This Saturday, February 27th, is the feast day of George Herbert, a poet and an Anglican priest who died in 1633, leaving behind him only one slim volume of poems and a book of advice to country parsons. His entire opus is not even three hundred pages long. Yet the depth of emotion and intellect in his works is greater by far than that of many a more long-winded author; and the fire of his love for God shines from every page.
It is hard for me to pick just one aspect of George Herbert as a poet to explore here—his unparalleled visions of the love of God (“Love III”), his full appreciation of what it means to give your life away for Christ (“The Pearl”), his joy in God’s love (“The Call”). But perhaps the side of Herbert that is most unexpected is his frank confession of his doubts. He does not hesitate to write poems complaining about God’s treatment, even railing against God; “Love Unknown” is a particularly wry expression of this, “The Flower” an especially poignant.
But “The Collar” is the most violent and perhaps the most striking expression of rage towards God. It begins,I struck the board and cried, No more. I will abroad. What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
Herbert is done: done with serving God without reward, done with giving up the delights of life, done with chaining himself with laws and duties. He is sick of the “cold dispute / of what is fit, and not” (20), and sick of the “cage, / [the] rope of sands, / which petty thoughts have made” (21-23). He feels as I suspect most Christians have felt: tired almost to death of the heavy load that makes up the Christian life.
But Herbert does not end the poem on this note of anger against God. Nor does he end with a theological explanation of why suffering is good for the soul, or why the path toward God can seem hard. Instead, he takes a sudden step back from himself at the very height of his complaint:But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild At every word, Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child: And I replied, My Lord.
This is the end of the poem. Herbert’s arguments against God are unanswerable, and so he doesn’t try to answer them. Instead, he lets God answer them—not by debate or explanation, but by asserting a relationship. What Herbert needs is not a logical counter to his accusations, but a gentle reminder of just what the situation is. Within the wild, lawless torrent of emotions, it seems sensible to cast off the bonds of discipline and service. However, God is a father, not just a master. When God calls to Herbert with the gentleness of love, Herbert responds. When we feel the same anger towards God, we can remember this poem, and hope. George Herbert was a real man, with real struggles; but God reached into his life, and calmed his raging heart. God will do the same for us, if we will but listen for his call.