George Herbert: Poems


Early life and education

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 ten 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.


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.

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