Perhaps the most keenly debated issue among George Herbert's biographers and critics is what lay behind his transformation from lauded academic and budding political high-flyer to humble Rector of a tiny country parish. This poem, which is manifestly autobiographical, spells out with great clarity the sacrifices involved in making such a momentous change.
Chapter 13 of St. Matthew's gospel includes seven parables told by Jesus, two of which concern a pearl so valuable that all other possessions must be surrendered to acquire it. Herbert directs us specifically to the second of these stories (verse 45) in which the person seeking to acquire the pearl is a merchant - someone familiar with the world of commerce, whose livelihood depends on knowing how much such things are worth.
It is likely that, in his early thirties, assessing just how much his own life amounted to loomed large in Herbert's thoughts. By this stage he had made his mark in the three key areas he refers to in this poem: he certainly knew 'the wayes of Learning' as a star of Cambridge University, he had been welcomed at James I's court and his social and musical talents were highly developed. But obviously there was always the nagging feeling that something was missing, a spirituality that had yet to be fulfilled
So the poem enables Herbert to display what he had achieved in life, and of necessity had to relinquish if he was to commit totally to God and enjoy His love - this was, in the words of the gospel, 'all that he had', and the great price that must be paid for the pearl of fulfilment.
There is much detail to deconstruct in the first three stanzas, but doing so is beyond the scope of this brief commentary. We should though admire the richness of Herbert's metaphors, the compactness and fluidity of the words and phrases, and the typically expressive language - 'lullings' and 'relishes' are especially fine examples of his art.
The ten-line stanzas are beautifully balanced, with alternate lines rhyming either side of a central couplet, and with the typically Herbertian terse four-word endings beginning with 'Yet..' demonstrating the simplicity and power of his rhetorical skill.
The final stanza is in some ways the most interesting, because it calls into question Izaak Walton's assertion that Herbert's change of lifestyle was forced upon him by events, and by his poor health. The poet maintains that his is a conscious decision made in full awareness of the implications, and he reflects the scripture directly by describing the cost in commercial terms - he is in no doubt about 'the rate and price' of his commitment. In this stanza, the 'Yet..' comes at the start of the seventh line, presaging a typical Herbertian conclusion. Despite all that has gone before, he realises that his new direction of travel was actually chosen not by himself, but by God.
The fact that this poem appears in the earlier of the two manuscripts of 'The Temple' suggests that it was probably written before George Herbert came to Bemerton (although it was almost certainly revised here). Nevertheless, as the priest of a rural parish he knew very well the power of using parables to preach to his flock, and this one must have held a special appeal for him. He had paid dearly for following his calling, but for him clearly it was a price worth paying.
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