Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
Vol. 15, pp. 392-404 of The Harvard Classics
"As a conqueror enters a surprised city; love made such resolutions as neither party was able to resist. She changed her name into Herbert the third day after this first interview."
(George Herbert born April 3, 1593.)
The Life of Mr. George Herbert
I shall now proceed to his marriage; in order to which, it will be convenient that I first give the reader a short view of his person, and then an account of his wife, and of some circumstances concerning both. He was for his person of a stature inclining towards tallness; his body was very straight, and so far from being cumbered with too much flesh, that he was lean to an extremity. His aspect was cheerful, and his speech and motion did both declare him a gentleman; for they were all so meek and obliging, that they purchased love and respect from all that knew him.
These, and his other visible virtues, begot him much love from a gentleman of a noble fortune, and a near kinsman to his friend the Earl of Danby; namely, from Mr. Charles Danvers of Bainton, in the county of Wilts, Esq. This Mr. Danvers, having known him long, and familiarly, did so much affect him, that he often and publicly declared a desire that Mr. Herbert would marry any of his nine daughters,—for he had so many,—but rather his daughter Jane than any other, because Jane was his beloved daughter. And he had often said the same to Mr. Herbert himself; and that if he could like her for a wife, and she him for a husband, Jane should have a double blessing: and Mr. Danvers had so often said the like to Jane, and so much commended Mr. Herbert to her, that Jane became so much a platonic as to fall in love with Mr. Herbert unseen.
This was a fair preparation for a marriage; but, alas! her father died before Mr. Herbert’s retirement to Dauntsey: yet some friends to both parties procured their meeting; at which time a mutual affection entered into both their hearts, as a conqueror enters into a surprised city; and love having got such possession, governed, and made there such laws and resolutions as neither party was able to resist; insomuch, that she changed her name into Herbert the third day after this first interview.
This haste might in others be thought a love-frenzy, or worse; but it was not, for they had wooed so like princes, as to have select proxies; such as were true friends to both parties, such as well understood Mr. Herbert’s and her temper of mind, and also their estates, so well before this interview, that the suddenness was justifiable by the strictest rules of prudence; and the more, because it proved so happy to both parties; for the eternal lover of mankind made them happy in each other’s mutual and equal affections, and compliance; indeed, so happy, that there never was any opposition betwixt them, unless it were a contest which should most incline to a compliance with the other’s desires. And though this begot, and continued in them, such a mutual love, and joy, and content, as was no way defective; yet this mutual content, and love, and joy, did receive a daily augmentation, by such daily obligingness to each other, as still added such new affluences to the former fullness of these divine souls, as was only improvable in heaven, where they now enjoy it.
About three months after this marriage, Dr. Curle, who was then Rector of Bemerton, in Wiltshire, was made Bishop of Bath and Wells, and not long after translated to Winchester, and by that means the presentation of a clerk to Bemerton did not fall to the Earl of Pembroke,—who was the undoubted patron of it,—but to the King, by reason of Dr. Curle’s advancement: but Philip, then Earl of Pembroke,—for William was lately dead—requested the King to bestow it upon his kinsman George Herbert; and the King said, “Most willingly to Mr. Herbert, if it be worth his acceptance;” and the Earl as willingly and suddenly sent it him, without seeking. But though Mr. Herbert had formerly put on a resolution for the clergy; yet, at receiving this presentation, the apprehension of the last great account, that he was to make for the cure of so many souls, made him fast and pray often, and consider for not less than a month: in which time he had some resolutions to decline both the priesthood and that living. And in this time of considering, “he endured,” as he would often say, “such spiritual conflicts as none can think, but only those that have endured them.”
In the midst of these conflicts, his old and dear friend, Mr. Arthur Woodnot, took a journey to salute him at Bainton,—where he then was with his wife’s friends and relations—and was joyful to be an eye-witness of his health and happy marriage. And after they had rejoiced together some few days, they took a journey to Wilton, the famous seat of the Earls of Pembroke; at which time the King, the Earl, and the whole court were there, or at Salisbury, which is near to it. And at this time Mr. Herbert presented his thanks to the Earl for his presentation to Bemerton, but had not yet resolved to accept it, and told him the reason why: but that night, the Earl acquainted Dr. Laud, then Bishop of London, and after Archbishop of Canterbury, with his kinsman’s irresolution. And the Bishop did the next day so convince Mr. Herbert that the refusal of it was sin, that a tailor was sent for to come speedily from Salisbury to Wilton, to make measure, and make him canonical clothes against next day; which the tailor did: and Mr. Herbert being so habited, went with his presentation to the learned Dr. Davenant, who was then Bishop of Salisbury, and he gave him institution immediately,—for Mr. Herbert had been made deacon some years before,—and he was also the same day—which was April 26th, 1630—inducted into the good, and more pleasant than healthful, parsonage of Bemerton, which is a mile from Salisbury.
