2015 Reading Log: A Year with George Herbert

Orrick, Jim Scott. A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems. Amazon

I have dabbled in poetry and songwriting off and on for several years, but I haven’t actually read that much poetry. George Herbert’s name kept coming up in blog posts and other settings as one of the greats of the English language, but also as one of the great soul-stirrers.

I have purchased the collected works of Herbert, but as a novice, I needed a guide to point me in the right direction so I could better appreciate what I read. Jim Scott Orrick’s A Year with George Herbert proposed to give me just that. Orrick teaches at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky; specifically, he has taught an appreciation of Herbert’s work.

Dr. Orrick’s work proved successful again. For each poem, he provides explanatory footnotes that either define archaic terms or give a “translation” of the passage. These proved quite helpful in amplifying the force of the text. Before each poem, he gives a brief thesis and introduction to the piece, and he follows each with thought-provoking questions to ponder.

Herbert’s reputation is deserved. The word-pictures he paints are as vivid and strong as they are concise, which adds another level of appreciation to his work. Herbert can say in four stanzas what would take me four pages to insufficiently portray. For example, in “Windows,” he writes,

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience ring (69).

Both the teaching and the life of a minister of the gospel must work together to commend Jesus and the Scriptures to the people, or else it will go in one ear and out the other. This is a true statement, but Herbert breathes life into it by the image of a stained glass window. The way he uses images like these (and those of birds and musical instruments and architecture and…) is truly masterful: the result is so powerful it seems obvious, and yet no less profound at the same time.

Herbert writes as one who has endured great suffering (Dr. Orrick notes he was ill for years and died prior to his fortieth birthday; he also fought against doubt, despair, frustration, and discontent as well), yet who clings to Jesus alone as his hope. His pen reveals a heart desperate for purity, gratitude, and clarity in loving his Lord and doesn’t shy away from the rocky path along the way.

Diving into poetry can be harrowing without a guide, but Dr. Orrick has blazed a trail through the wilderness of centuries and evolving language to make our paths straight to George Herbert, and from him to the Scriptures and the Scriptures’ Lord Jesus.

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