- Born: April 3, 1593, Montgomery, Wales
- Died: March 1, 1633 (aged 39), Bemerton, Wiltshire, England
- Notable Works: The Temple, The Country Parson, Jacula Prudentum
George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a poet, orator and priest of the Church of England. Born in Wales, Herbert is considered one of the most influential English poets of the 17th century and is considered to be one of the metaphysical poets. His works were largely religious poetry, with his most most famous being The Temple, The Country Parson and Jacula Prudentum.
Herbert had the intention of becoming a priest, but, upon graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609, he became the University’s Public Orator and attracted the attention of King James I. He served in the Parliament of England in 1624 and briefly in 1625.
Upon the death of the King, Herbert was ordained as a priest and spent his remaining life in Wiltshire. However, following a life of ill-health, he died in 1633 at the age of 39 from consumption, only three years after his ordination.
George Herbert – Early Life
George Herbert was born on April 3, 1593, in Montgomery, Wales. He was one of ten children born to Richard Herbert, who died in 1596, and his wife Magdalen née Newport, the daughter of Sir Richard Newport (1511–1570).
The family was wealthy and powerful, with Richard Herbert a member of parliament, a justice of the peace, and later high sheriff and custos rotulorum (keeper of the rolls) of Montgomeryshire. Magdelen was a patron and friend of clergyman and poet John Donne and other poets, writers and artists.
Following the death of Herbert’s father, Donne, who was his godfather, stood in as a fatherly role in his life. Herbert and his siblings were raised by their mother, who wanted a good education for her children.
Herbert’s eldest brother Edward, who inherited his late father’s estates and was Baron Herbert of Cherbury, became a soldier, diplomat, historian, poet, and philosopher whose religious writings led to his reputation as the “father of English deism”. Herbert’s younger brother was Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels to Kings Charles I and II.
Herbert’s mother did not keep the family in Wales long. Shortly after the birth of her last child, Thomas, in 1597, she moved the family first to Shropshire and then to Oxford, primarily to oversee the education of the oldest son, Edward, and then finally to a house at Charing Cross, London.
At the age of twelve, Herbert went to Westminster School as a day pupil. Later, he became a residential scholar. He earned a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1609, and graduated first with a Bachelor’s and then with a master’s degree in 1616 at the age of 23.
He was made university orator in 1620, largely thanks to his fluency in Greek and Latin, which was a position of great prestige within the university that was often a stepping-stone to a successful career at court. The orator was the spokesperson for the university on a variety of occasions, making speeches and writing letters. He held this position until 1627.
Herbert wrote much of his poetry during his Cambridge years, a substantial amount which was Latin poetry. During this time, he also often worried about money, despite the fact that the university paid him modestly. He also received a portion of his father’s will every year. He also worried about his health, writing home often about his illnesses.
Herbert became a member of parliament, representing Montgomery, in 1624. He was supported by his kinsman the 3rd Earl of Pembroke. This position generally promised a career at court, and King James I had shown Herbert favour. However, the King died in 1625, and two influential patrons also died at about the same time, ending Herbert’s parliamentary career and turning him more towards a career in the church.
In late 1624, Herbert was preparing to take holy orders. This was necessary for him to remain at Cambridge, but by this time he had basically begun his removal from the Cambridge community, often delegating his duties to others.
Herbert was ordained as a deacon in 1624, and he was presented by Bishop John Williams with several church livings, one at Llandinam in his home county of Montgomeryshire in 1624 and another at Lincoln Cathedral in Huntingtonshire near Little Gidding in 1626. However, this was enough to support him financially and he had no home of his own, staying with different friends and relatives.
Herbert’s mother died in June of 1627, which affected Herbert greatly. He finally separated himself from Cambridge and went to stay at Dauntesey House in the countryside. He also married during this time, to Jane Danvers (his stepfather’s cousin), on March 5, 1629.
The marriage helped to ease his transition to life in Wiltshire, where he was able to buy a home, and he and his wife gave a home to three orphaned nieces.
In 1629, Herbert decided to enter the priesthood and was ordained on September 19, 1630. He was appointed rector of the rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, about 75 miles southwest of London. He was responsible for two small churches: the 13th century parish church of St Peter at Fugglestone, near Wilton, and the 14th-century chapel of St Andrew at Bemerton.
While at Bemerton, Herbert revised and added to his collection of poems entitled The Temple. He also wrote a guide to rural ministry entitled A Priest to the Temple or, The County Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life.
Suffering from ill health for most of his life, Herbert’s time at Bermerton was short. He died on March 1, 1633, at the age of 39, from consumption.
Shortly before his death, Herbert sent a literary manuscript to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. He told him to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul”, but to otherwise to burn them.
Style and Influence
Herbert wrote his poetry in English, Latin and Greek. Almost all of his surviving poetry centres around themes of religion and he was heavily influenced by the world around him and his work with the church. Music was another influence for him, and more than ninety of Herbert’s poems have been set for singing over the centuries since his death.
Herbert’s writing us known for clarity and directness. While he often uses puns and wordplay in his writing to explore the relationships between daily reality and transcendent reality, his tone is conversational and simple to read. He uses certain methods and styles to convey the message and themes in his poems, such as capitalisation, punctuation and rhyme, as well as oxymorons and echo.
He was known for using visual tricks to enhance the poems’ meaning, seen in pattern poems like The Altar, in which the shorter and longer lines are arranged on the page in the shape of an altar. In Easter Wings, the words were printed sideways on two facing pages so that the lines there suggest outspread wings.
Herbert only produced one known piece of prose work: A Priest to the Temple (usually known as The Country Parson). It was first published in 1652 as part of Herbert’s Remains, or Sundry Pieces of That Sweet Singer, Mr. George Herbert, edited by Barnabas Oley and offers practical advice to rural clergy.
Herbert was also a collector of proverbs and his Outlandish Proverbs was published in 1640, listing over 1000 aphorisms in English. This collection included many sayings that are still used today, such as “His bark is worse than his bite”.
Herbert is known as one of the greatest poets of the seventeenth century and one of the greatest devotional poets in the English language. Part of Samuel Johnson’s ‘Metaphysical poets’, Herbert’s poetry almost died with him, but, thanks to Ferrar, his poetry has remained read and loved by many since his death.
He is remembered for his conversational and direct tone, and his unique pattern poems that enhanced the meaning and theme of the writing. His poetry went on to influence fellow poets such as Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Thomas Traherne, and then in later centuries Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop and Anthony Hecht.
- 1623: Oratio Qua auspicatissimum Serenissimi Principis Caroli.
- 1627: Memoriae Matris Sacrum, printed with A Sermon of commemoracion of the ladye Danvers by John Donne… with other Commemoracions of her by George Herbert (London: Philemon Stephens and Christopher Meredith).
- 1633: The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. (Cambridge: Printed by Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel).
- 1652: Herbert’s Remains, Or, Sundry Pieces Of that sweet Singer of the Temple consisting of his collected writings from A Priest to the Temple, Jacula Prudentum, Sentences, & c., as well as a letter, several prayers, and three Latin poems. (London: Printed for Timothy Garthwait)
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "George Herbert" https://englishhistory.net/poets/george-herbert/, November 18, 2021