I have now brought him to the parsonage of Bemerton, and to the thirty—sixth year of his age, and must stop here, and bespeak the reader to prepare for an almost incredible story, of the great sanctity of the short remainder of his holy life; a life so full of charity, humility, and all Christian virtues, that it deserves the eloquence of St. Chrysostom to commend and declare it: a life, that if it were related by a pen like his, there would then be no need for this age to look back into times past for the examples of primitive piety; for they might be all found in the life of George Herbert. But now, alas! who is fit to undertake it? I confess I am not; and am not pleased with myself that I must; and profess myself amazed when I consider how few of the clergy lived like him then, and how many live so unlike him now. But it becomes not me to censure: my design is rather to assure the reader that I have used very great diligence to inform myself, that I might inform him of the truth of what follows; and though I cannot adorn it with eloquence, yet I will do it with sincerity.
When at his induction he was shut into Bemerton Church, being left there alone to toll the bell,—as the law requires him,—he stayed so much longer than an ordinary time, before he returned to those friends that stayed expecting him at the church door, that his friend Mr. Woodnot looked in at the church window, and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar; at which time and place—as he after told Mr. Woodnot—he set some rules to himself, for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.
And the same night that he had his induction, he said to Mr. Woodnot, “I now look back upon my aspiring thoughts, and think myself more happy than if I had attained what then I so ambitiously thirsted for. And I now can behold the court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud and titles, and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary, painted pleasures; pleasures that are so empty as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed. But in God, and his service, is a fulness of all joy and pleasure, and no satiety. And I will now use all my endeavours to bring my relations and dependants to a love and reliance on him, who never fails those that trust him. But above all, I will be sure to live well, because the virtuous life of a clergyman is the most powerful eloquence to persuade all that see it to reverence and love, and at least to desire to live like him. And this I will do, because I know we live in an age that hath more need of good examples than precepts. And I beseech that God, who hath honoured me so much as to call me to serve him at his altar, that as by his special grace he hath put into my heart these good desires and resolutions; so he will, by his assisting grace, give me ghostly strength to bring the same to good effect. And I beseech him, that my humble and charitable life may so win upon others, as to bring glory to my Jesus, whom I have this day taken to be my master and governor; and I am so proud of his service, that I will always observe, and obey, and do his will; and always call him, Jesus my Master; and I will always contemn my birth, or any title or dignity that can be conferred upon me, when I shall compare them with my title of being a priest, and serving at the altar of Jesus my Master.”
And that he did so may appear in many parts of his book of Sacred Poems: especially in that which he calls “The Odour.” In which he seems to rejoice in the thoughts of that word Jesus, and say, that the adding these words, my master, to it, and the often repetition of them, seemed to perfume his mind, and leave an oriental fragnancy in his very breath. And for his unforced choice to serve at God’s altar, he seems in another place of his poems, “The Pearl” (Matt. xiii. 45, 46), to rejoice and say: “He knew the ways of learning; knew what nature does willingly, and what, when it is forced by fire; knew the ways of honour, and when glory inclines the soul to noble expressions: knew the court: knew the ways of pleasure, of love, of wit, of music, and upon what terms he declined all these for the service of his master Jesus”: and then concludes, saying:
That, through these labyrinths, not my grovelling wit,
But thy silk twist, let down from Heaven to me,
Did both conduct, and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.
The third day after he was made Rector of Bemerton, and had changed his sword and silk clothes into a canonical coat, he returned so habited with his friend Mr. Woodnot to Bainton; and immediately after he had seen and saluted his wife, he said to her—“You are now a minister’s wife, and must now so far forget your father’s house as not to claim a precedence of any of your parishioners; for you are to know, that a priest’s wife can challenge no precedence or place, but that which she purchases by her obliging humility; and I am sure, places so purchased do best become them. And let me tell you, that I am so good a herald, as to assure you that this is truth.” And she was so meek a wife, as to assure him, “it was no vexing news to her, and that he should see her observe it with a cheerful willingness.” And, indeed, her unforced humility, that humility that was in her so original, as to be born with her, made her so happy as to do so; and her doing so begot her an unfeigned love, and a serviceable respect from all that conversed with her; and this love followed her in all places, as inseparably as shadows follow substances in sunshine.
