At the meeing of the Tower Poetry Society today, Honorary Life Member Laurie Miller gave a presentation on George Herbert (1593 - 1633) the poet/priest who was a favorite of King James the First. Even now, four centuries later, we can be surprised at his work and the 'contemporary' stylings he used.
Although his main preoccupation is with explaining himself to God and God to mankind, we find him using language as more than a vehicle to carry meaning. He is a master of form and shape. We comfortably enjoy his sonnets; we look for and understand his rhyme schemes. The simplicity of his imagery and language stand out as much as the regular repetitions in scansion and rhyme. But more than occasionally he hits home with an irregularity that doesn't grate enough to irritate the first time it is read, but then,on closer study, presents a new level of meaning we had not perceived before.
He injects an extra quatrain into a sonnet and tells you, if you look closely, why. He scrambles rhythms and end rhymes into an unrecognizable mish-mash and uses that to directly signify the chaos he writes about. A perfect and formal rhyme scheme is broken slightly as the poet emphsizes that only God can create perfection. And so he continues. The depth of his material he treats with an everyday informality that seems to deny the well-reasoned arguments offered. His addresses to God for mankind are made of the words used daily to speak and reason. His lines explaining God and all His aspects to his listeners and the profession of his faith, resonate in the common heart and soul. It becomes related directly to the everyman in us.
At least three levels of meaning can be discovered as you read his poems. On the surface is the preacher explaining God and His love. Within that is the sense of the poet, using common conceits to illuminate the abstractions of holiness. And throughout that, like an unholy imp, runs Herbert's love of puzzle and trick as emphasis.
Examined in a new clear light, the man is still astounding.