George Herbert

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For other people named George Herbert, see George Herbert (disambiguation).
George Herbert
George Herbert.jpg
Portrait by Robert White in 1674 (National Portrait Gallery)
Born (1593-04-03)3 April 1593
Montgomery, Wales
Died 1 March 1633(1633-03-01) (aged 39)
Bemerton, Wiltshire, England
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Occupation Poet, priest, theologian, orator
Notable work The Temple, The Country Parson, Jacula Prudentum
Style metaphysical poetry, theology
Religion Christian
Denomination Anglicanism

George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. 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."[1]

Born into an artistic and wealthy family, Herbert received a good education that led to his admission in 1609 as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Herbert excelled in languages, rhetoric and music. He went to university with the intention of becoming a priest, but when eventually he became the University's Public Orator he attracted the attention of King James I and may well have seen himself as a future Secretary of State.[citation needed] In 1624 and briefly in 1625 he served in the Parliament of England.[2] After the death of King James, Herbert's interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In his mid-thirties he 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. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan called him "a most glorious saint and seer".[3] Never a healthy man, he died of consumption at the early age of 39.

Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets.[4] Charles Cotton described him as a "soul composed of harmonies".[5] 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).[6] Herbert's first biographer, Izaak Walton, wrote that he composed "such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven".[7]


Early life and education[edit]

George Herbert's Temple

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. His mother Magdalen was a patron and friend of clergyman and poet John Donne and other poets, writers and artists. As George's godfather, Donne stood in after Richard Herbert died when George was three years old.[8][9] Herbert and his siblings were then raised by his mother who helped push for a good education for her children.[10] Herbert's eldest brother Edward (who inherited his late father's estates and was ultimately created 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".[11]

Herbert entered Westminster School at or around the age of 12 as a day pupil,[12] although later he became a residential scholar. He was admitted on 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.[13] Subsequently, Herbert was elected a major fellow of his college and then appointed Reader in Rhetoric. In 1620 he stressed his fluency in Latin and Greek and attained election to the post of the University's Public Orator, a position he held until 1628.[14]

In 1624, supported by his kinsman the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Herbert became a Member of Parliament, representing Montgomery.[15] 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. However, his parliamentary career may have ended already because, although a Mr Herbert is mentioned as a committee member, the Commons Journal for 1625 never mentions Mr. George Herbert, despite the preceding parliament's careful distinction.[16] In short, Herbert made a shift in his path, he angled away from the political future he had been pursuing and turned more fully toward a future in the church.

Herbert was presented with the Prebendary of Leighton Bromswold in the Diocese of Lincoln in 1626, whilst he was still a don at Trinity College, Cambridge but not yet ordained. He was not even present at his institution as prebend as it is recorded that Peter Walker, his clerk, stood in as his proxy. In the same year his close Cambridge friend Nicholas Ferrar was ordained Deacon in Westminster Abbey by Bishop Laud on Trinity Sunday 1626 and went to Little Gidding, two miles down the road from Leighton Bromswold, to found the remarkable community with which his name has ever since been associated. Herbert raised money (including the use of his own) to restore the neglected church building at Leighton.


St Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector and in which he was buried

In 1629, Herbert decided to enter the priesthood and was appointed rector of the small rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, about 75 miles south west of London. Here he lived, preached and wrote poetry; he also helped to rebuild the Bemerton church and rectory out of his own funds.[17]

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, which he himself described as "a Mark to aim at", and which has remained influential to this day. Having married shortly before taking up his post, 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.[7] 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. [18]

But his 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.[19] Shortly before his death, he sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of a semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding (a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot), reportedly 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.


Herbert's "Easter Wings", a pattern poem in which the work is not only meant to be read, but its shape is meant to be appreciated. In this case, the poem was printed (original image here shown) on two facing pages of a book, sideways, so that the lines suggest two birds flying upward, with wings spread out.

Herbert wrote poetry in English, Latin and Greek. In 1633 all of Herbert's English poems were published in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, with a preface by Nicholas Ferrar. The book went through eight editions by 1690.[20] According to 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, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master".[7] The poems imitate the architectural style of churches through both the meaning of the words and their visual layout. Herbert used the very format of the poems to reinforce the theme he was trying to portray. The themes of God and love are treated by Herbert as psychological forces as much as metaphysical phenomena.

All of Herbert's surviving English poems are religious, and some have been used as hymns. They are characterised by directness of expression and some conceits which can appear quaint. Many of the poems have intricate rhyme schemes, and variations of lines within stanzas; according to Helen Vendler, "a cascade of form floats through the temple".[21] William Cowper said of them, "I found in them a strain of piety which I could not but admire".[22] John Wesley was one of the individuals who took Herbert's lyrics and made them into hymns.[10]

An example of Herbert’s religious poetry is “The Altar,” [1] a "pattern poem” in which the words form a shape on the page suggesting an altar. The altar is used as his conceit or metaphor for how the individual offer himself as a sacrifice to the Lord. Herbert also makes allusions to scripture, such as Psalm 51:17, where it states that the Lord requires the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

Another example of Herbert's religious pieces is "The Windows," [2] which is a piece expanding upon man's incapacity to share the word of God, and the gift that it is that God allows and enabled him to do so. He compares a righteous man to a glass window, through which God's light shines.