It was not many days before he returned back to Bemerton, to view the church and repair the chancel: and indeed to rebuild almost three parts of his house, which was fallen down, or decayed by reason of his predecessor’s living at a better parsonage-house; namely, at Minal, sixteen or twenty miles from this place. At which time of Mr. Herbert’s coming alone to Bemerton, there came to him a poor old woman, with an intent to acquaint him with her necessitous condition, as also with some troubles of her mind: but after she had spoke some few words to him, she was surprised with a fear, and that begot a shortness of breath, so that her spirits and speech failed her; which he perceiving, did so compassionate her, and was so humble, that he took her by the hand, and said, “Speak, good mother; be not afraid to speak to me; for I am a man that will hear you with patience; and will relieve your necessities too, if I be able: and this I will do willingly; and therefore, mother, be not afraid to acquaint me with what you desire.” After which comfortable speech, he again took her by the hand, made her sit down by him, and understanding she was of his parish, he told her “He would be acquainted with her, and take her into his care.” And having with patience heard and understood her wants,—and it is some relief for a poor body to be but heard with patience,—he, like a Christian clergyman, comforted her by his meek behaviour and counsel; but because that cost him nothing, he relieved her with money too, and so sent her home with a cheerful heart, praising God, and praying for him. Thus worthy, and—like David’s blessed man—thus lowly, was Mr. George Herbert in his own eyes, and thus lovely in the eyes of others.
At his return that night to his wife at Bainton, he gave her an account of the passages betwixt him and the poor woman; with which she was so affected, that she went next day to Salisbury, and there bought a pair of blankets, and sent them as a token of her love to the poor woman; and with them a message, “that she would see and be acquainted with her, when her house was built at Bemerton.”
There be many such passages both of him and his wife, of which some few will be related: but I shall first tell, that he hasted to get the parish church repaired; then to beautify the chapel, which stands near his house,—and that at his own great charge. He then proceeded to rebuild the greatest part of the parsonage-house, which he did also very completely, and at his own charge; and having done this good work, he caused these verses to be writ upon, or engraven in, the mantel of the chimney in his hall.
TO MY SUCCESSOR
If thou chance for to find
A new house to thy mind,
And built without thy cost;
Be good to the poor,
As God gives thee store,
And then my labour’s not lost.
We will now, by the reader’s favour, suppose him fixed at Bemerton, and grant him to have seen the church repaired, and the chapel belonging to it very decently adorned at his own great charge,—which is a real truth;—and having now fixed him there, I shall proceed to give an account of the rest of his behaviour, both to his parishioners, and those many others that knew and conversed with him.
Doubtless Mr. Herbert had considered, and given rules to himself for his Christian carriage both to God and man, before he entered into holy orders. And ’tis not unlike, but that he renewed those resolutions at his prostration before the holy altar, at his induction into the church of Bemerton: but as yet he was but a deacon, and therefore longed for the next ember-week, that he might be ordained priest, and made capable of administering both the sacraments. At which time the Reverend Dr. Humphrey Henchman, now Lord Bishop of London,—who does not mention him but with some veneration for his life and excellent learning,—tells me, “He laid his hand on Mr. Herbert’s head, and, alas! within less than three years lent his shoulder to carry his dear friend to his grave.”
And that Mr. Herbert might the better preserve those holy rules which such a priest as he intended to be ought to observe; and that time might not insensibly blot them out of his memory, but that the next year might show him his variations from this year’s resolutions; he therefore did set down his rules, then resolved upon, in that order as the world now sees them printed in a little book, called The Country Parson; in which some of his rules are:
The Parson’s knowledge.
The Parson arguing.
The Parson on Sundays.
The Parson condescending.
The Parson praying.
The Parson in his journey.
The Parson preaching.
The Parson in his mirth.
The Parson’s charity.
The Parson with his Church-wardens.
The Parson comforting the sick.
The Parson blessing the people.
And his behaviour towards God and man may be said to be a practical comment on these, and the other holy rules set down in that useful book: a book so full of plain, prudent, and useful rules, that that country parson that can spare twelve pence, and yet wants it, is scarce excusable; because it will both direct him what he ought to do, and convince him for not having done it.
At the death of Mr. Herbert this book fell into the hands of his friend Mr. Woodnot; and he commended it into the trusty hands of Mr. Barnabas Oley, who published it with a most conscientious and excellent preface; from which I have had some of those truths, that are related in this life of Mr. Herbert. The text of his first sermon was taken out of Solomon’s Proverbs, chap. iv. 23, and the words were, “Keep thy heart with all diligence.” In which first sermon he gave his parishioners many necessary, holy, safe rules for the discharge of a good conscience, both to God and man; and delivered his sermon after a most florid manner, both with great learning and eloquence; but, at the close of this sermon, told them, “That should not be his constant way of preaching; for since Almighty God does not intend to lead men to heaven by hard questions, he would not therefore fill their heads with unnecessary notions; but that, for their sakes, his language and his expressions should be more plain and practical in his future sermons.” And he then made it his humble request, “That they would be constant to the afternoon’s service, and catechising;” and showed them convincing reasons why he desired it; and his obliging example and persuasions brought them to a willing conformity to his desires.
