George Herbert was a poet, orator and priest: you don’t get many people with that on their CVs these days! Not only that he seems to have been a very kind and charitable priest – extremely unusual! – with one contemporary saying he was ‘a most glorious saint and seer’. Unfortunately though he wasn’t a priest for long. After a brief academic career, then a stint in politics, he joined the priesthood in 1629 and only served for 4 years before dying at 39.
All of his poetry that has survived was religious focused. He is somewhat famous for his use of shape within his poetry, where both ideas and shape link to Church architecture.
His major collection of poetry was called The Temple. This consisted of three sections and this comes from the end of the second one, called The Church. This poem is the third one in the collection called Love; the first two complain that earthly love gets much more attention and focus than the more worthy religious love.
That’s probably all you need to have in your head when examining this poem.
This is a different take on love from the other poems we’ve looked at so far. Herbert personifies Love, but it turns out that really he is referring to God as love – emphasising what Christianity is all about and making God the only real love we should contemplate.
This is a relatively short poem and I’m going to fly through this.
In the first stanza, God welcomes Herbert to his kingdom, but Herbert feels uncomfortable because he feels unworthy of God’s company as a result of the sin he has accumulated in his life. However, God realises what’s going on and puts an arm round his shoulder and tries to get Herbert think if he is lacking anything at the moment – while he’s not part of God’s immediate family; basically he’s implying that Herbert is lacking the comfort and surety that faith brings.
Moving onto the second stanza and God tells Herbert he has what it takes to be welcomed into heaven. However, Herbert questions this and says he is not even worthy of looking at God. Ever the smart ass, God tells him that he created his eyes and questions why he would’ve bothered if he didn’t intend people to look at him.
Well, Herbert still doesn’t get it and claims he’s dirtied the eyes God gave him (I’m choosing not to speculate how specifically he’s done this). By now you imagine God must be getting a bit frustrated with him, but no! He tells him that Jesus’ death has already covered him for all that sinning he did.
Finally Herbert relents and agrees to serve God. However, God isn’t satisfied with this and wants Herbert to treat him as an equal and eat meat from his table.
Language and techniques
Firstly, you should comment on the fact that God is being referred to as Love. If God is the personification of love, then that shows how everything about faith relates to love. This is deliberate from Herbert as a way to redirect us from thinking of love as an earthly emotion, but rather to think of it as being the way that God cares for us.
Throughout the poem Herbert uses language that suggests the humility of his Lord and completely ignores associations of almighty power. He ‘welcome[s]’ Herbert; ‘drew [him] nearer’ and ‘took [his] hand’ when he was worried and unsure of himself; and is ‘smiling’ whilst reassuring him of his worth. He subtly rejects Herbert’s notion that he should ‘serve’ as he orders him to ‘sit down… and taste my meat’ (don’t twist this into something rude, you vile creature!), which communicates that God wants us to sit with him as equals rather than rule over us from an ivory throne. This is an important way of communicating his perception of faith as something that provides comfort and direction, rather than something that determines the decisions we take with the help of the fear of being unworthy and being cast down from heaven.
Compare the impression we get of God with the expectation from the poetic voice that ‘cannot look on thee’ as he doesn’t feel worthy enough. This paints God in a more aloof, almighty role: as someone judging our actions. You could say this perception is more of the God we see in the Old Testament where he was hell-bent on violence and destruction. However, the poem dismisses this perception.
God is such a softy that he asks rhetorical questions to make Herbert realises his worthiness rather than just telling him he is worthy; he is so kind he wants him to figure out his worth on his own.
On the other side of things we have the doubt expressed on behalf of Herbert’s poetic voice. He is reluctant because he feels he is ‘guilty of dust and sin’ and considers his life to have brought some ‘shame’ to the gifts God has given him. Cynically here we could see this as a comment on how pretty much everyone is a sinner to some degree in Christianity; however, Herbert seems to be acknowledging an everyman doubt. We all fear we are not good enough, whether it be for heaven, to go to university or for the promotion we want.
Herbert furthers this submissive and respectful doubt by using a rhetorical question to paint himself as ‘the unkind, ungrateful?’. This stands in stark contrast from what we know of Herbert’s life and is more than likely again just self-doubt rather than some confession of concealed nastiness in his life.
One final thing I’d comment on is a piece of intertextuality. The final line of the first stanza directly references the Bible. When God ‘sweetly question[ed] If [Herbert] lacked any thing’ this is mirroring psalms 23 where some chaps says The Lord is my shepherd and therefore I can lack nothing. The poem is suggesting that we will always lack something without God and faith fills an important part in all of our lives.
It’s not just me this time, I swear. Turn the poem on its side and we have three churches per stanza! Well, maybe not, but the alternative long and then shorter line give us these impressive spires when the poem is on its side and are meant to mirror religious architecture.
Another thing to comment on, probably easier to explain, is the lack of speech marks here. The poems works as a two-way conversation between Love (God) and I (Herbert/poetic voice), but you can get lost quite easily as a result of the missing punctuation. Why has Herbert chosen to leave this out? Was he illiterate? No! He wants us to understand that this conversation is really one that is going on within our heads, hearts and souls. Faith and our relationship with God are controlled from within rather than without.
You could also mention the consistent use of caesura. The poem is read at a really slow pace as a result. This contributes to a tone of calm and reassurance that reflects the idea of faith that Herbert wishes to portray. In fact, you could take this further and comment on how concise God’s lines are, such is his surety and his calm.
As above, the initial self-doubt is overcome with the calm certainty of faith.
A reading of Herbert’s classic poem
George Herbert (1593-1633) is one of the greatest devotional poets in English literature; he is also associated with the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century. ‘Jordan (I)’ is one of his most famous poems, and concerns itself with the role of poetry itself. What follows is a very short analysis of ‘Jordan (I)’ (sometimes known as ‘Jordan 1’), in terms of its language, meaning, and themes.
Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?
Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?
Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime;
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, my God, my King.
In summary, ‘Jordan (I)’ is a poem about poetry: George Herbert takes as his theme the proper material for poetry, as well as the proper language for poetry. In the first stanza of ‘Jordan (I)’, Herbert asks, why is it that people consider only made-up or fictional stories and situations suitable for poetry? Why aren’t things that are true to life considered beautiful, and therefore fit material for the poet to use as well? Herbert’s image of the winding stair suggests something circuitous and indirect, the implication being that plain speech (which would be like a straight staircase) is not considered ‘right’ for poetry: a poet always has to express himself in a winding and obscure way. The poet, Herbert regrets, is never allowed to ‘tell it like it is’. Herbert concludes the first stanza by asking another question: are the only ‘lines’ of verse that will ‘pass’ as true poetry those that praise an imagined chair rather than a real one? (This alludes to the custom of ‘doing one’s duty’ to the king’s chair, or throne, even when the king wasn’t in it: one was expected to bow when passing the chair as a sign of respect.) In other words, Herbert is questioning why poetry, which is itself a construction, has to express itself by referring to other false constructions, rather than directly depicting life as it is.
In the second stanza, Herbert names (and shames) some of the tired clichés of poetry, especially pastoral poetry: ‘enchanted groves’, ‘sudden arbours’, ‘purling streams’. Pastoral poetry was often set in an idealised version of the countryside, so Herbert’s objection to these stock features of such poetry follows and develops his objection, in the first stanza, to the notion that ‘false’ poetry is the only kind of poetry worth doing. What’s more, such stock images are often there to mask (or ‘shadow’) the inelegant poetry written by mediocre poets (‘coarse-spun lines’). Herbert goes on to ask:
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?
In other words, why is the reader of such poetry always made to work so hard to ‘divine’ the meaning of the poem?
In the third stanza, Herbert moves from questioning to stating. It’s as if he’s set up his objections now, and wants to proceed to a solution, or analysis of ‘true’ poetry. He starts off by asserting, ‘Shepherds are honest people’, and so their lives should be written about plainly and honestly. ‘Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime’: in other words, those poets who want to construct riddles in their poetry and write cryptically are welcome to do so, if they choose (‘list’). They’re also welcome to strive for pre-eminence in the writing of such poetry (‘pull for prime’). But Herbert does not want to copy them and use their clichéd poetic tropes, such as nightingales or springs (streams). But, by the same token, he’d rather that such poets didn’t accuse him of not being a true poet (‘loss of rhyme’) simply because he speaks plainly in order to worship and pay homage to God: ‘my God, my King.’
This much constitutes a reasonably full summary of ‘Jordan (I)’ in terms of its meaning. But it’s worth highlighting several local features of Herbert’s poem, by way of textual analysis. The reference to shepherds as ‘honest’ in the final stanza of ‘Jordan (I)’ fulfils a dual function. Shepherds are associated with a simpler rustic life in the countryside, and so mentioning them here makes sense in light of the conventions of pastoral poetry already mentioned by Herbert, but they also have religious connotations: Jesus Christ is sometimes described as a shepherd (with his faithful followers his ‘flock’). The implication is that shepherds are, in a sense, godly because of their simple, plain, honest existence, free from obscurity or guile. And thus, when Herbert concludes his poem with the words ‘my God, my King’, the shepherds take on additional, religious significance.
And this religious meaning to the poem is pointed up by the somewhat ambiguous title of Herbert’s poem. Why ‘Jordan’? The River Jordan was the place where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. Given Herbert’s poem’s talk of ‘purling streams’ and ‘spring[s]’, we can interpret Herbert’s title as an assertion of the superiority of the (real) River Jordan over the imaginary streams and springs of inferior pastoral poetry, which are mere trickles by comparison. But Jordan, given its importance to Christianity and the early life of Jesus Christ, also suggests spiritual cleansing, as if the waters of Jordan will ‘wash away’ the mediocre pastoral platitudes used by the poets Herbert wishes to distance himself from.
We’re aware that there’s something ironic in trying to paraphrase (and thus render into plainer and clearer language) a poem that is in favour of poets using plainer and clearer language. But ‘Jordan (I)’ is, when compared with much of the poetry written by the Metaphysical Poets, relatively easy to understand, analyse, and interpret. Like John Donne’s poetry, George Herbert’s ‘Jordan (I)’ is written in refreshingly direct language – especially relative to some of Herbert’s other poems (which are, contrary to what he says here, often indirect in their expression, resembling that ‘winding stair’ he objects to in his first stanza).
Continue to explore George Herbert’s poetry with our discussion of his classic poem ‘Discipline’.
Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.