27th February: A Sonnet for George Herbert


Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

Here is an extract from my book The Word in the Wilderness, marking George Herbert’s Day, February 27th:

Today the Church keeps the memory of George Herbert, who has been so strong a companion with us on our Lenten Journey. Shortly before he died he sent the precious manuscript of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at ‘Little Gidding’, asking him to publish them only if he thought that they might ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’, but otherwise to burn them. Fortunately for us Ferrar realized what a treasure he had been given and took them to Cambridge to be published as The Temple. They have been in print ever since, and have turned to the spiritual advantage of countless souls.

This sonnet reflects on a number of Herbert’s poems, but particularly on his master-piece ‘The Flower’. In that poem he imagines himself as a flower, sometimes blossoming sometimes shriveled back to its mother root, but somehow still capable of recovery:


Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.


But, as he goes through these traumas of loss and recovery, an inevitable part of our being in time, he longs, in a beautiful metaphor, to be transplanted at last into the true paradise of heaven:


O that I once past changing were;

Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!


So my sonnet celebrates the fact that he is now where he longed to be, in the place he had glimpsed ‘through the glass, in The Elixir. The Flower also contains the beautiful and mysterious lines:


We say amisse,

This or that is:

Thy word is all, if we could spell.


Just as Easter had suggested that there is really only one true day, shining through the ‘three hundred’ so here, in a moment of mystical intuition, Herbert senses that the one Word shines through and undergirds the myriad things we encounter, and I have alluded to that at the conclusion of my sonnet.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.


Filed under christianity, politics

12 responses to “27th February: A Sonnet for George Herbert

  1. Jane Cooper

    Thank you so much for your sonnet on George Herbert, a surprise and delight for me this morning, as I googled ‘celebrating George Herbert today’ wondering if I would find anything at all. It evokes Herbert so beautifully. And I have just ‘met’ you for the first time this week as I am reading ‘C. S. Lewis and his circle’. I used to go to Lewis’ lectures as an undergraduate at Newnham.

    • malcolmguite

      Thank you so much for this encouraging comment Jane. I envy you the experience of having heard Lewis in person. My father-in-Law was one of his students in Oxford but I am too young to have met him. He is, however, as you will see from my essay in that book, a great inspiration to me. Lewis was, as I’m sure you know, deeply affected by George Herbert’s Poetry

  2. Zoe Myers

    Thank you for this sonnet & for your insights. I am rereading Word in the Wilderness during this Lent, and have several of your books. I’m envious of your students – when I studied English literature (here in the U.S. 40+ years ago), the professors didn’t go in depth as you do, nor did I have the blessing of a professor who taught poetry from the basis of faith. George Herbert has always been one of my favorites, and you have also inspired me to learn more about Coleridge.

    • malcolmguite

      Thank you Zoe I’m
      Glad you enjoyed this. I was very fortunate to have good teachers at School and University so I am really just sharing more widely something I received and learned from example

  3. Malcolm,
    Thank you for continuing to introduce me to heroes of our Christian poetic past. I am not young but I am a product or my modern American culture and education system – ignorant of so much of the rich wonder threads through the lives those who have journeyed before us. There is regret, but also so much excitement – knowing there is so much joy ahead for me to discover in the works of those you are introducing me to. And the reality is that I am, most assuredly, so much more prepared to appreciate it than I would have been in my youth. So, all is well, God is good and keep it coming brother Guite!

  4. Carole Lewis

    So very very glad to have discovered Malcom Guite. My Lenten journey has never been so rich as it is this year. Thank you. So looking forward to the Londonprayer day in May.
    Carole Lewis

  5. I love the line, “Help me trace your temple, tune your lute”. And on my website you will find a poem that you inspired.

  6. Here is a reaction both to Herbert and to your sonnet:

    He knew the ways of learning, to create
    Plush tapestries of words the plush enjoyed,
    But found the employment did not satisfy,
    His gorgeous words returning to him void;
    The cross of Jesus crossed and double-crossed;
    Affliction turned his pilgrimage through time;
    Another Prince’s visage was embossed
    Upon his coin, and grace repaired his rhyme.

    Did the world’s bands impinge upon him still?
    His sole defence was what his Master said.
    And, seeing human meanness and God’s will,
    “I have”, he could exclaim, “another Head”.
    Since love made all his sours and bitters sweet
    His finis was, “Then I did sit and eat”.

    • malcolmguite

      Excellent! I love the gentle way you’ve alluded to ‘thou shalt answer lord for me’ and ‘bitter-sweet’

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