The texts for all his future sermons—which God knows were not many—were constantly taken out of the gospel for the day; and he did as constantly declare why the Church did appoint that portion of scripture to be that day read; and in what manner the collect for every Sunday does refer to the gospel, or to the epistle then read to them; and, that they might pray with understanding, he did usually take occasion to explain, not only the collect for every particular Sunday, but the reasons of all the other collects and responses in our Church service; and made it appear to them that the whole service of the Church was a reasonable, and therefore an acceptable sacrifice to God: as namely, that we begin with “Confession of ourselves to be vile, miserable sinners;” and that we begin so, because, till we have confessed ourselves to be such, we are not capable of that mercy which we acknowledge we need, and pray for: but having, in the prayer of our Lord, begged pardon for those sins which we have confessed; and hoping, that as the priest hath declared our absolution, so by our public confession, and real repentance, we have obtained that pardon; then we dare and do proceed to beg of the Lord, “to open our lips, that our mouth may show forth his praise;” for till then we are neither able nor worthy to praise him. But this being supposed, we are then fit to say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;” and fit to proceed to a further service of our God, in the collects, and psalms, and lauds, that follow in the service.
And as to the psalms and lauds, he proceeded to inform them why they were so often, and some of them daily, repeated in our Church service; namely, the psalms every month, because they be an historical and thankful repetition of mercies past, and such a composition of prayers and praises, as ought to be repeated often, and publicly; for with such sacrifice God is honoured and well-pleased. This for the psalms.
And for the hymns and lauds appointed to be daily repeated or sung after the first and second lessons are read to the congregation; he proceeded to inform them, that it was most reasonable, after they have heard the will and goodness of God declared or preached by the priest in his reading the two chapters, that it was then a seasonable duty to rise up, and express their gratitude to Almighty God for those his mercies to them, and to all mankind; and then to say with the Blessed Virgin, “that their souls do magnify the Lord, and that their spirits do also rejoice in God their Saviour:” and that it was their duty also to rejoice with Simeon in his song, and say with him, “That their eyes have” also “seen their salvation;” for they have seen that salvation which was but prophesied till his time: and he then broke out into these expressions of joy that he did see it; but they live to see it daily in the history of it, and therefore ought daily to rejoice, and daily to offer up their sacrifices of praise to their God, for that particular mercy. A service, which is now the constant employment of that Blessed Virgin and Simeon, and all those blessed saints that are possessed of heaven: and where they are at this time interchangeably and constantly singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God; glory be to God on high, and on earth peace.” And he taught them that to do this was an acceptable service to God, because the Prophet David says in his Psalms, “He that praiseth the Lord honoureth him.”
He made them to understand how happy they be that are freed from the encumbrances of that law which our forefathers groaned under: namely, from the legal sacrifices, and from the many ceremonies of the Levitical law; freed from circumcision, and from the strict observation of the Jewish Sabbath, and the like. And he made them know, that having received so many and great blessings, by being born since the days of our Saviour, it must be an acceptable sacrifice to Almighty God, for them to acknowledge those blessings daily, and stand up and worship, and say as Zacharias did, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath—in our days—visited and redeemed his people; and—he hath in our days—remembered, and showed that mercy, which by the mouth of the prophets he promised to our forefathers; and this he has done according to his holy covenant made with them.” And he made them to understand that we live to see and enjoy the benefit of it, in his birth, in his life, his passion, his resurrection, and ascension into heaven, where he now sits sensible of all our temptations and infirmities; and where he is at this present time making intercession for us, to his and our Father: and therefore they ought daily to express their public gratulations, and say daily with Zacharias, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, that hath thus visited and thus redeemed his people.” These were some of the reasons by which Mr. Herbert instructed his congregation for the use of the psalms and hymns appointed to be daily sung or said in the Church service.
He informed them also when the priest did pray only for the congregation, and not for himself; and when they did only pray for him; as namely, after the repetition of the creed before he proceeds to pray the Lord’s Prayer, or any of the appointed collects, the priest is directed to kneel down and pray for them, saying, “The Lord be with you;” and when they pray for him, saying, “And with thy spirit;” and then they join together in the following collects: and he assured them, that when there is such mutual love, and such joint prayers offered for each other, then the holy angels look down from heaven, and are ready to carry such charitable desires to God Almighty, and he is ready to receive them; and that a Christian congregation calling thus upon God with one heart, and one voice, and in one reverent and humble posture, looks as beautifully as Jerusalem, that is at peace with itself.
