Reading Herbert with Ralph Wood

Almighty God, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls and a poet: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to dedicate all our powers to your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So goes the collect for the feast of George Herbert, 17th c. Anglican divine and poet. Today is not Herbert’s feast day (that would be February 27), but this morning the Brazos Fellows feasted indeed, as we were joined by Dr. Ralph Wood to discuss Herbert’s poetry.

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It’s always a treat to have Dr. Wood in our class, and especially so when reading Herbert, whom Dr. Wood argues is the greatest Christian poet in the English language. “For Herbert, the public world of buying and selling, of politics, is not nearly as crucial as the inner world,” Dr. Wood told us, “as it is in the inner world where the real struggles lie.” Herbert’s poetry helps us explore the heights and depths of our Christian life, all while drawing us into the embrace of our Lord.

Herbert’s poem “Love III,” images this intimacy with Christ:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
  .
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
  ;
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

If you’d like to read more on Herbert, check out a post by Brazos Fellows alum Jess Schurz, “On Poetry and Place.” And for more from Dr. Wood, here’s a lively conversation we had last spring on Five Questions in Ten Minutes.