In The Guardian, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes recently has written a series on George Herbert’s role in her conversion from atheism. When she was assigned Herbert’s poetry to read as a young student, Threlfall-Holmes realized this poetry was “the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across”. She writes:
My teenage self was rather proud of being a “cultured despiser of religion“. I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable. But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.
Threlfall-Holmes conveys a deep appreciation for Herbert’s work as “unashamedly intelligent”, and helpful in understanding how to love and know God. She focuses on the spiritually autobiographical nature of Herbert’s poetry, especially as she works through “The Pearl” and “The Collar” in Part V (“George Herbert’s Poetry: Christian Calling, Struggle, and Self Doubt”). Describing the struggles and fears of discerning and accepting one’s life’s work, she points out that even Herbert “railed against and agonised about his vocation”.
In his recent and very comprehensive biography of Herbert, Music at Midnight, John Drury makes clear just how anguished Herbert was about what he was to do with his life and talents. He had a charmed early life: born into a noble family, Westminster school, Cambridge University. On graduating, he quickly became a fellow and began assisting the university orator. Soon after, he gained the plum job of orator himself. The orator’s job was to write speeches and letters on the university’s behalf to all sorts of influential people – the King, courtiers, nobles, foreign dignitaries – as occasion arose. It was a key post in the university hierarchy, and a court appointment seemed to beckon. According to his contemporary biographer, Izaak Walton, Herbert at that point hoped eventually to be appointed as secretary of state.
However, Herbert had also always considered being ordained, and greatly enjoyed the academic study of divinity. The pull and tug of these three vocations is on display in several of his poems, particularly the autobiographical Affliction (1), which Drury dates to late in Herbert’s time at Cambridge. Eventually, in 1624, he left the university, but it was only in 1630, after six years of soul-searching, that he finally became a country parson.
Readers can find the six-part series on Herbert here.