He instructed them also why the prayer of our Lord is prayed often in every full service of the Church; namely, at the conclusion of the several parts of that service; and prayed then, not only because it was composed and commanded by our Jesus that made it, but as a perfect pattern for our less perfect forms of prayer, and therefore fittest to sum up and conclude all our imperfect petitions.
He instructed them also, that as by the second commandment we are required not to bow down, or worship an idol, or false God; so, by the contrary rule, we are to bow down and kneel, or stand up and worship the true God. And he instructed them why the Church required the congregation to stand up at the repetition of the creeds; namely, because they thereby declare both their obedience to the Church, and an assent to that faith into which they had been baptized. And he taught them, that in that shorter creed or doxology, so often repeated daily, they also stood up to testify their belief to be, that “the God that they trusted in was one God, and three persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; to whom they and the priest gave glory.” And because there had been heretics that had denied some of those three persons to be God, therefore the congregation stood up and honoured him, by confessing and saying “It was so in the beginning, is now so, and shall ever be so, world without end.” And all gave their assent to this belief, by standing up and saying Amen.
He instructed them also what benefit they had by the Church’s appointing the celebration of holy-days and the excellent use of them, namely, that they were set apart for particular commemorations of particular mercies received from Almighty God; and—as Reverend Mr. Hooker says—to be the landmarks to distinguish times; for by them we are taught to take notice how time passes by us, and that we ought not to let the years pass without a celebration of praise for those mercies which those days give us occasion to remember, and therefore they were to note that the year is appointed to begin the 25th day of March; a day in which we commemorate the angel’s appearing to the Blessed Virgin, with the joyful tidings that “she should conceive and bear a son, that should be the redeemer of mankind.” And she did so forty weeks after this joyful salutation; namely, at our Christmas; a day in which we commemorate his birth with joy and praise: and that eight days after this happy birth we celebrate his circumcision; namely, in that which we call New Year’s day. And that, upon that day which we call Twelfth day, we commemorate the manifestation of the unsearchable riches of Jesus to the Gentiles: and that day we also celebrate the memory of his goodness in sending a star to guide the three wise men from the east to Bethlehem, that they might there worship, and present him with their oblation of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And he—Mr. Herbert—instructed them that Jesus was forty days after his birth presented by his blessed mother in the temple; namely, on that day which we call “The Purification or the Blessed Virgin, Saint Mary.” And he instructed them that by the Lent-fast we imitate and commemorate our Saviour’s humiliation in fasting forty days; and that we ought to endeavour to be like him in purity: and that on Good Friday we commemorate and condole his crucifixion; and on Easter commemorate his glorious resurrection. And he taught them that after Jesus had manifested himself to his disciples to be “that Christ that was crucified, dead and buried;” and by his appearing and conversing with his disciples for the space of forty days after his resurrection, he then, and not will the, ascended into heaven in the sight of those disciples; namely, on that day which we call the ascension, or Holy Thursday. And that we then celebrate the performance of the promise which he made to his disciples at or before his ascension; namely, “that though he left them, yet he would send them the Holy Ghost to be their comforter;” and that he did so on that day which the Church calls Whitsunday. Thus the Church keeps an historical and circular commemoration of times, as they pass by us; of such times as ought to incline us to occasional praises, for the particular blessings which we do, or might receive, by those holy commemorations.
He made them know also why the Church hath appointed emberweeks; and to know the reason why the commandments, and the epistles and gospels, were to be read at the altar or communion table: why the priest was to pray the Litany kneeling; and why to pray some collects standing: and he gave them many other observations, fit for his plain congregation, but not fit for me now to mention; for I must set limits to my pen, and not make that a treatise which I intended to be a much shorter account than I have made it; but I have done, when I have told the reader that he was constant in catechising every Sunday in the afternoon, and that his catechising was after his second lesson, and in the pulpit; and that he never exceeded his half-hour, and was always so happy as to have an obedient and full congregation.
And to this I must add, that if he were at any time too zealous in his sermons, it was an reproving the indecencies of the people’s behaviour in the time of divine service; and of those ministers that huddle up the Church prayers, without a visible reverence and affection; namely, such as seemed to say the Lord’s Prayer or a collect in a breath. But for himself, his custom was to stop betwixt every collect, and give the people time to consider what they had prayed, and to force their desires affectionately to God, before he engaged them into new petitions.