The interesting life of the poet George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633) was one of the greatest poets of the seventeenth century, one of the greatest devotional poets in the English language, and one of a group that Samuel Johnson identified as the ‘Metaphysical poets’. Yet his poems almost died with him in 1633, and it was only thanks to his friend’s sound judgment that they saw the light of day. In this post we sketch out a very brief biography of George Herbert: one of the greatest religious poets of any age.
George Herbert was born in Powys, Wales, in 1593, into a wealthy and artistically gifted family. He studied at Westminster School, being taught by Lancelot Andrewes, influential bishop and one of the masterminds on the committee which translated the King James Version of the Bible. Herbert also became an accomplished musician, learning to play the lute among other instruments. At age sixteen, Herbert sent his mother, who was named Magdalen (and who was friends with John Donne; he would preach her funeral sermon in 1627), a letter announcing his calling as a poet; enclosed were two devotional sonnets, his first known poetic efforts.
George Herbert intended to go into the Church – he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge on a fellowship to train as a priest – but the secular life caught his attention. He became Public Orator at Cambridge in 1620. Three years later he became an MP, but seems to have gone off the idea of a life in politics, for he later became a deacon, canon of Lincoln Cathedral, and then, in 1630, rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire. In the same year he married Jane Danvers, after a courtship of just three days. This much constitutes a brief but reasonably full summary of George Herbert’s biography in terms of his official work and his married life. What of his poetry?
Well, that only appeared posthumously, following his death in 1633, aged just 39, from consumption. Fearing that his days were numbered, Herbert had sent a manuscript containing his poems to a friend, the clergyman Nicholas Ferrar, who led the religious community at Little Gidding (which would later be written about by T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets). Herbert left it up to Ferrar to determine whether the poems were worth publishing at all; if Ferrar didn’t like them, Herbert instructed, then he should consign them to the fire.
Thankfully for posterity, Ferrar chose to publish them and they appeared, as The Temple, in 1633, shortly after Herbert’s death. The volume contains the now rather unfortunate subtitle Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, but it’s a succinct description of Herbert’s curious mixture – like the poetry of his contemporary, John Donne – of complex metaphors combined with plain-speaking. We feel, when reading a George Herbert poem, as though we are being personally addressed – even though, in many of his greatest poems, Herbert addresses himself not to us, but to God. The wild and unpredictable nature of some of his best verse – ‘The Collar’, for instance, or ‘Love (III)’ – is offset by the poems lovingly and carefully carved into the shapes of birds’ wings, or crosses, or altars.
Herbert’s The Temple was the book that King Charles I read in his final hours, for consolation. Indeed, despite his short life and relatively small body of work, George Herbert remains a major poet of his own or any era in English literature. If you’ve found this very short biography of Herbert interesting, you can discover more about his life here.
Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.