Heaven - George Herbert

The more I delve into the poetry of George Herbert 1593 -1633, the more impressed I become. His work is sincere with a deep religious flavor. However, he also had a sense of wit. The poem entitled Heaven is an example of his use of wordplay to teach a lesson.

George Herbert was born in 1593, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke. His mother was a friend of the poet John Donne. George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the Public Orator of the University, responsible for giving speeches of welcome in Latin to famous visitors, and writing letters of thanks, also in Latin, to acknowledge gifts of books for the University Library. This brought him to the attention of King James I, who granted him an annual allowance, and seemed likely to make him an ambassador. However, in 1625 the king died, and George Hebert, who had originally gone to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but had head turned by the prospect of a career at Court, determined anew to seek ordination. In 1626 he was ordained, and became vicar and then rector of the parish of Bemerton and neighboring Fugglestone, not far from Salisbury.

Herbert evidently disdained the teaching of the catechism by rote memory, which is the way most of us learned it. The poem Heaven is a satirical piece intended to teach a lesson to his pupils. Echo responds automatically to the questions without thinking. However, Echo is not mortal and exists only because of physics. Hence he is of God. The implication being that only God can answer all questions without thinking. Hence, each of us has the responsibility to think about the answers before giving them. The poem is an ingenious creation because it is a wordplay based on a real phenomenon, namely the echo. If I am ever in a position to test out an echo, I think it would be fun to try it. Well, here is the poem. I leave the interpretation to you, the reader.

Copyright Jay D Weaver - April 26, 2003


O, who will show me those delights on high?

Echo: I.

Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.

Echo: No.

Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?

Echo: Leaves.

And are there any leaves that still abide?

Echo: Bide.

What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.

Echo: Holy.

Are holy leaves the Echo, then, of bliss?

Echo: Yes.

Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?

Echo: Light.

Light to the mind; what shall the will enjoy?

Echo: Joy.

But are there cares and business with the pleasure?

Echo: Leisure.

Light, joy, and leisure; but shall they persever?

Echo: Ever.


Return to Poetry and Music Commentary