When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessing standing by,
"Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can:
- the world's riches, which disperséd lie,
Contract into a span."
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed; then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
"For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
- rest in nature, not the God of nature:
So both should losers be.
"Yet let him keep the rest--
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that, at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast."
Is it not the story of the world written with the point of a diamond?
There can hardly be a doubt that his tendency to unnatural forms was
encouraged by the increase of respect to symbol and ceremony shown at
this period by some of the external powers of the church--Bishop Laud in
particular. Had all, however, who delight in symbols, a power, like
George Herbert's, of setting even within the horn-lanterns of the more
arbitrary of them, such a light of poetry and devotion that their dull
sides vanish in its piercing shine, and we forget the symbol utterly in
the truth which it cannot obscure, then indeed our part would be to take
and be thankful. But there never has been even a living true symbol which
the dulness of those who will see the truth only in the symbol has not
degraded into the very cockatrice-egg of sectarianism. The symbol is by
such always more or less idolized, and the light within more or less
patronized. If the truth, for the sake of which all symbols exist, were
indeed the delight of those who claim it, the sectarianism of the church
would vanish. But men on all sides call that the truth which is but its
form or outward sign--material or verbal, true or arbitrary, it matters
not which--and hence come strifes and divisions.
Although George Herbert, however, could thus illumine all with his divine
inspiration, we cannot help wondering whether, if he had betaken himself
yet more to vital and less to half artificial symbols, the change would
not have been a breaking of the pitcher and an outshining of the lamp.
For a symbol may remind us of the truth, and at the same time obscure
it--present it, and dull its effect. It is the temple of nature and not
the temple of the church, the things made by the hands of God and not the
things made by the hands of man, that afford the truest symbols of truth.
I am anxious to be understood. The chief symbol of our faith, the
Cross, it may be said, is not one of these natural symbols. I
answer--No; but neither is it an arbitrary symbol. It is not a symbol of
a truth at all, but of a fact, of the infinitely grandest fact in the
universe, which is itself the outcome and symbol of the grandest Truth.
The Cross is an historical sign, not properly a symbol, except
through the facts it reminds us of. On the other hand, baptism and the
eucharist are symbols of the loftiest and profoundest kind, true to
nature and all its meanings, as well as to the facts of which they remind
us. They are in themselves symbols of the truths involved in the facts
Of Nature's symbols George Herbert has made large use; but he would have
been yet a greater poet if he had made a larger use of them still. Then
at least we might have got rid of such oddities as the stanzas for steps
up to the church-door, the first at the bottom of the page; of the lines
shaped into ugly altar-form; and of the absurd Easter wings, made of ever
lengthening lines. This would not have been much, I confess, nor the gain
by their loss great; but not to mention the larger supply of images
graceful with the grace of God, who when he had made them said they were
good, it would have led to the further purification of his taste, perhaps
even to the casting out of all that could untimely move our mirth; until
possibly (for illustration), instead of this lovely stanza, he would have
given us even a lovelier:
Listen, sweet dove, unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings on me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and fly away with thee.
The stanza is indeed lovely, and true and tender and clever as well; yet
who can help smiling at the notion of the incubation of the heart-egg,
although what the poet means is so good that the smile almost vanishes in
There is no doubt that the works of man's hands will also afford many
true symbols; but I do think that, in proportion as a man gives himself
to those instead of studying Truth's wardrobe of forms in nature, so will
he decline from the high calling of the poet. George Herbert was too
great to be himself much injured by the narrowness of the field whence he
gathered his symbols; but his song will be the worse for it in the ears
of all but those who, having lost sight of or having never beheld the
oneness of the God whose creation exists in virtue of his redemption,
feel safer in a low-browed crypt than under "the high embowed roof."
When the desire after system or order degenerates from a need into a
passion, or ruling idea, it closes, as may be seen in many women who are
especial house-keepers, like an unyielding skin over the mind, to the
death of all development from impulse and aspiration. The same thing
holds in the church: anxiety about order and system will kill the life.
This did not go near to being the result with George Herbert: his life
was hid with Christ in God; but the influence of his profession, as
distinguished from his work, was hurtful to his calling as a poet. He of
all men would scorn to claim social rank for spiritual service; he of all
men would not commit the blunder of supposing that prayer and praise are
that service of God: they are prayer and praise, not service;
knew that God can be served only through loving ministration to his sons
and daughters, all needy of commonest human help: but, as the most devout
of clergymen will be the readiest to confess, there is even a danger to
their souls in the unvarying recurrence of the outward obligations of
their service; and, in like manner, the poet will fare ill if the
conventions from which the holiest system is not free send him soaring
with sealed eyes. George Herbert's were but a little blinded thus; yet
something, we must allow, his poetry was injured by his profession. All
that I say on this point, however, so far from diminishing his praise,
adds thereto, setting forth only that he was such a poet as might have
been greater yet, had the divine gift had free course. But again I rebuke
myself and say, "Thank God for George Herbert."
To rid our spiritual palates of the clinging flavour of criticism, let me
choose another song from his precious legacy--one less read, I presume,
than many. It shows his tendency to asceticism--the fancy of forsaking
God's world in order to serve him; it has besides many of the faults of
the age, even to that of punning; yet it is a lovely bit of art as well
as a rich embodiment of tenderness.