Herbert's only prose work, A Priest to the Temple (usually known as The Country Parson), offers practical advice to rural clergy. In it, he advises that "things of ordinary use" such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to "serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths". 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. The first edition was prefixed with unsigned preface by Oley, which was used as one of the sources for Izaak Walton's biography of Herbert, first published in 1670. The second edition appeared in 1671 as A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson, with a new preface, this time signed by Oley.

Like many of his literary contemporaries, Herbert was a collector of proverbs. His Outlandish Proverbs[23] was published in 1640, listing over 1000 aphorisms in English, but gathered from many countries (in Herbert's day, 'outlandish' meant foreign). The collection included many sayings repeated to this day, for example, "His bark is worse than his bite" and "Who is so deaf, as he that will not hear?" These and an additional 150 proverbs were included in a later collection entitled Jacula Prudentum (sometimes seen as Jacula Prudentium), dated 1651 and published in 1652 as part of Oley's Herbert's Remains.

Richard Baxter said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books". Dame Helen Gardner adds "head-work" because of his "intellectual vivacity".


  • George Herbert is commemorated on 27 February throughout the Anglican Communion and on 1 March of the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
  • Commemorative stained glass windows depicting Herbert or his poetry have been installed in several churches and cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey.[24] St Andrew's church in Bemerton has a memorial window portraying Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar.
  • The West Front of Salisbury Cathedral has a statue of George Herbert[25] in niche 188.
  • Herbert is a fascinating figure in English literary history. He was an very religious man which shaped his works and his actions. He is looked upon with great esteem among the religious community and several prestigious literary community of his day. Herbert's life of quiet devotion, humility and personal moral character set him apart. Shortly following his death, England fell into a period of relative turmoil and experienced a waning of faith. During that time period, and following, Herbert was looked to as an example of a successful life of quiet devotion.[26]

Musical settings[edit]


Scan of the poem "Anagram" from the 1633 edition of George Herbert's The Temple
  • 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)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "George Herbert 1593–1633", (biography), The Poetry Foundation, retrieved 11 April 2013  Missing or empty |title= (help).
  2. ^ Charles 1977, p. 104.
  3. ^ Vaughan, Henry (1652), Mount of Olives 
  4. ^ Gardner, Helen The Metaphysical Poets Penguin Books,1957 ISBN 0-14-042038-X
  5. ^ Schmidt, Michael, Poets on Poets [essay on George Herbert], Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997 ISBN 1-85754-339-4
  6. ^ The Baptist Hymn Book, London: Poems and Hymn Trust, 1962
  7. ^ a b c Walton, Izaak Life of George Herbert, 1670
  8. ^ Patrick Moore (19), School for Teachers, 2006 .
  9. ^ Charles 1977, p. 28.
  10. ^ a b Black, Joseph Laurence. "George Herbert." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition. Concise Edition; Second ed. Vol. A. Toronto: Broadview, 2011. 867-869. Print.
  11. ^ Waligore, Joseph. [doi:10.1080/17496977.2012.693742 "The Piety of the English Deists"], Intellectual History Review 22:2 (July 2012), 181–97. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  12. ^ Charles 1977, p. 52.
  13. ^ Charles 1977, p. 71.
  14. ^ "Herbert, George (HRBT609G)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  15. ^ Williams, WR, Parliamentary History of the Principality of Wales, Archive, p. 149 .
  16. ^ Charles 1977, p. 110.
  17. ^ Charles 1977, p. 154.
  18. ^ Charles 1977, p. 163.
  19. ^ Herbert, George (1629 - 1633) at
  20. ^ Cox, Michael, ed. (2004), The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, p. 92, ISBN 0-19-860634-6 
  21. ^ Vendler H, The Poetry of George Herbert, Harvard University Press, 1975 ISBN 978-0-674-67959-7
  22. ^ Cowper, William (1816), Memoirs of the Early Life of William Cowper, written by Himself .
  23. ^ Herbert, George, Outlandish Proverbs, Google Books .
  24. ^ Dunton, Larkin (1896). The World and Its People. Silver, Burdett. p. 35. 
  25. ^ Salisbury Cathedral, at 
  26. ^ "George Herbert". Retrieved 6 May 2015. 
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^


  • Charles, Amy M. (1977), A Life of George Herbert, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-1014-2 .

Further reading[edit]

  • 1941: The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson.
  • 2007: The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox. Cambridge University Press
  • Clarke, Elizabeth, Theory and Theology in George Herbert's Poetry: "Divinitie, and Poesie, Met", Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-19-826398-2
  • Drury, John, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, Allen Lane, 2013.
  • Falloon, Jane Heart in Pilgrimage: a study of George Herbert, Milton Keynes: AuthorHouse, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4259-7755-9
  • Lewis-Anthony, Justin "If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him": Radically re-thinking priestly ministry, an exploration of the life of George Herbert as a take-off for a re-evaluation of the ministry within the Church of England. Mowbray, August 2009. ISBN 978-1-906286-17-0
  • Sullivan, Ceri. The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Orrick, Jim, A Year with George Herbert: a guide to fifty-two of his best loved poems. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.
  • Sheldrake, Philip (2009) Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and his writings. Canterbury Press ISBN 978-1-85311-948-4

External links[edit]