George Herbert (1593-1633)

picture of george herbert

George Herbert was greatly influenced by the work of John Donne, a friend of the Herbert family. In a brief study of George Herbert, T. S. Eliot instructively compares two sonnets--Prayer by Herbert and Holy Sonnet 14 by Donne. Eliot finds in Donne more of the "orator," a contrast to the more intimate tone of Herbert, a contrast that may reflect the size of Donne's large congregation at St. Paul's Cross versus Herbert's small rural parish in Wiltshire.

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A Sonnet

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus' livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Outstrip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the fame,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, worms may chance refuse.

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them, is thy abuse
Why should I women's eyes for crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth; when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.

Holy Baptism

As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,
Which is above the heav'ns, whose spring and rent
Is in my dear Redeemer's pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,

Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime:
You taught the book of life my name, that so,

Whatever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.


Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

The Holy Scriptures


Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck ev'ry letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify all pain.

Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,

That mends the looker's eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art heav'n's Lidger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.

Thou art joy's handsel: heav'n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev'ry mounter's bended knee.


Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the story.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
Then as dispersed herbs do match a potion,
These three make up some Christians' destiny.

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in ev'ry thing
Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.

Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss
This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.


Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us: then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,

Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow dogging sin,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,

Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
The sound of glory ringing in our ears;
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.

Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.

The Sinner

Lord, how I am all ague, when I seek
What I have treasured in my memory!
Since, if my soul make even with the week,
Each seventh note by right is due to thee.
I find there quarries of piled vanities,
But shreds of holiness, that dare not venture
To shew their face, since cross to thy decrees:
There the circumference earth is, heav'n the center.
In so much dregs the quintessence is small:
The spirit and good extract of my heart
Comes to about the many hundredth part.
Yet, Lord, restore thine image, hear my call:
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can groan,
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.


Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto Him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th' old.
In heaven at His manor I Him sought:
They told me there, that He was lately gone
About some land, which He had dearly bought
Long since on Earth, to take possession.
I straight returned, and knowing His great birth,
Sought Him accordingly in great resorts--
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I Him espied,
Who straight, "Your suit is granted," said, and died.

Joseph's Coat

Wounded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down I fall into a bed, and rest:
Sorrow hath chang'd its note: such is his will
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.
For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carry with it ev'n my heart,
And both would run until they found a bier
To fetch the body; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil'd the race; and giv'n to anguish
One of Joy's coats, 'ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.
I live to shew his power, who once did bring
My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

The Son

Let foreign nations of their language boast,
What fine variety each tongue affords:
I like our language, as our men and coast;
Who cannot dress it well, want with, not words.
How neatly do we give one only name
To parents' issue and the sun's bright star.
A son is light and fruit; a fruitful flame
Chafing the father's dimness, carried far
From the first man in th' East, to fresh and new
Western discov'ries of posterity.
So in one word our Lord's humility
We turn upon him in a sense most true;
For what Christ once in humbleness began,
We him in glory call, The Son of Man.


All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir'd, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up in the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger,
Since my dark sould and brutish is Thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave.

The Answer

My comforts drop and melt like snow:
I shake my head, and all the thoughts and ends,
Which my fierce youth did bandy, fall and flow
Like leaves about me, or like summer-friends
Flies of estates and sun-shine. But to all,
Who think me eager, hot, and undertaking,
But in my prosecutions slack and small;
As a young exhalation, newly waking,
Scorns his first bed of dirt, and means the sky;
But cooling by the way, grows pursy and slow,
And settling to a cloud, doth live and die
In that dark state of tears: to all, that so
Show me, and set me, I have one reply,
Which they that know the rest, know more than I.

Footnotes (click on word to return to poem)

A Sonnet. Sent by George Herbert to his mother as a New Year's gift from Cambridge.

endear, increase the value of; overestimate.

Lidger, leaguer; a confederate.

handsel, token or promise of something to come.

match, as read by Willmott; or "watch."

pursy, fat.