The Godward Poetic Excellence of George Herbert

george-herbert-1George Herbert is widely regarded as one of the most skillful and important British poets of all time. The truth is that this incredible gift to poetry was within a man who was mainly obscure, humanly speaking, during his lifetime. Herbert died at the age of thirty-nine as a little known country pastor. Herbert was born in 1593 and died a month short of his fortieth birthday in 1633. Herbert’s influence was felt the moment his poems began to be published posthumously. Puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote of Herbert: “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in this world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”
I have read many of Herbert’s poems and aside from appreciation of his mastery of the English language and poetic verse, his poetry has deeply ministered to my soul. Whenever I feel my affections from God waning, one remedy is to crack open a book of Herbert’s poems and read one. I always leave them wanting more, not of Herbert per say, but of God. Herbert’s Calvinism is the reason for his Godward poetic style. So, as Gene Veith says, “The dynamics of Calvinism are also the dynamics of Herbert’s poetry,” John Piper rightly characterizes Herbert’s poetry:

The heart of these ‘dynamics’ is the sovereign intervention of God’s grace into the rebellious human heart to subdue the mutiny against heaven and give a new allegiance to the true king of the world, Jesus Christ. [1]

So, come with me and marvel at Herbert’s poetic mastery for a moment.

Poetry: Master of Head and Heart

Poetry makes use of words in a way that prose is not designed to do. Poetry exposes and engages human emotions in a way that other forms of writing simply cannot do. George Herbert crafts the English language in beautiful poetry so as to pierce the hearts of men and women in ways like few others have done. His use of imagery helps readers grasp and see transcendent realities. Herbert’s poetry teaches the hearts of men to see their sin and the glory of God’s grace in Christ. He uses words to teach the head and the heart.

Herbert’s poem “The Altar” is no exception. While Herbert definitely uses linguistic imagery, he also uses visual imagery. Herbert conveys his message through his words, the way he crafts his words, and the way he places his words on the page. Herbert makes use of visual poetry as the form of this poem takes on its content. In other words, the poem “The Altar” is in the form of an altar. Herbert also uses this style of poetry in his poem “Easter Wings” as the poem takes the form of wings. Herbert is not alone in his use of visual poetry. John Hollander makes use of this literary style in his poem “Swan and Shadow.” The form of this poem takes on its content—the form of a swan and its shadow. The impact and force of the poem is felt by the form of the poem on the page before even one word is read.

One Example: “The Altar”

“The Altar” focuses on the worship of God in the lives of believers. How is one to worship God? Herbert answers this question in this poem. The altar that is being reared before the Lord is one that is broken as stated and as symbolized by the space between the letters (“A L T A R”). This altar is the heart of a man broken in the presence of God. Herbert describes this by saying that this heart that is being offered to God in worship is broken and “cemented in tears.” This heart that is breaking before God has been formed by God! Herbert writes, “Made of a heart, and cemented with tears/Whose parts are as thy hand did frame/No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.” The breaking of the worshiper’s heart before God is the result of God’s work. This is because in the face of God’s holiness, Herbert emphasizes the dreadful sin of man. It is once again a broken “H E A R T” that is said to be hard as stone as the poem makes its way down a center shaft.

Herbert emphasizes the main point of his poem at this point—that the heart of man is so hardened by sin that only the incomparable power of God can break it. The hard heart of this worshiper meets in the frame of the altar of this poem and at the altar for worship. While all a man can offer God is a heart that is as hard as stone, it is the glorious power of God’s grace that softens the heart of man to enable proper worship. And what does Herbert see as the means that God softens our heart and enables proper praise? The great sacrifice of Christ. In order for our broken hearts to be sanctified unto God, it must be through reception of the blessed sacrifice of Christ.

George Herbert employs a unique style of visual poetry and appropriate imagery to convey the central theme of the need for worshipers to be sorrowful over sin, in awe of God’s powerful grace, and grateful and glad in the sacrifice of Christ, who is the object of worship and reason for worship. Herbert is clear: the broken altars of our hearts are made whole in Christ.


[1] John Piper. Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. p. 50

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.


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