Poetry Survey Series Post Seven: Double Sonnet by George Herbert

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus’ livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Outstrip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, worms may chance refuse.

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them, is thy abuse
Why should I women’s eyes for crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth; when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.

Comments: Here is George Herbert in the fury of youth, unmarried as of yet, in love with God rather than with a woman. We forsee his whole world-spurning, ambition-spurning character in the flame of the forge, in the moment of formation.

Later, we will survey a metaphysical poem or two, of which Herbert was great creator. But this is a rhetorical poem – arguing for a point of view.

Do you agree with his argument? In my view there is a little too much of the Puritan here if you don’t allow for a bit of hyperbole, a bit of rhetorical overstatment, of unnecessary rhetorical opposition. Nevertheless, I never fail to catch fire a little when I read it. My God, where is that ancient heat toward thee?

This is another of my youthful favorites. We will move on from them to more mature fare eventually.



  1. We don’t write of God because we don’t love Him enough. Poetry comes from what is accessible in our soul. It is good to write chastely of love–even erotic love. All love comes from God. It is only when it becomes an end in itself instead of being offered back to Him that love is lessened and even defiled.

    Yes, the fire in the poem strikes fire in my heart as well, but the deeper mystery of communion from which martyrs come is not reached.


  2. These poems are hard for me to talk about.
    If I say that I agree with the thought
    That moved him so, then coaxed the lyrics out,
    My words would contradict what I was taught
    –not in school or church, but, in fact, by life
    Itself, where songs arise from feeling, not
    From thinking hard. It seems the daily strife
    Of damping down desire makes the heart hot
    And want to sing in gentle melodies
    Or else in loud impatient bangings, those
    Greatly anguished shouts that shake our world’s
    Harmony. Listen, what each poet sees
    Is beauty. What some say–like prayer– goes
    Heavenward, though from the land of boys meet girls.

    (not quite what I meant – the from played with me, and I gave in – still it circles around what I sometimes think )


  3. Part II

    But while I disagreed with young George’s
    Theme, I began to think about a truth
    Behind his sonnets. A poet forges
    Vision out of fact, not from voting booths
    As some enlightened minds would have us do.
    Although the body’s beauty’s not deniable
    The fact of death makes Herbert’s vision true,
    Just as modesty’s more reliable
    Than passions, which dull the will and make use
    Instead of that old turmoil in the heart.
    I don’t like terms that denigrate the Lord’s
    Creations, like “filth” for face, or “worms refuse”
    The corpse. But I can see how from the start
    Of life, sin’s presence need be shown in words.


    • Yes Albit, your perception seems to strike the balance and I like the manner in which you speak it. Sin disfigures because it cuts off of from life: The Portrait of Dorian Gray comes to mind.


  4. A quote from St. Prophyrios: “He who would be a Christian must first become a poet.”

    The exploration of beauty and love is essential to good poetry I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Upon further review, the two “poetic” responses above do not address Herbert’s central theme: why poets don’t write about God. As is often the case with poems, these responses follow a path of words, not unpleasantly but not quite productively either. They are more like pastries than a wholesome meal.

    Sin and death (referred to in the second response) are not from God, so poems on those topics, inspired as they most likely are, by fear or loss or guilt–poems from this perspective bemoan separation from God, and thus are essentially self-focused.

    Attraction to another (as in the first response) , while intense and absorbing, usually arises from pleasure and a hope for satisfaction, whereas thinking about God, really thinking about characteristics, expressions, and presence of Divinity–and not just about how to avoid judgment and make it to heaven (also self-focused)– inspires wonder, which is a deeper though also less immediate source of art.

    So young George Herbert was on to something that many of us discover only late in life, if at all. (Or maybe artists are always reaching towards God and just don’t know it. I like to think so. )


    • Desire for union with God is not unlike desire for union with some human person who is loved. The merely human expression exists because of the desire for union with God.

      St Symeon the New Theologian’s poetry expresses both the desire for union with God and its achievement (in what little I’ve read of him).

      There are other examples from saints. Nevertheless, for me, a non-saint, it is perhaps more honest if I speak of the love and union I know–with my spouse.


