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Life Sketch of George Herbert

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Early Life and Education

George Herbert was born in Montgomery Castle, Wales, on April 3, 1593, to Richard and Magdalen Newport Herbert. He was the fifth of ten children. His father passed away in 1596, when George was only three years old.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Herbert moved her large family to Oxford, England, and then relocated to London five years later, where she educated her children and raised them as devout Anglicans.

Mrs. Herbert had been dedicated to the arts and her patronage of John Donne's Holy Sonnets garnered for her Donne's dedication of that work. Donne remained a life-long friend of the Herbert family.

George Herbert was home-schooled until he turned twelve, when he entered Westminster School. His reputation at Westminster garnered the following accolade from his first biography, Izaak Walton: "the beauties of his pretty behaviour and wit shined and became so eminent and lovely in this his innocent age, that he seemed to be marked out for piety."

His mother married Sir John Danvers in 1608. She had remained a widow for twelve years, raising her seven sons and three daughters alone. All of her children lived to adulthood, a rarity for those times.

John Danvers was almost half Mrs. Herbert’s age; their marriage resulted in a tranquil and prosperous life for them both until Mrs. Danvers died in 1627. Upon her death, John Donne penned a tribute to her, "A Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers, Late Wife of Sr. John Danvers," which he delivered on July 1, 1627.

George won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where one of his professors was Lancelot Andrewes, a distinguished bishop, who served on the committee responsible for translating the King James Version of the Bible. Herbert earned the B.A. degree in 1613 and then completed the M.A. in 1616.

Remaining at Trinity, he became a major fellow and served as a reader in rhetoric at Cambridge. He was elected to a public oration position in 1620 from which he represented the school at public events. He enjoyed that position so much that he quipped that it was, "the finest place in the university."

Poetry Serving the Church

At the early age of only sixteen years, George Herbert composed two devotional sonnets, which he sent to his mother with the announcement that he was accepting the calling to become a poet. He also become an accomplished musician, learning to play the lute and other instruments.

After serving for two years 1624 and 1625 as a representative to parliament, Herbert left his position as public orator in 1627. In 1629, he married Jane Danvers. Taking Holy Orders in 1630, he then began serving in the Church of England.

He remained as rector in Bremerton until his death. In addition to preaching and composing poems, he helped build the church with his own money.

In addition to poetry, Herbert wrote devotional prose. His 1652 A Priest to the Temple was a manual of practical advice to country preachers. He continued to write poetry but did not seek publication.

Only from his deathbed did he encourage publication of his poetry. He sent his manuscript of poems, "The Temple," to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, requesting that Ferrar release the poems only if he thought they might help "any dejected poor soul."

Important Metaphysical Poets

Herbert is one the most important and talented of the Metaphysical poets along with John Donne. Herbert’s poems impart his deeply religious devotion; they are linguistically precise with a musical nimbleness that demonstrates his original employment of the poetic device known as "the conceit."

About George Herbert's poetic diction, Samuel Taylor Coleridge has opined: “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected."

The Metaphysical poets regarded poetry as a forum for expressing "intellect and emotion in a harmonic manner." In practice, metaphysical poetry stressed a philosophical focus on nature and its relationship to humanity.

George Herbert excelled in this style of poetry, freely and methodically employing the device known as the "conceit," a literary device similar to a metaphor, in that it likens two vastly difference objects.

Offering a useful example of the "conceit" is the first stanza from Herbert’s poem, "The Pully":

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
"Let us," said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span."

In the poem, the speaker is employing "a glass" that is holding all the blessings the Creator will use in creating his human child. The Creator will "pour" those blessings from the glass into his newly forming child.

As Professor Mali Deepak Arjun, of the Parvatibai Bajirao Bagal Art's & Commerce College, Dondaicha, India, has explained,

The poetry of this school appeals to the heart, intellect indulging in far-fetched expression. . . . Wit predominates in this school of poetry; most of the metaphysical poets are often called mystical poets. In the poetry of George Herbert there is an expression of a communion with God. In George Herbert the orthodox Anglican is addressing God with intimate tenderness.

Hebert described his poetry as "a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between 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."

Death

In March 1633, just one month shy of age forty, Herbert died of tuberculosis, afterhaving suffered the disease most of his life. His manuscript, "The Temple," was published that same year. The Temple became so popular that by 1680, it had gone through twenty printings. About George Herbert, C. S. Lewis has opined:

Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had read in conveying the very quality of life as we live it from moment to moment, but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I still would have called the "Christian mythology." The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed, "Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores."

Two of George Herbert’s most widely anthologized poems are "The Altar" and "Easter Wings"; both of these pieces demonstrate the style known as the "shape poem."

The concreteness of this effort has attracted a following, and the novelty of this form of poetry remains, resulting in many contemporary poets having tried their hand writing "shape poems."

Sources

George Herbert at Bemerton, Salisbury - 1860

George Herbert at Bemerton, Salisbury - 1860

Introduction and Text of Sample Poem, "The Altar"

The sample poem, "The Altar," offers an example of George Herbert's style and subject choices for his poetry

According to Paramahansa Yogananda, the "Father of Yoga in the West," the original altar to God is the spine (and brain) in the human body. By pulling the fallen consciousness from the base of the spine back to the brain, the human soul regains the paradise that it lost with the fall of man.

George Herbert, one of the greatest Metaphysical poets, was essentially a mystic poet as well. He understood the fundamental nature of the concept of "fallen humanity."

His poem, "The Altar," is one of his most explicit statements regarding that fallen nature and humankind’s desire to rise above the suffering involved in having lost the paradise of eternal God-awareness.

This spiritually inspired cry to God, "The Altar," is a "shape" poem, that is, it is placed on the page in such a way as to resemble the subject of the poem.

Because the word processing system used on this site will not allow reproduction of a shape poem, I am offering a photograph of the poem as presented by the site, Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

Reading of "The Altar"

Commentary

According to the "Father of Yoga in the West," Paramahansa Yogananda, "The Spine and the brain are the altars of God." George Herbert’s "The Altar" exemplifies the Western religious mystic who reflects the same the concept taught by the Eastern yogi mystic.

First Movement: The Broken Altar

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch'd the same

In fallen humankind, the altar of the spine may be said to be broken because the consciousness of the ordinary human being remains separated from its Divine Origin.

The speaker in Herbert's "The Altar" acknowledges the unfortunate situation against which fallen mankind must struggle. The customary definition of "altar" is a dedicated form in a church or place of worship that focuses the worshipers attention in one central locus.

An altar may take any number of forms depending on the dictates of the religion in which it is employed. This kind of altar then becomes the literal altar in common parlance. But the origin of that specific locus called "altar" is the spine in the human body:

Altar as Metaphor

The central metaphor of all religions is the altar, the place of worship. In yoga, the altar is the spine, which is the original altar. In Lakota, the altar is also the spine, which is represented metaphorically and symbolically by the sacred pipe, or peace pipe.

Lame Deer, Lakota holy man, in Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions avers: "The pipe—that's us. Its stem is our body, our spine."

The purpose of yoga practice is to magnetize the spine; Yogananda says, "In deep meditation, the first experience of Spirit is on the altar of the spine." (my emphasis)

The "broken altar" therefore is the spine that no longer sustains the accurate consciousness of the Divine, having fallen from the brain, where it originated, to the coccyx where it lies dormant.

The speaker then engages the function of the "HEART." He avers that God alone created the heart in mankind, and no human tools were ever employed to assist in that creation.

The broken heart along with the tears of the striving devotee become the media through which the devotee now engages in order to bring about that healing of the brokenness in humankind.

Second Movement: Heart of Stone

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:

In Ezekiel 36:26 of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the blessed Lord reminds the exiled Israelites that He will restore to paradise those who follow his teachings.

In the beautiful line, "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh," God makes this solemn promise. The hearts of fallen human beings have grown hard or like stone against their plight.

The speaker in Herbert's poem alludes to the biblical reference to the heart as a stone.

He then avers that nothing can render that stone heart from its current hardened state but the blessings of the Lord. Only the Lord's power can cut through that hard stony heart.

The speaker then asserts that his own "hard heart" is doing its best to praise its maker, praying and hoping that the heart severed from its Creator may be gloriously returned.

Third Movement: Craving Unity

That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

The speaker then alludes to another biblical reference. Upon Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the crowds of his followers made jubilant noises, and some Pharisees instructed the Christ to quiet his devotees.

But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40).

Thus the speaker asserts that if by chance he could be still about his fallen situation, the very stones that presently make up this hard heart would have to cry out in praise like the crowd of devotees had to do when seeing the Christ enter Jerusalem.

The speaker then offers his humble prayer that he may be once again united with the Divine. He asks that this "ALTAR," his spine be lifted and blessed with the presence of the Divine Beloved, to Which he may know again that he belongs.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is a "conceit" as used in the poem "The Altar"?

Answer: The literary device known as the "conceit" is similar to a metaphor, comparing two things that are vastly different.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 11, 2017:

True, Patricia. Still it's quite amazing that he produced such deeply profound and widely significant works as he did at such a young age. Sometimes it seems that back in the earlier centuries folks were much more mature at younger ages than we are now. Our culture, especially American, seems in the process of infantilizing the young, which can be seen politically by the government mandate of keeping young adults on their parents' insurance until they are 26 years old!

Oh, well! We're talking about a highly educated man here who was also highly motivated to achieve materially, as well as extremely moved to unite his soul with his Divine Creator. I am always amazed to find folks anywhere and at any time period who seem naturally drawn to understand and worship the Lord.

And I, too, Patricia, want to learn much more about this poet. I understand that Isaac Watts has a fine biography of him as well as others. Guess I'll have to invest some time in further research on this poet, and I definitely want to write more commentaries over his poems.

Welcoming the Angels and sending blessings back to you . . .

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 11, 2017:

Imagine how many more impactful works he would have composed had he not met such an early demise. I am very familiar with and have studied in depth John Donne but not so Herbert. Now I must be off to delve further into him. Thank you for the introduction.

Angels are on the way this morning ps