George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator and Anglican priest.
He was a man who acted out his faith and was noted for ‘unfailing care for his parishioners’, visiting them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.
Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.
Herbert's poetry is associated with the writings of the ‘metaphysical poets’, and he is recognized as "a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skilful and important British devotional lyricist." He was also a talented musician and composer. Herbert was a skilled lute player who "sett his own lyricks or sacred poems”. Herbert wrote poetry in English, Latin and Greek.
Some of Herbert's poems have endured as popular hymns, including "King of Glory, King of Peace" (Praise): "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing" (Antiphon) and "Teach me, my God and King" (The Elixir). Over ninety of his poems have been set to music over the centuries, some of them multiple times.
The spiritual nature of George Herbert
Herbert’s poems are classified by many anthologies as ‘religious poems’ and as such, would not normally find a place on this site, [religious does not equate to spiritual] but when one reads them it is clear he was a bit more than just religious.
“The ever-shifting ground of political and religious institutions, together with a rapidly changing intellectual climate, made England a dynamic if not dangerous place in many respects, yet Herbert's works show a permanence and a synthesis of concepts that is almost mystifying when one considers the background”.
If one creates a picture of ‘heaven’ in a theological way, then one will always be building on shifting sands. It is only when one has ‘been’, so to speak, that one can be as firm as Herbert. So what other evidence have we?
Herbert also used puns and wordplay in his poems to "convey the relationships between the world of daily reality and the world of transcendent reality. The kind of word that functions on two or more planes is his device for making his poem an expression of that relationship."
- Experiences - In the second place, there are hints he did indeed ‘communicate’ with the spiritual world, he did not just pray, he had had his prayers answered and had had experiences. Henry Vaughan called him "a most glorious saint and seer", which is praise indeed – and Henry Vaughan is someone who would have known.
- Knowledge of the stages of the spiritual path - Shortly before his death, Herbert sent the manuscript of his main book of poems The Temple to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", otherwise to burn them. Thanks to Ferrar, they were published not long after his death. According to Isaac Walton, when Herbert sent the manuscript to Ferrar, he said that "he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul".
The sequence and heading of the poems is key, as Herbert uses the various ‘positions’ in the Church [or if you prefer stations] as an allegory of the spiritual path. Thus the beginning of the spiritual path is "The Church Porch", then the advance to midnight and Purgatory or the Dark Night of the Soul is classified under the heading of the "The Altar" and on to "The Sacrifice".
O take these barres, these lengths away;
Turn, and restore me:
Be not Almightie, let me say,
Against, but for me…….
For as thy absence doth excell
All distance known:
So doth thy nearenesse near the bell,
Making two one.
The Almighty in this context is the Ultimate Intelligence, inaccessible simply because the Ultimate Intelligence is all function and all power. But Herbert uses the symbolism of the bell. A bell is the symbol used for the concept of a cone. Soul cones consist of the various levels and layers comprising the Elements – the vibrational levels of Fire, Air, Water and Earth – along with the Aether level in which is to be found the Higher Spirit, the link we have to the spiritual. In other words, George Herbert understood that one contacted the spiritual world via one’s Higher spirit –‘ making two one’.
George Herbert was born 3 April 1593 in Montgomery, Powys, Wales, the son of Richard Herbert (died 1596) and his wife Magdalen née Newport, the daughter of Sir Richard Newport (1511–70). He was one of 10 children.
The Herbert family was wealthy and powerful in both national and local government, and George was descended from the same stock as the Earls of Pembroke. His father was a Member of Parliament, a justice of the peace, and later served for several years as high sheriff and later custos rotulorum (keeper of the rolls) of Montgomeryshire.
But his father Richard died when George was only three years old, and George's godfather, the poet John Donne stood in after Richard Herbert died. And so it was that George Herbert was torn, from three years old, between poetry and the spiritual life, and the wealth and power that his family enjoyed. In the end, the spiritual life won and it may have been in part because his mother Magdalen was more spiritually inclined – she was a patron and friend of the poet John Donne and other poets, writers and artists.
Eventually it was Herbert's eldest brother Edward who inherited his late father's estates and was ultimately created Baron Herbert of Cherbury.
Initially, Herbert looked set to follow the political and statesman course. He was educated at Westminster School from around the age of 12 and was admitted on scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609. He graduated first with a Bachelor's and then with a master's degree in 1616 at the age of 23. Subsequently, Herbert was elected a major fellow of his college and then appointed Reader in Rhetoric.
In 1620 he became the University's Public Orator, a position he held until 1628. In 1624, supported by his kinsman the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Herbert became a Member of Parliament, representing Montgomery. While these positions normally presaged a career at court, and King James I had shown him favour, circumstances worked against Herbert: the King died in 1625, and two influential patrons also died at about the same time. And, his parliamentary career ended, he “made a shift in his path, turning away from the political future he had been pursuing and more fully toward a future in the church”.
There is a poem of Herbert’s which is titled The Call, which in terms of the Spiritual path is also named The Calling. It is the point where something happens which makes you realise this is where you should be travelling – along the road to Dawn.
And so it was, that in his mid-thirties George Herbert gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as the rector of the little parish of St Andrews Church, Lower Bemerton, Salisbury. Here he lived, preached and wrote poetry; he also helped to rebuild the Bemerton church and rectory out of his own funds.
Herbert married shortly before taking up his post, and he and his wife gave a home to three orphaned nieces. Together with their servants, they crossed the lane for services in the small St Andrew's church twice every day. Twice a week, Herbert made the short journey into Salisbury to attend services at the Cathedral, and afterwards would make music with the cathedral musicians.
His close Cambridge friend Nicholas Ferrar was ordained in 1626 and went to Little Gidding, to found the semi-monastic Anglican religious community with which his name has ever since been associated. George Herbert raised money, including the use of his own, to restore the neglected church buildings here as well.
But Herbert’s time at Bemerton was short. Having suffered for most of his life from poor health, in 1633 Herbert died of consumption only three years after taking holy orders, at the early age of 39. His biographer, Isaac Walton, records that he rose to play the lute during his final illness.
The Poetry Foundation
There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex, ever-qualified lyric contemplation rather than epic or dramatic mythmaking. This is the stuff of humility and integrity, not celebrity. But even if Herbert does not appear to be one of the larger-than-life cultural monuments of seventeenth-century England—a position that virtually requires the qualities of irrepressible ambition and boldness, if not self-regarding arrogance, that he attempted to flee—he is in some ways a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist of this or any other time
The Pictures on this page
There are no contemporary paintings of George Herbert, the earliest portrait was engraved long after his death by Robert White for Walton’s biography of the poet in 1674. So we have instead chosen pictures that seem to fit the themes of his poems.
- 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)
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