Selected Poem - 'The Pearl'

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.

'The Pearl. Matth.13.45'

I Know the wayes of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the presse, and make it runne;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of it self, like a good huswife, spunne
In laws and policie; what the starres conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries, and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and historie:
All these stand open, or I have the keyes:
Yet I love thee.

I know the wayes of Honour, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesie and wit:
In vies of favours whether partie gains,
When glorie swells the heart, and moldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,
And bear the bundle, wheresoe’re it goes:
How many drammes of spirit there must be
To sell my life unto my friends or foes:
Yet I love thee.

I know the wayes of Pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot bloud and brains;
What mirth and musick mean; what love and wit
Have done these twentie hundred yeares, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuffe is flesh, not brasse; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Then he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.

I know all these, and have them in my hand:
Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes
I flie to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale, and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love;
With all the circumstances that may move:
Yet through these labyrinths, not my groveling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climbe to thee.

Commentary

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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