Ambiguity that opens the door to many ways of thinking is at the heart of Anglicanism, I think, and the essence of George Herbert’s poetry too. This 17th century priest and poet appeared on the scene at a crucial moment in Anglican history. T.S. Eliot wrote about this very subject in his 1928 essay on Herbert (1593-1633), observing that people of Herbert’s time showed a remarkable willingness to question the world around them, combined with an increased understanding that Christian life requires both an interior spirituality and the outward and visible signs of music, stained glass, liturgy and sacraments. It is a faith that is both private and public. A both/and kind of faith rather than an either/or one.
Herbert’s most well known poem is probably Love bade me welcome. God welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered. But the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality, and the poem’s dialogue leaves the reader uncertain who is speaking one significant line near the poem’s end. Following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness for such a feast, it is unclear who then says: “My dear, then I will serve,” before Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God? It seems likely that both are true. Love bade me welcome
Herbert’s poetry, for all its ties to the 17th century, in terms of vocabulary and assumptions about God’s place in everyone’s daily life, takes us into mystical, magical places that require a wider harmonic language than would have been used by composers of the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic periods of music history, and so it’s no surprise to me that it is 20th and 21st century composers who have found inspiration in Herbert’s texts. His words suggest a firm tonal center, but one that allows for sudden and unexpected excursions into far-flung tonalities. His poems require richly atmospheric qualities that have been explored by post-modern composers, such as John Tavener and many composers dedicated to writing for the Episcopal Church, including the music director at General Theological Seminary, composer and organist David Hurd.
Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the pop singer Madonna quotes George Herbert in her song Love Tried to Welcome Me. Love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, so goes the refrain. Strange bedfellows or a sign of the value that Herbert’s 400 year old insights still carry? Feelings of unworthiness haven’t gone out of fashion I guess. Don’t forget, though, that Herbert’s Love (God) does more than try – Love does welcome you, unambiguously so, and your soul need not draw back.