George Herbert as a Religious Poet
George Herbert is considered as a religious poet because of the subject matter of his poetry which is fully devotional and religious in nature. By his poetry, he completely surrenders himself to God and his master, Jesus. Although he was associated with the metaphysical group, he was exceptional for his treatment towards religion in his poetry. For his devotion to God, he is known as the saint of the metaphysical group. And his religious thought afterward influenced other metaphysical poets. However, his devotion to God reflects in his poems, and we find a great touch of religion in almost all of his poems.
He was a Churchman of the Anglican Church. And his religious faith had grown and developed in this Church. He was influenced by it right from his childhood under the benign guidance of his pious mother and seasoned family chaplains. And long after the complication of his University graduation, he was ordained and placed over the little church of Bemarton.
Herbert's mind was moulded by religion and by the Anglican Church. As he was brought up in religious atmosphere and his religious faith is shaped by his pious mother, we see that his poems are the representations of his sacred mind and thought. His poems are nothing but the true expression of love towards God and Jesus. As Rose Macaulay says, "Herbert is, in a sense, the first of the Anglican poets; the first Anglican poet, that is, whose whole expression and art was coloured by and confined within the walls of his Church."
Herbert finds and gets satisfaction writing religious poems. Even the two sonnets that he sent to his mother when he was only seventeen year's old are the symbol of what kind of poet he wanted to be. In his after years, he writes divine poems and sees beauty only in God. He is all for God, his king, whose praise he will sing in a plain, homely language. Even just before his death he gave a manuscript to one of his friends and the message that he gave is worthy. He said, "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."
However, Herbert is called the devotional or the religious poet because he deals with such subjects. The theme of most of his poems is religion. He deals with the soul, God, life after death, the relation between human spirits and senses and so on. He talks of man's relation to God, of body to the soul, of the life here and to the life hereafter. In this relation, he often shows rebellion, reconciliation and the final submission.
Moreover, his poetry is a sequence of religious poems. His motive is always to make the divine seem original, the secular imitation. He sees the things of daily life in direct relation to a supernatural order. Heavenly truths are indeed what he looks for in all his poems. There are many poems in which Herbert devoutly offers his homage to God or Christ, and make surrender of himself to the Almighty. These are poems of untroubled faith in which the tone is throughly one of affirmation. "Easter-Wings" is one of such poems. The theme of his poems is that Paradise was lost through Adam's sin but was regained by Christ's sacrifice. The underlining idea is that the fall of man is the essential basis of his rise, or in other words if there is no fall, there can be no flight. Here he says,
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
His another poem "The Altar", shows his devotion to God and urges to take his broken heart into his own for his own satisfaction. He shows his devotion saying,
A HEART 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.
There are some other poems like DISCIPLINE, AFFLICTION, PRAYER etc. in which Herbert shows his extraordinary love towards God. He praises God in many styles in many of his poems. As for example "The Temple" is a collection of 169 religious poems out of which 140 have been composed in different patterns of stanza, and out of which 116 patterns have been used for only single time. It appears that Herbert wanted to employ his skill in God's praise in as much different forms as possible.
Herbert, John Donne and Vaughan are contemporary poets. Although they are associated with the metaphysical group, they have some similarities and dissimilarities among them. However, a comparative discussion with George Herbert and other poets is given below:--
Donne and Herbert
John Donne ( 1572-1631 ) established what has become known as the Metaphysical style of poetry which was taken up by later poets like Herbert and Vaughan. Donne developed his technique writing love poetry, and later adapted it to the writing of religious poetry. George Herbert's poetry shows that to a large extent he followed the lead offered by Donne, but he also made contributions which were quite distinct.
But they have some similarities between them. Donne's Holy Sonnet 'Batter my Heart' and Herbert's The Collar are both poems about the struggle to maintain faith in God. In the opening line of 'Batter my Heart' Donne writes,
“Batter my heart, three person'd God;”
Herbert, showing the influence of Donne, writes in his opening line of 'The Collar':
“I struck the board, and cry'd, No more.”
Both openings are abrupt and dramatic, evoking violent action, and both are delivered in a personal and colloquial manner.
Herbert and Vaughan
Henry Vaughan shares Herbert's preoccupation with the relationship between humanity and God. Both see mankind as restless and constantly seeking a sense of harmony and fulfillment through contact with God. In 'The Pulley' Herbert writes,
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
Similarly, in 'Man' Vaughan writes,
Man hath stil either toyes or Care,
He hath no root, nor to one place is ty'd,
But ever restless and Irregular.
Both poets are conscious of the sinfulness of mankind, but in other respects their attitudes towards mankind seem to differ.
From the above discussions, it can be said that George Herbert devoted his poetic genius for the praise of God and the theme of most of his poems is religion that leads us towards spiritual and moral ideas. And his poems find expressions only in God's praise. So undoubtedly we can consider George Herbert is a devotional or religious poet.