As a young man George Herbert was clearly very bright. Elected to a senior post at Cambridge University at the age of just 26, he seemed to set for a brilliant career. But his health deteriorated. Three of his brothers died in the space of five years, and then his eldest sister died. He seems to have become disillusioned with academic life. While we cannot put an exact date this poem, it could well have been written in his early thirties. Described by one critic as “one of Herbert’s greatest autobiographical lyrics”, it is a reflection on his life and his relationship with God.
The first three and a half stanzas celebrate George Herbert’s success as a young man. At 16 he had won a scholarship to Cambridge. He gained his BA at 20 and was placed second out of 193 graduates that year. He became a Fellow of Trinity College at 22. He was a serious and devout Christian, but he was also ambitious, and his ambition was to become Orator of the University, a high profile position from which people often went on to senior positions in public life. At 26 he achieved this ambition. As a Christian he felt he was being blessed by God and he was enjoying worldly success ('There was no moneth but May').
Yet in hindsight he questions this. He feels God was enticing him. He is aware he is 'sudden' – impetuous – and that he 'caught at' - grabbed - what was being offered to him.
And then his mood changes - in stanza 5 (and later, in stanza 9), he complains about his 'sicknesses'. Herbert suffered from a waak constitution for much of his life, and it seems that at this time his health deteriorated. Perhaps the years living in the damp atmosphere of the Cambridgeshire fens was taking its toll.
The sixth stanza expresses the pain he felt at the death of people close to him - 'my friends die'. The use of 'friends' to refer to members of one’s family was not unusual in Herbert’s time, and two of his brothers, William and Richard, had been killed in the war in the Low Countries . His brother Charles, also an academic, at New College, Oxford, had died in 1617. Then his eldest sister Margaret Vaughan died, leaving her three daughters without a parent, the youngest only eight. These deaths left him depressed ('My mirth and edge was lost'), and feeling vulnerable and isolated.
It seems that university life which he had previously enjoyed had turned sour. In stanza 7 he says he feels he is more suited to life in London than in Cambridge, and in the next stanza he describes how he felt angry with God and wanted to get out of the situation ('raise the siege'), but the 'Academick praise' he received melted his anger. He now feels this praise was a 'sweetened pill'.
All the way through these stanzas he is expressing his feelings of resentment towards God, holding God responsible for all that he is suffering - 'thou took’st away my life', 'Thou did’st betray me', 'thou throwest me / Into more sicknesses”. The whole poem has echoes of Jeremiah’s cry of pain and protest in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 20:7-18). Jeremiah too complains 'O Lord, thou hast deceived me' (v 7). (A modern translation reads 'you have enticed me' - NRSV).
In the tenth stanza the tone of the poem becomes more reflective. Herbert is thinking about his present situation and how he feels now. His mood is one of resignation, with feelings of regret.
In the final stanza his feelings change abruptly. First he thinks he must be 'meek', that God has put him in this situation and he must accept it. Then he thinks he must be 'stout' – brave, determined. He will give up serving God and go and try to find another master to serve. Then he realises he simply could not do that. God is 'my deare God' – the first note of affection towards God in the whole poem. And in the final line, for the first time in the poem, he speaks about love – twice. Love is the key. This last line is ambiguous. It is not at all clear what it means, and this seems to reflect his own confused feelings. But however confused he is, he knows that the essential thing is loving God.
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