I went on a bit yesterday about early Anglican poetry and music, not realizing that one of the most famous pieces – and my favorite – to come out of that era (1550-1650) was next on our hit parade.
This poem, “The Call,” was written by George Herbert, an Anglican priest and poet from Wales. Herbert was considered a masterful orator and writer, and did a brief stint in Parliament and as Trinity College’s public orator (because apparently that was a thing) before returning to the priesthood.
But what we remember from Herbert is not his service to the Crown or the Church but his writing. His posthumously published book A Priest in the Temple, more commonly known as The Country Parson is both a snapshot into early 17th century England and in parts could definitely be written today. It’s a slim volume that serves largely as a handbook for clergy in rural parishes; it addresses such practical questions as keeping house, and local charity, as well as providing advice for issues around marriage and caring for women in the parish. Herbert’s observations and advice are just as appropriate for today; proof that while technology and culture may change, people don’t.
But I digress (I told you I was a geek). This poem is part of Herbert’s vast body of work that places him squarely in the cannon of the Metaphysical Poets – John Donne perhaps the most famous of them all. These poets – loosely held together under this moniker, did not write all together in one particular style, but what connects them is a particular use of nature as metaphor, mystical sensibilities, and a particular intelligence and cleverness that some contemporaries (and subsequent critics such as Samuel Johnson – the guy who wrote a dictionary) found untenable.
And yet, the poetry lives – beautifully, I might add. Enough trivia – let’s get to it:
Come, my way, my truth, my life:
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.
Come, my light, my feast, my strength:
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes a guest.
Come, my joy, my love, my heart:
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.
This is, at its heart, a meditation on John 14:6 – “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yet it speaks beyond any one belief and to a greater call from the Spirit of Life that we can all find truth, strength, joy, love. Come, Herbert asks of us. If we come to that which we call a higher power, we will know.
And…beautifully set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams as part of a piece called Five Mystical Songs, all based on Herbert poems. Each one is simply gorgeous and perfectly matched to Herbert’s lush poetry. I recommend taking the 20 minutes to listen.
Clearly, I love this one. And on a day when we say goodbye to one year and hello to a new, very uncertain one, it’s good to remember to come home to love.