Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Lives of Donne and Herbert

I took the photograph above when I was in London studying theater in 1999.  It is St. Paul's Cathedral.  The whole time in England I felt the hallowed weight of history at every turn, as if the land I had trod in my life until that point was somehow a newer creation.  Which, largely, I suppose it is.

On top of that, I was so often struck by the magnificence around me.  St. Paul was, as it were, the apotheosis of this feeling.  When I walked in for the first time, tears streamed unbidden from my eyes.

In the crypt below were some names that, also, impressed history upon me.  At the time I think I was more impressed to be in the presence of the remains of Arthur Sullivan, but also present were those of John Donne.

This volume of the Harvard Classics rounds out with biographical sketches of two famous Anglicans, both written by Izaak Walton.  Walton was he who wrote The Complete Angler, a fishing book which, along with The Pilgrim's Progress, is one of the most printed books ever, although I am sure the spiritual aspect of this material is a more likely connection in regards to its inclusion in this volume.  Another unlikely connection is that Ralph Vaughan Williams also set works by George Herbert to music.

Walton writes glowingly of both Donne and Herbert.  I would almost say to a fault, but I found it refreshing, in this jaded age, to read such glowing recommendations of men whom one would do well to imitate.

I had previously read some of the poetry of Donne.  I am not sure I've ever read anything penned by George Herbert.  I imagine that they will show up in the volumes of English poetry.

John Donne was, among other things, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral (which is what lead me to dig out my old photo albums by the light of the scanner for this post).  He reluctantly took holy orders at the urging of King James.  Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.

I think what I found most inspiring was the man's perseverance in the face of grave illnesses, which seemed to compose the larger portion of his life.  More on that in a moment.  I was also struck by the fact that there is no volume of sermons in the entire Harvard Classics series.  At the end of Walton's short biography, the bar was pretty high for George Herbert.  He excelled.

Herbert's mother (a force of nature by herself!) knew John Donne.  George Herbert is described at some length as a highly intelligent man, but also as a strikingly earnest Christian.  He was indefatigable in his duties as a priest.  At one point he wrote to his wife that he did not fear death, but he feared sickness, as sickness would prevent him from performing the Lord's work.  These are my exact sentiments.  I knew at this point that George Herbert and I were going to be great friends.  And his actions backed up his sentiment as he did become quite ill with consumption.  Walton describes Herbert continuing sermons and daily prayers in the chapel by his home well into the late period of his illness, to the point where one day his second had to come up to the pulpit, as Herbert was praying while in the act of dying, and tell Herbert to go lay down, which Herbert would only do after being assured that his second would complete the prayers.

The too solid cares of this world which, to most of us, are such frightening apparitions, were seen by these two men as mere shadow plays in the light of the Real Work.  Their eyes were fixed upon their commission and upon the grace of God.  I dare pray I could have such grace.

When we look to the great cloud of witness, we look for inspiration for the race that we have left to complete.  In spite of my love of previous volumes in this series, this very well may have been the most personally profitable book in the series thus far.  It is to the supreme credit of Mr. Walton (and I fancy he would be delighted to know this) that I will now read Donne and Herbert with great savor for the rest of my days.

1 comment:

  1. A good example of Christian faith using alchemical imagery can be found in the poem
    The Elixir by George Herbert

    TEACH me, my God and King,
    In all things Thee to see,
    And what I do in anything,
    To do it as for Thee.

    Not rudely, as a beast,
    To run into action ;
    But still to make Thee prepossest,
    And give it his perfection.

    A man that looks on glass,
    On it may stay his eye,
    Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
    And then the heav'n espy.

    All may of Thee partake ;
    Nothing can be so mean
    Which with his* tincture (for Thy sake)
    Will not grow bright and clean.

    A servant with this clause
    Makes drudgery divine :
    Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
    Makes that and th' action fine.

    This is the famous stone
    That turneth all to gold ;
    For that which God doth touch and own
    Cannot for less be told.