The Calling: George Herbert, R.S. Thomas and the Vocations of Priest and Poet
McGill, William J., Anglican Theological Review
George Herbert (1593-1633) and R. S. Thomas (1913- ) arguably are among the greatest poets who have written in English; undeniably, they are among the great religious poets of any language, any tradition, any time. Various literary critics have remarked that "Thomas is often compared to Herbert," but few have ventured beyond that casual generalization. The superficial similarities are obvious: both have Welsh connections, but write in English; both are priests in the Anglican tradition; both served their pastorates in rural settings. There are other, more complex, similarities: they share a love of nature and music; for both the Cross is a central image and the idea of Deus absconditus is a recurrent theme; each employs space as well as text to create meaning, underscoring the sense that human language is inadequate to express fully the truths of God.
But central to any comparison is the idea of calling, as priest and as poet. The purpose of this study is to examine and compare the dual vocations of these two men. Of course, it is possible to be a priest and a poet and for these pursuits to be disjoined or one to be subordinated to the other. Ultimately I will argue that for Herbert and Thomas the two callings are integrally related and thus indivisible, but for the sake of the argument I will examine them separately, looking first at their priestly calling and then at their poetic calling.
Shortly before his death, George Herbert sent the manuscript of all the poems he had written and arranged under the title The Temple to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding with instructions to do with it what he wished. In the covering letter he described the poems as "A picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom" (F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert, p. vii). Perhaps no poem in that manuscript better captures the quality of those "spiritual Conflicts" than "The Collar": "The Collar" epitomizes his story. It speaks of his own desires, his restlessness, his ungratefulness. It speaks also of what he saw as God's own great mercy.
Herbert attended Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge. In both places he distinguished himself as a scholar and, having completed his baccalaureate, he was chosen as a fellow of Trinity College. He began to teach as well as to pursue the masters, then the normal route to ordination. At that time he wrote his stepfather, Sir john Danvers:
. . . I want Books extremely; You know Sir, how I am now setting foot into Divinitie, to lay the platform of my future life, and shall I then be faro alwayes to borrow Books, and build on anothers foundation? What Tradesman is there who will set up without his Tools? Pardon my boldness Sir, it is a most serious Case, nor can I write coldly in that, wherein consisteth the making good of my former education, of obeying that Spirit which hath guided me hitherto, and of achieving my (I dare say) holy ends (Works, p. 364). Thus ordination clearly seemed his goal.
But, as he later wrote in A Priest to the Temple, "Of Pastors ... some live in the Universities, some in Noble houses, some in Parishes residing on their cures" (Works, pp. 225-226). His social status and his academic success led him to think more of the first two paths than the last. That inclination received encouragement when he was chosen first a Reader in Rhetoric (1618) and then Public Orator of the University (1620). As he explained to his stepfather,
The Orators place (that you may understand what it is) is the finest place in the University though not the gainfullest; . . . but the commodiousness is beyond the Revenue; for the Orator writes all the University Letters, makes all the Orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University; to requite these pains, he takes place next the Doctors, is at all their Assemblies and Meetings, and sits above the Proctors, is Regent or Non-regent at his pleasure, and such like Gaynesses, which will please a young man well (Works, pp. …