1,3,7,9,13-16.
 John Tobin ed., The Complete English Poems: George Herbert (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2004), 15.