Herbert the priest

Aaron, painted in 1397This poem is central to Herbert's understanding of his vocation as a clergyman or priest of the Church of England. The question arises of any person in a sacred role: is he or she really worthy of what they do? Most professions are expected to have certain professional standards, but there is particular shock if a religious leader is found to have fallen short in terms of their behaviour.

Herbert addresses this question head on. Aaron is the type (or model) of a priest described in the Old Testament. He was Moses' brother, and in the book of Exodus there is a detailed description of the ceremonial robes he wore. These symbolise the holiness which was to characterise someone who served God in this special role. Herbert takes this idea of priests being dressed in special clothes and uses it to find a solution to the challenge of being truly worthy of his calling.

Priestly dress

Exodus 28:1-5 begins the description of the robes and other details are given throughout the rest of the chapter. Stanza 1 in Herbert's poem extracts a few details:

  • The head covering is described fully in Exodus 28:36-41
  • The ‘Lights and perfections' refer to the Urim and Thummim of Exodus 28:30, mysterious stones with oracular powers, as well as the breast-piece which is elaborately described in Exodus 28:6-28
  • The ‘Harmonious bells below' refer to the gold bells in Exodus 28:33-35 worn on the hem of the priestly garment, so that the priest could always be heard wherever he moved in the sacred space.

The reality of imperfection

Herbert makes no attempt to tease out the symbolic meaning of each of these items. They represent the ideal, which he contrasts starkly with himself in stanza 2. Each item of perfection is paralleled by an item of failure within in his own life and self. He is not appropriately ‘drest' but what is the way out of this imperfection?

The perfect righteousness he wears

Stanza 3 is the heart of the poem, as it contains the spiritual solution to his problem. Herbert is not a priest in his own right but is acting as a representative of someone else. It is that person's character and goodness he ‘wears', as if it were a garment.

The great high priest

Stanza 4 reveals that the person is Christ himself, who is described in the New Testament as ‘our great high priest' Hebrews 4:14 and the ‘head' of the church Ephesians 5:23. Herbert is drawing here on a succession of New Testament ideas. The ‘old man' (or ‘old self') describes the sinful nature with which human beings are born Ephesians 4:22. The Letter to the Romans compares the change brought about in a believer ‘dying' to sin and becoming alive to God Romans 6:11. The Letter to the Colossians speaks of ‘putting off the old self' and replacing this former self with a new identity which resembles God the Creator, as if putting on new clean clothing Colossians 3:9-10.

Clothed in Christ

In the last stanza Herbert returns to the figure of Aaron, the ideal human priest. He now imagines himself joyfully summoning his congregation. At last he can present himself to them ‘properly' dressed, transformed by the presence of Christ who ‘lives in me'.

Investigating Aaron
  • Take one line at a time, and follow through that one line in all the stanzas
    • What is the structure?
    • What is the progress of the argument?
      • Clue: look at the words at the end of each line.
    • Trace the word ‘dead' through the poem
  • Can you work out the symbolism?
  • Although the form of this poem seems really quite simple, the meaning takes a great deal of working out
    • Why do you think this is?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Writing as poet or priest; Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness).

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