Writing life sketches of poets, philosophers, politicians, and saints offers space for learning and honing critical thinking skills.
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.
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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."
In March 1633, just one month shy of age forty, Herbert died of tuberculosis, after having 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."
- Editors. "George Herbert." Academy of American Poets. Accessed June 7, 2021.
- Editors. "George Herbert." Encyclopaedia Britannica. July 20, 1998.
- Helen Wilcox. "George Herbert." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 23, 2004.
- John Donne. "A Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers, Late Wife of Sr. John Danvers." Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed June 11, 2021.
- Ian Mackean. "John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan: Religious Metaphysical Poetry." Literature Study On-Line. February 2005.
- Anniina Jokinen. C. S. Lewis’ Quotation. The Works of George Herbert. Luminarium. September 21, 1996. Last updated on December 13, 2006.
- Editors. "George Herbert." Poetry Foundation. Accessed Jun 7, 2021.
George Herbert - a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest
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.
© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes