Criticism by W. H. Auden

Critic: W. H. Auden
Source: in an introduction to George Herbert, edited by W. H. Auden, Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 7-13.
Criticism about: "Affliction"; "The Pearl"; "The Church-Porch"; "Denial"
Author Covered: George Herbert (1593-1633)

Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[Often considered the poetic successor of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, Auden is also highly regarded for his literary criticism. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, and as a committed follower of Christianity, he considered it necessary to view art in the context of moral and theological absolutes. In the following essay, Auden provides an overview of Herbert's life and artistic stature, arguing that "of all the so-called 'metaphysical' poets he has the subtlest ear."]

Reading a poet whose work I admire, it is only very seldom that I find myself wishing: 'Oh, how I would like to have been an intimate friend of his!' There are some, like Byron, whom I would like to have met once, but most, I feel, would either, like Dante and Goethe, have been too intimidating, or, like Wordsworth, too disagreeable. The two English poets, neither of them, perhaps, major poets, whom I would most like to have known well are William Barnes and George Herbert.

Even if Izaak Walton had never written his life, I think that any reader of his poetry will conclude that George Herbert must have been an exceptionally good man, and exceptionally nice as well.

He was born in Montgomery Castle on 3 April 1593, the fifth son of Sir Richard Herbert and Lady Magdalen Herbert, to whom Donne dedicated his elegy 'Autumnal Beauty', and his uncle was Lord Herbert of Cherbury. By birth, that is to say, he enjoyed a secure social position. In addition Nature had endowed him with the gifts of intelligence and personal charm. Educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a Fellow of the latter in 1616, and was appointed Public Orator to the University in 1620. He was not only an excellent Greek and Latin scholar, but also fluent in Italian, Spanish and French, and an accomplished amateur musician who played the lute and composed songs.

For a young man of his breeding and talents one would have prophesied a great future in the world. He soon attracted the attention of two powerful and influential figures, the Duke of Richmond and the Marquess of Hamilton and, when they met, King James I took great fancy to him.

His own ambition was as great as his opportunities. He seems to have dreamed of one day becoming a Secretary of State and this led him somewhat to neglect his duties as Public Orator in order to attend the Court. The Academic Life, evidently, was not altogether to his taste. Walton tells us:

... he had often designed to leave the

university, and decline all study, which he thought did

impair his health; for he had a body apt to a

consumption, and to fevers, and other infirmities,

which he judged were increased by his

studies ... But his mother would by no means

allow him to leave the university or to travel;

and though he inclined very much to both, yet

he would by no means satisfy his own desires at

so dear a rate as to prove an undutiful son to so

affectionate a mother.

This is confirmed in the poem 'Affliction'.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took

The way that takes the town;

Thou didst betray me to a lingring book,

And wrap me in a gown.

I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatned oft the siege to raise,

Not simpring all mine age,

Thou often didst with Academick praise

Melt and dissolve my rage.

I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

Though he writes in another poem, 'The Pearl':

I know the wayes of Pleasure, the sweet strains,

The lullings and the relishes of it;

The propositions of hot bloud and brains;

one does not get the impression from his work that the temptations of the flesh were a serious spiritual menace to him, as they were to Donne. Nor did he suffer from religious doubts: in the seventeenth century very few people did. His struggle was with worldliness, the desire to move in high circles, to enjoy fame and power, and to such temptations he might very well have succumbed, had not his two aristocratic patrons and then, in 1625, King James, all died, thus dashing his hopes of immediate preferment.

For the first time he began to consider seriously the possibility of taking Holy Orders, a course which his mother had always prayed for. Most of his friends disagreed, thinking the priesthood too mean an employment, too much below his birth and natural abilities. To one such counsellor, he replied:

It hath been formerly adjudged 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

honorable by consecrating all my learning, and all my

poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God

that gave them.

These words show that Herbert was under no illusion as to the sacrifice he would have to make, and to come to a definite decision was clearly a struggle, for he was not ordained a priest until 1630 when he was made Rector of Bemerton, a tiny rural parish on Salisbury Plain. In the previous year he had married Jane Danvers after a courtship of only three days, and the marriage turned out to be a very happy one. In 1633 he died of consumption at the age of only forty.

Since none of his poems were published during his lifetime, we cannot say for certain when any of them were written, but one suspects that it was from the two and a half years of indecision that many of them, particularly those which deal with temptations and feelings of rebellion, must date.

Since all of Herbert's poems are concerned with the religious life, they cannot be judged by aesthetic standards alone. His poetry is the counterpart of Jeremy Taylor's prose: together they are the finest expressions we have of Anglican piety at its best. Donne, though an Anglican, is, both in his poems and his sermons, much too much of a prima donna to be typical.

