The English metaphysical poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593-1633) is best known for "The Temple," a monument of brilliant rhetoric which expertly combines private experience with a demonstration of the way to salvation.
Descended from soldiers and administrators, George Herbert was born on April 3, 1593, in or near Montgomery Castle on the Welsh border. In 1596 his mother, Magdalen, daughter of a landowner, Sir Richard Newport, was left a widow with 10 children—like Job, as she remarked. She was much admired by John Donne, who later influenced Herbert's poetry. She brought up George in Oxford and then London, where he attended Westminster School. In 1609 she married Sir John Danvers.
In that year Herbert became a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1613 and a master of arts degree in 1617. Appointed a fellow of Trinity, he taught Latin and Greek grammar until he was made university praelector in rhetoric in 1617. Instead of giving conventional lectures on the classics, he used an oration by James I as his text, thus flattering his way to prospects of a career at court. By lecturing on a modern author, he also identified himself with a progressive academic effort to break the educational stranglehold of Ciceronianism. In addition, he lauded the "New Science" of Francis Bacon. Such bold modernity was typical of this enlightened young aristocrat, who dressed expensively, disdaining the sober university regulations about clothing.
Though committed by his fellowship to enter the priesthood, Herbert wanted to emulate his brothers: the eldest, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was an ambassador who became a minor poet and the founder of English deism; another, Henry, was a courtier and parliamentarian who became the master of revels. In 1620 George was elected to "the finest place in the University," that of public orator. As such, he wrote official letters to dignitaries and delivered Latin orations to them when they visited Cambridge.
Doubly moved by conviction and an ambition to become a secretary of state, Herbert supported the peace policy of King James I and denounced the horrors of war in an oration before one of those visitors, Prince Charles, who was eager for war with Spain. The same motives induced Herbert to become a member of Parliament in 1624. But the King's death in the next year put the militarists in power and ended his secular prospects. About 1626 he entered deacon's orders. In 1627 his mother died, and the funeral sermon preached by Donne was published with Latin and Greek poems written by Herbert in her memory. Two years later he resigned his university post and married Anne Danvers. Ordained a priest on Sept. 19, 1630, he officiated for less than 2 1/2 years as rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire, occupying the parsonage with his wife, six servants, and three orphaned nieces. His charity extended to generous donations to repair churches.
At Bemerton, Herbert completed A Priest to the Temple (published in 1652), a prose work on how to be an ideal parson. He also revised and greatly added to some 72 religious poems which he had previously composed. These poems were published posthumously as The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633). This work won high praise in the 17th century, but after the 13th edition (1709) it was not published again for 90 years. Since 1799, however, it has been printed with growing frequency. The Victorians found it uplifting and quaint but were biased by Izaak Walton's charming, inaccurate life of George Herbert (1670), which overconcentrates on his brief priesthood and transforms him into a saintly paragon.
The poems in The Temple are sequentially related. Though superficially simple, they are profoundly complex in art, meaning, and allusiveness, reflecting Herbert's expert knowledge and love of music. They conduct the reader from the Church Porch into the Church, tracing man's spiritual and physical growth as a resistant soul struggling against a God who seeks to establish His temple in the human heart. The volume concludes with a versified history of the Church Militant and an envoi.
Further Reading on George Herbert
The standard edition of Herbert's works is F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert (1941). The chief, though misleading, biographical source, Izaak Walton, The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson (1670; often reprinted), should be read as charming Anglican propaganda. Its fallacies are noted in David Novarr, The Making of Walton's Lives (1958). There is no definitive biography, but Marchette Chute, Two Gentle Men: The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick (1959), is reliable and interesting. The best general study is Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and His Art (1954). See also Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert (1954). More specialized studies are Rosemond Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert (1952), and Mary E. Rickey, Utmost Art: Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Asals, Heather A. R. (Heather Anne Ross), Equivocal predication: George Herbert's way to God, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1981.
Benet, Diana, Secretary of praise: the poetic vocation of George Herbert, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.
Beresford, John, Gossip of the seventeenth and eighteenth centurie, Freeport, N.Y., Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
Bloch, Chana, Spelling the word: George Herbert and the Bible, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Bottrall, Margaret (Smith), George Herbert, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1971; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Caulkins, Richard Leonard, George Herbert's art of love: his use of the tropes of eros in the poetry of agape, New York: P. Lang, 1996.