  6. Gentlemen, thank you for your comments – the discussion has been interesting.

    A few points that may interest. First, biographical. George Herbert sent this poem to his mother in a letter. In the letter, he explains that he has decided to dedicate his poetic gift to God. This poem expresses his way of thinking and feeling on the matter. Sending the poem was not an unusual action Herbert’s part. He was part of a society in which poetry was almost another way of talking, at least among the courteous highly-educated refined, cultivated upper class. His family in particular had a sort of ongoing contest of wits in which poems were written and exchanged on various subjects.

    Herbert was at this time still in University (Cambridge) where he was to disinguish himself pretty highly. He even had hopes of being a courtier to King James I, though this didn’t turn out very well. He ended up spending his days as a country rector to the Church of England. But that was before him as he wrote this poem – he was a young man from a noble family training for a secular career (although what that meant at that place and time still involved theological training.)

    It seems that this double sonnet is Herbert’s “entry” into an ongoing literary debate – should love poetry be written for God or for women?

    The historical backdrop is the fact that love poetry was invented in the course of the development of what C. S. Lewis calls “The Allegory of Love” – that is, medieaval “romance” or allegorical adventures involving the knight seeking the love of the lady. Nowadays we imagine that knight and lady belong together naturally, but actually a difficulty was involved in any such relationship. Traditionally, the man would be the head of the wife, making him her superior in position. But what if a man is seeking to make someone his wife who is higher in rank than himself? What if she has the power to command him; what if he must obey her and serve her, even as he seeks to woo her into a relationship in which that dynamic would be reversed, and he could then command her? What could he say, what offer, to induce her to so reverse her position? What prostrations and protestations would suffice? Probably no situation has been more delicious for both parties before or since! (Or at least for people writing love poems.)

    Lewis notes that the language of worship was borrowed to speak of the devotion of the knight to the lady. Or, perhaps, that the devotion of knight to lady almost invented the literary ability to represent what worship feels like inside a person’s soul. This came about because a noble lady – a queen or such – would have knights serving and protecting her and her husband or father. Sometimes the knight would have the right to address her, to seek her in marriage. At other times, she would already be married, or would be to high above him in rank, and he would have to be content either with an illicit love affair, or with adoring her from afar, the desire forever unconsummated.

    In this way an almost wholly new feeling was invented – a new layer and kind of sentiment became current in human history. Most of our current courtship rituals (in fact, the very word “courtship”) are indebted to this literary tradition. At the same time however, this transformation was immediately reversed in direction – for many romances were written as allegories talking about, not a real knight and a lady, but the spiritual quest of the soul for virtue or God. I suppose that situation would be bound to engender some debate.

    “That fire which by thy power each soul doth feel” – is this the fire of worship, the desire to have something before which one may prostrate oneself, someone to make offerings to? I think it must be – and Herbert asks, reasonably enough, is this fire meant to go to God, or to express sexual lust?

    George Herbert was born in the 1500’s – for England, that was barely out of the medieaval period. On the other hand, he was Anglican so as a post-Catholic he was beginning to be a modern man. In one poem, later in his life, he makes as if to offer praise to Mary and the angels, and the draws back at the end, noting that Christ has not commanded such offerings. Basically, this is a man whose place in history demanded that he resolve some competing forces at work in his nation and in himself. One feels the devotion to Mary, but must abstain (or claim to) – likewise, one feels the allure of the delicate poetry of devotion, but must re-direct that worshipping energy back toward its original object – God.

    I think in those times it must have seemed less profitable and interesting to answer either/or questions as “both!” – which is what I tend to do. On the other hand, I may be wrong. John Donne seems to have answered “both” so perhaps that answer was available to Herbert – he just didn’t want it.

    Herbert wrote many poems and not all of them were on religious subjects but as far as I know he never did write a love poem to a woman, although he was married. Apparently, he really did dedicate his poetry to the devotion of God rather than the devotion of Cupid.