Comparing the Anglican Church with the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and the Calvinist on the other, Herbert writes:

A fine aspect in fit aray,

Neither too mean, nor yet too gay,

Shows who is best.

Outlandish looks may not compare:

For all they either painted are,

Or else undrest.

She on the hills, which wantonly

Allureth all in hope to be

By her preferr'd,

Hath kiss'd so long her painted shrines,

That ev'n her face by kissing shines,

For her reward.

She in the valley is so shie

Of dressing, that her hair doth lie

About her eares:

While she avoids her neighbours pride,

She wholly goes on th' other side,

And nothing wears.

Herbert, it will be noticed, says nothing about differences in theological dogma. The Anglican Church has always avoided strict dogmatic definitions. The Thirty-Nine Articles, for example, can be interpreted either in a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist sense, and her Office of Holy Communion can be accepted both by Zwinglians who regard it as a service of Commemoration only, and by those who believe in the Real Presence. Herbert is concerned with liturgical manners and styles of piety. In his day, Catholic piety was typically baroque, both in architecture and in poets like Crashaw. This was too unrestrained for his taste. On the other hand, he found the style of worship practised by the Reformed Churches too severe, too 'inward'. He would have agreed with Launcelot Andrewes who said: 'If we worship God with our hearts only and not also with our hats, something is lacking.' The Reformers, for instance, disapproved of all religious images, but Herbert thought that, on occasions, a stained-glass window could be of more spiritual help than a sermon.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and aw; but speech alone

Doth vanish like a flaring thing,

And in the eare, not conscience ring.

Walton tells us that he took enormous pains to explain to his parishioners, most of whom were probably illiterate, the significance of every ritual act in the liturgy, and to instruct them in the meaning of the Church Calendar. He was not a mystic like Vaughan: few Anglicans have been. One might almost say that Anglican piety at its best, as represented by Herbert, is the piety of a gentleman, which means, of course, that at its second best it becomes merely genteel.

As a Christian, he realized that his own style of poetry had its spiritual dangers:

... Is there in truth no beautie?

Is all good structure in a winding stair?

But as a poet he knew that he must be true to his sensibility, that all he could do was to wash his sweet phrases and lovely metaphors with his tears and bring them

to church well drest and clad:

My God must have my best, even all I had.

He is capable of writing lines of a Dante-esque directness. For example:

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,

The Tree of Life to all but only Me.

But as a rule he is more ingenious, though never, I think, obscure.

Each thing is fully of dutie:

Waters united are our navigation;

Distinguished, our habitation;

Below, our drink; above, our meat;

Both are our cleanlinesse. Hath one such


Then how are all things neat?

He is capable of clever antitheses which remind one of Pope, as when, speaking of a woman's love of pearls for which some diver has risked his life, he says:

Who with excessive pride

Her own destruction and his danger wears.

And in a most remarkable sonnet, 'Prayer', he seems to foreshadow Mallarme.

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls


The land of spices; something understood.

Wit he had in abundance. Take, for example, 'The Church-Porch'. Its subject matter is a series of moral maxims about social behaviour. One expects to be utterly bored but, thanks to Herbert's wit, one is entertained. Thus, he takes the commonplace maxim, 'Don't monopolize the conversation', and turns it into:

If thou be-Master-gunner, spend not all

That thou canst speak, at once; but husband it,

And give men turns of speech: do not forestall

By lavishnesse thine own, and others wit,

As if thou mad'st thy will. A civil guest

Will no more talk all, then eat all the feast.

A good example of his technical skill is the poem 'Denial'. He was, as we know, a skilled musician, and I am sure he got the idea for the structure of this poem from his musical experience of discords and resolving them. The first five stanzas consist of a quatrain, rhymed abab, followed by a line which comes as a shock because it does not rhyme:

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue

To crie to thee,

And then not heare it crying! all day long

My heart was in my knee,

But no hearing.

But in the final stanza the discord is resolved with a rhyme.

O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,

Deferre no time;

That so thy favours granting my request,

They and my minde may chime,

And mend my ryme.

This poem and many others also show Herbert's gift for securing musical effects by varying the length of the lines in a stanza. Of all the so-called 'metaphysical' poets he has the subtlest ear. As George Macdonald said of him:

The music of a poem is its meaning in sound as

distinguished from word...The sound of a

verse is the harbinger of the truth contained in

it...Herein Herbert excels. It will be found

impossible to separate the music of his words

from the music of the thought which takes shape

in their sound.

And this was Coleridge's estimate:

George Herbert is a true poet, but a poet sui

generis, the merits of whose poems will never be

felt without a sympathy with the mind and

character of the man.

My own sympathy is unbounded....

Source Citation: Auden, W. H., in an introduction to George Herbert, edited by W. H. Auden, Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 7-13. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. October, 2001.