George Herbert was born in Montgomery, Wales, on April 3, 1593, the fifth son of Richard and Magdalen Newport Herbert. After his father's death in 1596, he and his six brothers and three sisters were raised by their mother, patron to John Donne who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her. Herbert was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge. His first two sonnets, sent to his mother in 1610, maintained that the love of God is a worthier subject for verse than the love of woman. His first verses to be published, in 1612, were two memorial poems in Latin on the death of Prince Henry, the heir apparent.
After taking his degrees with distinction (B.A. in 1613 and M.A. in 1616), Herbert was elected a major fellow of Trinity, in 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge, and in 1620 he was elected public orator (to 1628). It was a post carrying dignity and even some authority: its incumbent was called on to express, in the florid Latin of the day, the sentiments of the university on public occasions.1 In 1624 and 1625 Herbert was elected to represent Montgomery in Parliament. In 1626, at the death of Sir Francis Bacon, (who had dedicated his Translation of Certaine Psalmes to Herbert the year before) he contributed a memorial poem in Latin. Herbert's mother died in 1627; her funeral sermon was delivered by Donne. In 1629, Herbert married his step-father's cousin Jane Danvers, while his brother Edward Herbert, the noted philosopher and poet, was raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Chirbury.
Herbert could have used his post of orator to reach high political office, but instead gave up his secular ambitions. Herbert took holy orders in the Church of England in 1630 and spent the rest of his life as rector in Bemerton near Salisbury. At Bemerton, George Herbert preached and wrote poetry; helped rebuild the church out of his own funds; he cared deeply for his parishoners. He came to be known as "Holy Mr. Herbert" around the countryside in the three years before his death of consumption on March 1, 1633.
A Priest to the Temple (1652), Herbert's Baconian manual of practical advice to country parsons, bears witness to the intelligent devotion with which he undertook his duties as priest. Herbert had long been in ill health. On his deathbed, he sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish the poems only if he thought they might do good to "any dejected poor soul."3 It was published in 1633 and met with enormous popular acclaim—it had 13 printings by 1680.
Herbert's poems are characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favored by the metaphysical school of poets.3 They include almost every known form of song and poem, but they also reflect Herbert's concern with speech--conversational, persuasive, proverbial. Carefully arranged in related sequences, the poems explore and celebrate the ways of God's love as Herbert discovered them within the fluctuations of his own experience.2 Because Herbert is as much an ecclesiastical as a religious poet, one would not expect him to make much appeal to an age as secular as our own; but it has not proved so. All sorts of readers have responded to his quiet intensity; and the opinion has even been voiced that he has, for readers of the late twentieth century, displaced Donne as the supreme Metaphysical poet.1
Charles, Amy. A Life of George Herbert (1977)
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