    As a woman, I don’t feel the offence as some might suppose I should. The love poetry Herbert rejects is not the language of attachment or mere positive descriptions of marriage and females. Rather, it is the language of a very specific literary tradition involving what most of us would now feel, if it were addressed to us, to be an almost obscene flattery. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been “in love” in that worshipful way, you know that these kinds of comparisons spring readily to mind. Yet, it’s possible that Herbert felt himself surrounded by people who made a habit of such literary practices, not because of their feelings, but in despite of their feelings, as a mere convention.

    Which brings me to the literary point. Herbert says that these comparisons (cheeks are flowers, eyes are jewels) are “low inventions.” If I try to understand why he would have said that – if I believe him to be sincere – it’s easy to imagine a young man who is surrounded by people thoughtlessly, automatically spouting this sort of thing, these outrageous comparions, possibly in an attempt to get ladies in bed or in marriage – and to most of them, this simply IS poetry. I don’t think the word “cliche” had been invented then, but you get the idea.

    Why, even Shakespeare agrees!


    After all, courtly “Love” is not the same thing as married love – and we know which one he refers to because of his references to Venus. Is it possible that Herbert took this allegorical language a bit seriously – that he felt that there was some spiritual danger involved in serving “Venus,” a pagan goddess? Or rather, that the reason his forbears and contemporaries had reinvented the old pagan goddess as an allegory of love was suspicious? That this usage hinted at a mis-use of the “fire” of worship?

    It’s too easy to dismiss this, I think. What DOES happen to a person in whose imagination a rose has come to represent a woman’s cheek, and who in consequence does not think of God when he sees a rose? Isn’t this imaginative impoverishment?

    My intention is not to resolve these questions, but simply to try to understand what Herbert was dealing with and why he felt the way he did. Certainly the language of this poem is the intemperate language of youth. I don’t think it should be read stiffly, looking for verities. I think it should be read as a snapshot of a young man’s feelings and concerns.

    He does not say that a face is filth, but rather that if you “open” the face (dissect it) you will find filth underneath. This is not a criticism of faces. It is a contrast to God. In God whatever beauty you find on the surface of your understanding will only deepen with “discovery” – that is, with the act of un-covering. There is nothing to uncover with physical beauty. What you see is what you get. God’s beauty is different. Therefore, poetry will find much “braver fuel” in God’s beauty than in a woman’s beautiful body.

    My conclusion is that Herbert is protesting, in his youth, against a literary tradition that was already dying. He was not in a position to understand completely what the medieavals meant by borrowing the ancient mythology (Venus and Cupid) as an allegorical language for the inner experiences of love and worship. All around him, people were still using the language, but it was self-conscious and habitual and extreme – because it didn’t, and couldn’t, mean the same thing anymore. He was entering, with his peers, on leaner, stricter times. He rightly turned to a different way of speaking, one that more authentically represented his way of experiencing the world and his struggle toward God in a more modern world. The difference between him and his peers turns out to be his insistence on, not just a different way of speaking, but even on a different subject matter. The old way of speaking, for him, was THE way of speaking about a specific type of feeling. In rejecting the way of speaking, you had to reject the whole subject matter, the whole feeling. He turns from this degenerated poetic tradition, and opens up a quiet, spacious little world of sunlit spirituality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So much here! I really enjoyed reading it, Alana, and now I’m sure that my dusty Everyman’s “The Complete English Works” of George Herbert will finally get some attention. I bought it years ago because I wanted to see who else wrote good poems in English about God besides Hopkins (my long-time literary hero because of how much he struggled and how few contemporaries knew about or appreciated his work). I tried and tried, but never got close to or comfortable with Herbert.

      The background you provide helps a great deal. I had heard or read about a of this, but I was always more interested in (relatively) contemporary poets, so 16th and 17th century love poems were rather like objects of respect, and the courtly love theme was just a curiosity. Also I never considered the allegorical element; or if I did, it probably meant nothing, or worse, it seemed weird. The whole thing about Jesus as bridegroom bothered me, especially when I remembered as a child watching beautiful faces of young nuns in a kind of reverie in church. I’m pretty sure that they were gold rings too, like wedding rings. So even though certain holy men have made use of this kind of imagery, and in spite of the literal appeal of “the song of songs” (or Solomon?), I have an inner block against erotic love applied to God.

      It never occurred to me that I might find myself worshipping a woman (and maybe that’s what has caused some major crises over the years, I don’t know); my notion of worship more closely resembles admiration, amazement, and a feeling of being totally out of place but frozen with respect & awe. I do not think I experience any emotion in prayer except gratitude and sorrow. Wonder, of course, and pleading–but I’m not sure what kind of emotion is involved. My limitation, no doubt. But there it is. And that’s why spiritual /religious poetry has been difficult for me to read. I’ve tried to write prayer-poems, and I spent years thinking about and attempting “modern” versions of the psalms. So far nothing resembling erotic allegory comes out.

      All this to say: though I’m not conditioned to responding to religious love poetry, I’m trying. And now perhaps making some progress, thanks in part to your challenging project.


      • Albert, you may find Herbert’s later poems to your liking now in that they are very dense and have to be read carefully and closely – and also that he does not really end up writing erotic love poetry to God, despite his resolution here! Also he talks a lot about the struggles of the religious life, rather than the rare ecstasies.

        No, I don’t expect you would have found yourself having worshipful feelings toward a woman – that’s such a rarified feeling and really belongs to another age I think. But yes, something along those lines really is what women expect when they start talking about having things romantic! I imagine that, the more equality is already present in the relationship, the less power this “reversal” of the man adoring the woman will have, the less ability it will have to evoke strong feeling.

        I’ve given some thought to your problem about what to feel in individual prayer. And it’s becoming clear to me that… in order to pray well, we cannot regard our prayer as the locus of recieving something from God, but rather of offering ouselves to him – and honesty is the first condition of doing so. Trying to pull worshipful experiences out from the depths of our soul is not really the point. Offering whatever we are and have – showing him our failures, confessing whatever sincere feeling we do have, remembering other people before him, thanking him for our life-blessings – that is the point. Many of the more rarified feelings we are hoping to experience in worship are really not possible where most of us are beginning from. They only ocur when God takes action – when he condescends to us in some way, and we experience him because he reveals himself to us a little. Then we respond, in turn, with those natural feelings of worship.

        In corporate worship, we encounter the responses that holy people have felt when God condescended to them, and they composed those responses poetically. So we enter into their experience a little, and that’s good – it’s a guide for our own struggles, so that we have some sense of what we should accept and what reject. We wouldn’t be able to get so far on our own. We can experience some of the same thing when we use formal prayers at home. It’s important, however, to refrain from trying to experience what the writers experienced. It’s OK to simply to let formal prayer be formal – if God wants to deepen it, he can and will. Putting something artificial in place, instead of waiting in emptiness, can prevent our receiving such a blessing.

        Also, get someone experienced to pray for you at times. It really helps my own prayer when someone does that for me.

        Eros, properly understood, is an energy of the soul that… well, Fr. Stephen’s most recent post addresses it.


        Otherwise, one can find it in some of Lewis’ writings: ‘The Four Loves’ for instance, or ‘The Great Divorce.’ It is not really the cramped squirmy slimy shame-filled muttering thing that is usually called “erotic” nowadays. Eros was a god – otherwise known as cupid – and allegorically he is a proper component of the human soul, that allows one to go out from oneself, not in pity or compassion as toward something lower, but as toward something higher, in adoration or a sort of whole-souled yeilding of the self to some good.

        Lucky us if we were able to have an experience remotely like that between men and women any more – both parties yeilding to one another energetically in the belief that the other is holy and exalted and good – the joyous pursuit, the bold willingness to attain to someone greater than oneself precisely because one’s humility insists that here is one’s true end. That would be honorable and clean, no matter how dirty one got. Still, there must be some kind of distinction between eros shared by man and woman, and eros from worshipper to God, mustn’t there? I wonder what it is exactly.

        Anyway, the whole thing requires that a person believes in the real existence, the real superiority, of virtues and goodness, and has an inward inclination to such, rather than seeing the world as a collection of specimens.


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