Charles, Amy Marie, A life of George Herbert, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Clements, Arthur L., Poetry of contemplation: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and the modern period, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Di Cesare, Mario A., A concordance to the complete writings of George Herbert, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Dickson, Donald R., The Fountain of living waters: the typology of the waters of life in Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), George Herbert, Plymouth: Northcote House in association with The British Council, 1994, 1962.
Essential articles for the study of George Herbert's poetry, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979.
Fish, Stanley Eugene, The living temple: George Herbert and catechizing, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Flesch, William, Generosity and the limits of authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Freer, Coburn, Music for a king; George Herbert's style and the metrical psalm, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
George Herbert journal, Bridgeport, Conn., s. n. Semiannual.
Harman, Barbara Leah., Costly monuments: representations of the self in George Herbert's poetry, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Higgins, Dick, George Herbert's pattern poems: in their tradition, West Glover, Vt.: Unpublished Editions, 1977.
Hodgkins, Christopher, Authority, church, and society in George Herbert: return to the middle way, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
Kumar, Kailash, George Herbert, heart in pilgrimage, Liverpool: Lucas Publications, 1988.
Kyne, Mary Theresa, Country parsons, country poets: George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins as spiritual autobiographers, Greensburg, PA: Eadmer Press, 1992.
Like season'd timber: new essays on George Herbert, New York: P. Lang, 1987.
Lull, Janis., The poem in time: reading George Herbert's revisions of the church, Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1990.
Mann, Cameron, bp., A concordance to the English poems of George Herbert, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1970; St. Clair Shores, Mich., Scholarly Press, 1972; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Miller, Edmund, Drudgerie divine: the rhetoric of God and man in George Herbert, Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1979.
Miller, Edmund, George Herbert's kinships: an ahnentafel with annotations, Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1993.
Nuttall, A. D. (Anthony David), Overheard by God: fiction and prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante, and St. John, London; New York: Methuen, 1980.
Nuttall, A. D. (Anthony David), Overheard by God: fiction and prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante, and St. John, London; New York: Methuen, 1983, 1980.
Page, Nick., George Herbert: a portrait, Tunbridge Wells England: Monarch, 1993.
Pahlka, William H., Saint Augustine's meter and George Herbert's will, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.
Ray, Robert H., A George Herbert companion, New York: Garland Pub., 1995.
Roberts, John Richard., George Herbert: an annotated bibliography of modern criticism, 1905-1984, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.
Schoenfeldt, Michael Carl, Prayer and power: George Herbert and Renaissance courtship, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Seelig, Sharon Cadman., The shadow of eternity: belief and structure in Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne, Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Shaw, Robert Burns, The call of God: the theme of vocation in the poetry of Donne and Herbert, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1981.
Sherwood, Terry G. (Terry Grey), Herbert's prayerful art, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
Singleton, Marion White, God's courtier: configuring a different grace in George Herbert's Temple, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Stein, Arnold Sidney, George Herbert's lyrics, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
Stewart, Stanley, George Herbert, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Strier, Richard, Love known: theology and experience in George Herbert's poetry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Taylor, Mark, The soul in paraphrase; George Herbert's poetic, The Hague, Mouton, 1974.
Thorpe, Douglas, A new earth: the labor of language in Pearl, Herbert's Temple, and Blake's Jerusalem, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991.
Todd, Richard, The opacity of signs: acts of interpretation in George Herbert's "The Temple", Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
Toliver, Harold E., George Herbert's Christian narrative, University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University, 1993.
"Too rich to clothe the Sunne": essays on George Herbert, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
Tuve, Rosemond, A reading of George Herbert, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Veith, Gene Edward, Reformation spirituality: the religion of George Herbert, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1985.
Vendler, Helen Hennessy., The poetry of George Herbert, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Wall, John N., Transformations of the word: Spenser, Herbert, Vaughan, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Westerweel, Bart, Patterns and patterning: a study of four poems by George Herbert, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984.
White, James Boyd, This book of starres: learning to read George Herbert, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.