To a greater or lesser degree, all human beings want to feel valued and respected by others - they need to find a worthwhile role or have a purpose in life. In this poem, the first of two in 'The Temple' with the same title, George Herbert expresses this need and the importance of divine intervention.
Because in George Herbert's time poetry was generally circulated privately in manuscript, those who study his works are always frustrated by the impossibility of dating his poems, and pinning down at what stage in his life they were written. We do know that this is one of his earlier verses because it first appeared in the Williams manuscript, and the last two lines were subsequently changed before publication in 1633. It is tempting to conclude that it relates to the period immediately following the death of King James (1625) and its impact on Herbert's political career prospects, but this can only be conjecture.
In any event, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this poem expresses Herbert's own feelings when trying to make his way in the world. It is hard enough reaching your early thirties still seeking a proper calling, but for one who was so academically gifted and who had moved in such exalted circles it must have been especially frustrating. The poem follows the pattern of many in 'The Temple' in taking the form of a conversation with God. However, it is the only one with this particular rhyme scheme, demonstrating yet again Herbert's versatility and originality.
Herbert starts by presenting us with the image of a flower, which has its glorious period in full bloom before eventually being 'nipt in the bud' by the onset of cold weather. To this day we use the phrase 'the flower of youth' to refer to the best and most active period of our lives, and the opening stanza pleads with God to put all this energy and ability to good use. As Herbert explains, if only the speaker was allowed to capitalise on God-given attributes, he or she would be able to claim some measure of achievement at the Day of Judgement.
But it does all depend on the extent to which God provides each individual with the wherewithal and the opportunity ('stuffe') to make a mark, and thus to derive some satisfaction from this earthly life. "So", begs the speaker, "please don't allow my talents go to waste - I am not on this earth for long, but while I am here let me employ to good effect the attributes you have given me, to your greater glory".
Next, introducing a note of self-pity, the speaker complains that everyone and everything else has a meaningful part to play; here once again we see reflected Herbert's understanding of the natural world (so well illustrated in his poem 'Providence') as, sticking to his floral theme, he summarises the process and purpose of pollination. In this grand scheme of things the speaker has no function - in fact, he or she is not the flower envisaged by the opening lines of the poem, and certainly not the busy bee, but merely 'a weed'.
And so to the changed last two lines, in which Herbert introduces a totally different conceit - the speaker is now an instrumentalist itching to take his or her proper place in a musical group ('consort'). We may reasonably conclude that these two lines were altered when Herbert was at Bemerton, where we are told that he played his lute or viol (he was skilled in both instruments) in twice-weekly informal sessions with some of the musicians of Salisbury Cathedral. And just as a piece of music is incomplete if one of the instruments is missing, so Herbert's speaker seeks employment, not only for personal self-esteem but also to become a contributor essential to the fulfilment of God's purpose.
Back to George Herbert