‘Holy Baptism II’
Since, Lord, to thee
A narrow way and little gate
Is all the passage, on my infancy
Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.
O let me still
Write thee great God, and me a child:
Let me be soft and supple to thy will,
Small to my self, to others mild,
Although by stealth
My flesh get on, yet let her sister
My soul bid nothing, but preserve her wealth:
The growth of flesh is but a blister;
Childhood is health.
– George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633)
A Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Herbert’s poetry is associated with the writings of the metaphysical poets, and he is recognized as “a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skilful and important British devotional lyricist.”
Born into an artistic and wealthy family, Herbert received a good education that led to his admission in 1609 as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert excelled in languages, rhetoric and music. He went to university with the intention of becoming a priest, but when eventually he became the University’s Public Orator he attracted the attention of King James I and may well have seen himself as a future Secretary of State. In 1624 and briefly in 1625 he served in Parliament. After the death of King James, Herbert’s interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In his mid-thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as the rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan called him “a most glorious saint and seer”. Never a healthy man, he died of consumption at the early age of 39.
Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets. Charles Cotton described him as a “soul composed of harmonies”. Some of Herbert’s poems have endured as popular hymns, including “King of Glory, King of Peace” (Praise): “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing” (Antiphon) and “Teach me, my God and King” (The Elixir). Herbert’s first biographer, Izaak Walton, wrote that he composed “such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven”.