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Herbert's Proverbial Ministry

Deepsouth v.4 n.2 (Spring 1998)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Paul Moon
Paul Moon
Auckland Institute of Technology
Private Bag 92006
New Zealand
  All rights reserved.

Every literary period harbours within it traces of the popular culture of the age. Certainly, the poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633) reveals fragments, for example, of the sentiments that were to lead to the ascendance of Puritanism in England within a decade of his death - sentiments such as the emphasis on personal salvation (The Pilgrimage), the importance of prayer to the Christian life (Prayer, Denial), and the need to seek individual absolution for sins from God (Love (3)). Yet, for all Herbert’s longing for personal spiritual reconciliation with God, his diversion into recording and possibly inventing proverbs betrays his vocational imperative, as an Anglican priest, to provide lessons to his congregation, in which commonsense, natural imagery, and ‘conventional’, non-threatening Christian teachings are presented.

Over three-quarters of the 1032 proverbs in the collection which appears under Herbert’s name have French, Italian, or Spanish origins or equivalents although it is quite possible that many of these proverbs emerged independently in various countries. In addition to the uncertainty over the authorship of this collection of proverbs, it is not clear when Herbert started to collect the proverbs, and for how long he gathered them. Just under 100 of the proverbs found in the collection under Herbert’s name appear in a work entitled ‘A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues’ (1611) by Cotgrave. In addition, Herbert had great respect for two writers who also had made collections of proverbs: Bacon, whose ‘A Promus of Formularies and Elegancies’ was published in 1594, and William Camden, whose ‘Remaines’ contained nearly 400 proverbs. (Among other compilers of proverbs in this period, whom Herbert was familiar with, were James Sanford whose collection was published in 1573 and Thomas Draxe whose collection was published in 1616).

However, of more importance than their origins is the subject matter of these proverbs. Far from being ‘outlandish’ as the title of the collection suggests (although Outlandish’ suggests foreign (as in ‘ausländer’) thus possibly indicating the origin of some of the proverbs. Certainly, the authorship of the proverbs is unsure, although the word ‘outlandish’ appears twice in ‘The temple’ and twice in ‘A Priest to the Temple’, thus possibly indicating Herbert as being at least involved in some way in this collection of proverbs), most of the proverbs are examples of what could be termed ‘folk wisdom’, and notwithstanding the pun contained in the title, their relevance to early seventeenth century traditional European societies transcends national boundaries. Many of these proverbs utilise references to nature as a means of making them more relevant to a predominately rural audience (Herbert had stated that rural congregations were not always interested in the formal aspects of the Anglican service - The Priest to the Temple, Chapter VI, lines 20-32.):

‘16. The Wolfe knowes, what the ill beast thinkes’;

‘23. Looke not for muske in a dogges kennell’;

‘73. Flies are the busiest about leane horses’.

The poverty and contrition which a large portion of the English population endured during Herbert’s period also gave rise to proverbs (recorded in this collection) that emphasised the need for thrift:

‘93. Sleepe without supping, and wake without owing’;

‘436. He that hath little is the lesse durtie’;

‘1003. He that goes to bed thirsty riseth healthy’.

There are two aspects of ‘Outlandish Proverbs’ which make them significant both in the period in which they were written and today. The first is that the proverbs appear in a written form. It is one of the few traces early seventeenth century English rural popular culture has left on the historical landscape. Coupled with this preservation of elements of a predominately oral culture is the way in which Herbert, presumably deliberately, has included in his collection proverbs with a specifically Christian content, as though Christianity was an inherent part of English popular culture during this period. Frequently, allusions to nature are incorporated into the religious proverbs in order to heighten the impact on their intended audience:

‘342. He that sowes trusts in God’;

‘207. The river past, and God forgotten’;

‘867. To a close shorne sheepe, God gives wind by measure’.

Even without the references to nature, the religious proverbs in this collection are no less direct for their readers or listeners:

‘384. God comes to see without a bell’;

‘729. He that will not have peace, God gives him warre’;

‘983. When God is made master of a family, he orders the disorderly’.

As well as being an encapsulation of minute traces of an oral culture that has now practically vanished, Herbert’s ‘Outlandish Proverbs’ offers an insight into the way a highly educated Anglican cleric successfully managed to bridge what would be a fairly considerable intellectual gap with his largely illiterate and uneducated rural congregation (It is known that his congregation was predominately rural, and that literacy rates among rural communities at the time was less than ten per cent). As Hutchinson, the most important of Herbert editors, put it: ‘No one could have written of the pastoral life as Herbert did without having experienced [it]...’. That there was a wider readership after Herbert’s death may be incidental - there is insufficient evidence to point to Herbert’s purpose for this collection of proverbs in terms of its intended readership. There is no record of Herbert having intended to publish the collection (The first reference to the published version of the collection appears on 24 September 1639), and it was not until the Restoration that it received a broader readership. It seems that the primary use, particularly of the religious proverbs, was to deliver a message to others - to provide rough guidelines to popular ethics and morality. This was a period of transition in England in particular from an oral, non-literate culture to a largely literate one (there are cases recorded during this time of books being used by literate individuals to read out to groups of people who were keen to learn from books, but who lacked the skills to do it themselves).

Herbert also used some of these proverbs in his writings and letters, and probably in his sermons as well. Religion had been largely absent from the oral culture of England up until the time of the Restoration, and so the ‘Outlandish Proverbs’ filled a vital need in closing the gulf that existed between popular culture and the religious message of the Anglican Church.