Book Chapter: George Herbert

In 2016 I was contacted about the possibility of contributing to a new edited collection addressing Protestant mysticism in early modern Europe. Vincent Evener and Ronald K. Rittgers had already gathered a number of expert scholars to write chapters on a wide variety of Protestant mystics and were looking for someone to write a chapter focusing specifically on examples of mysticism within English Protestantism. I was delighted to accept the opportunity and explore my ongoing research interests from a new and interesting angle.

I am happy to announce that the edited collection was very recently published by Brill as Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe.  The collection is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it brings 20 scholars of mysticism from a wide range of backgrounds together in one volume. This should be seen as a celebration of the diversity of a field of study that has grown exponentially in recent years. These scholars address a wide variety of figures, from Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer through to Jacob Boehme and Johann Arndt.

Secondly, the collection has a very important focus, exploring the Protestant reception of medieval mysticism from the beginnings of the Reformation through to the mid-seventeenth century. Each scholar was given the task of exploring how their early modern Protestant authors harnessed medieval mysticism and, perhaps more intriguingly, how they harnessed Catholic sources of mysticism and re-interpreted them within their own Protestant spirituality. The collection thus calls for a comprehensive reassessment of the relationship of Protestantism to its medieval past, to Roman Catholicism, and to the enduring mystical element of Christianity. These were all issues my PhD has also raised and ones that my forthcoming book seeks to unravel further. The project was a perfect fit for my research interests and I was delighted to be featured alongside leading experts whose works I have been citing for years.

My own chapter addresses the life and works of “priest-poet-mystic” George Herbert. To complement the chapters of Randall J. Pederson and Tom Schwanda on Puritan figures, I chose Herbert due to his spirituality being intimately shaped by the doctrines of the Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer. Yet Herbert is not a simple figure to write about. Scholars have long disagreed over the nature of his spirituality, interpreting him either as an exemplar of a distinct ‘Anglican’ spirituality or as a moderate ‘Puritan’. Trying to avoid the ‘Puritan’ and ‘Anglican’ binary (when did such over simplifications result in anything but more confusion?), I instead sought to suggest that Herbert’s engagement with sources also familiar to Pederson and Schwanda’s Puritan figures might place him within a much larger ‘conformist’ core in the Church of England, a phenomenon which facilitated the toleration of a wide range of views on numerous doctrinal issues.

Portrait of George Herbert by Robert White (1674)

Born in 1593, Herbert was a member of the powerful and aristocratic Pembroke family. His education at Cambridge was followed by a period as an Orator at the university in 1620 and then as a Member of Parliament in 1624. In September 1630 he was ordained as a priest, living with his wife and three adopted children (from a deceased sister) as rector of the villages of Fugglestone and Bemerton, near Salisbury. He died less than three years later in March 1633. His main works, The Temple and The Country Parson, were both likely finalised during his time at Bemerton in the years leading up to his death.

Revisiting Herbert’s poetry in full when writing the chapter was a joy. His work features the distinct markings of his countryside pastoral setting, with poems littered with references to hares, foxes, peacocks, crows and pigeons. For example, one intimate moment in Herbert’s poetry sees him describe God as roosting and nestling in the “roof of my soul.” Others use the imagery of a harvest to describe spiritual desolation or reunion with Christ in the afterlife.

The mysticism present in his poetry is equally interesting. Herbert understood the purification of the soul, and the experiences that followed, to be deeply rooted in church attendance. As a result, his poems often focused on the physical features of the church, such as the altar, windows and floor, as well as other features such as hymns and music, to describe his experiences. The most famous of these is a ‘shaped poem’ entitled ‘The Altar’, in which the poem’s shape resembles the subject matter being described.

Herbert’s poetry featured many elements of mysticism, including an emphasis on purgation and a rejection of both the self and the senses, a resulting illuminative experience and an affective and operational union with God in which the individual became entirely subservient to the will of the divine. Such an example is the poem ‘Man’, in which Herbert described how the purified individual was the perfect ‘stately habitation’ for God. The final stanza requested that:

Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a Palace built; O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit;
That, as the world serves us, we may serve theee,
and both thy servants be.

I discuss this poem, as well as many others from Herbert’s works, in the chapter. I also explore the influences at work on Herbert, including works of medieval mysticism as well as more contemporary figures. The chapter finishes by exploring the substantial influence Herbert had on figures from a number of different religious groups in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, as well as his influence on the Wesleys and the early Methodist movement.

Overall I found working on the chapter and contributing to the collection a pleasure. Rittgers and Evener were supportive and constructive editors, providing clear communication at every step of the process. I could not have asked for more support with what was my first ever chapter in an edited collection.

The edited collection can be viewed and purchased by clicking here.