[Herbert’s] poems are, in effect, a spiritual autobiography. Although they are not individually dated and so cannot be directly related to different phases of Herbert’s life, many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet’s own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own. …
They are also full of genuine emotion. This makes them feel much more modern than their date would suggest. For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. Nobody reading these poems can be left in any doubt as to Herbert’s emotional engagement with his subject matter. The question Herbert’s poetry raises is eternally contemporary. The poems don’t ask us “Is this true?” but “How do I feel about this?”
It is this question that slipped under my guard as a teenager. It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.
(Image of portrait of George Herbert by Robert White, 1674, via Wikimedia Commons)