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George Herbert: Biography, Poems & Death

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Sure, you've heard of Shakespeare, and you might even know about Marlowe. But what about Herbert? In this lesson, you'll encounter George Herbert - one of the most prolific yet unmentioned Shakespearean contemporaries - as well as some of his poetry.

The Saintly Psalmist: A Brief Biography of George Herbert

The fifth of ten children born to the prominent Herbert family, George Herbert arrived on April 3, 1593 at the family's estate in Montgomery, Wales. His father Richard died when George was only three, and his mother Magdalen moved the family to London, where George was enrolled in the prestigious Westminster School. Here, he learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew along with other foundations of education at the time. This is where George also met Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop and scholar who undoubtedly influenced the course of Herbert's life.

In 1609, George left for Trinity College at Cambridge - in service to which he would spend almost half his life. There, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as a major fellowship. He was also awarded the position of University orator in 1620, which enabled him to represent Cambridge at official functions, as well as to engage in activities beyond school grounds. Between 1624 and 1625, Herbert represented his hometown of Montgomery in Parliament. However, his political career was cut short. With his ordination as a deacon in 1624 and the death or disgrace of many of his most powerful and influential friends in the surrounding years, Herbert knew he would have to find employment elsewhere than in public office.

Though he belonged to a family of great means, Herbert personally struggled with money. The meager earnings he made from managing the smaller parishes he had been assigned were barely enough to feed him; however, a fortunate land grant in 1627 seemed to solve his money troubles. By this time, Herbert had all but dissociated himself from Cambridge, spending most of his time in devotion to the Church. He married Jane Danvers in 1629 and entered the Anglican priesthood in late 1630. George then took his final religious assignment at the tiny country parish of Bemerton in Wiltshire, where he would finish out his work and his days.

The Death and Sainthood of George Herbert

While at Bemerton, George used his newfound wealth to repair his and other churches in the area. It is also during this time that he wrote his only prose work: The Country Parson, a guidebook for clergy on positive involvement in the community. Sadly, though, his time in Bemerton was short-lived. Throughout his life, Herbert had suffered from exceedingly poor health, even once becoming bedridden for nearly an entire year. At the young age of 39, George Herbert died of consumption on March 1, 1633. His years of dedication and service to various parishes and to the Church of England in general, though, have earned him commemoration in the Anglican Calendar of Saints, with his feast day observed on February 27.

Poems by George Herbert

The Church-porch

Although not published until 1633 as part of Herbert's famous The Temple, this 79-stanza devotional poem was probably written sometime around 1614. George composed spiritual advice to his brother Henry in a poem because he thought that 'A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies.' This mentality was shared by John Donne and other writers of metaphysical poetry - verse works of the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore concepts of love or religion.

Herbert is considered one of the masters of this poetic movement and employs a wide variety of vivid and culturally accessible metaphors to discuss complicated (not to mention touchy) moral issues. Take for instance Stanza 16 from The Church-porch, in which Herbert utilizes the well-known images of sheep and the medieval illness of lethargy (associated with phlegm) to condemn the idleness and apathy of the British people.

O England! full of sinne, but most of sloth;

Spit out thy flegme, and fill thy brest with glorie:

Thy Gentrie bleats, as if thy native cloth

Transfus'd a sheepishnesse into thy storie:

Not that they all are so; but that the most

Are gone to grasse, and in the pasture lost.

Easter Wings

This poem can be found as part of The Church, the largest portion of Herbert's collection of devotional poetry known as The Temple. This portion is a metaphorical exploration of the internal features of a church, representative of a person's own internal sanctification. Many of the poems in this section, including Easter Wings, are designed to coincide with certain liturgical celebrations (i.e. Easter); however, George also uses them to discuss his own personal struggles with poor finances and health as in the stanza excerpted below. It is through acknowledging his adversities, though, that Herbert realizes the need for closeness with God in poems like these.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:

And still with sicknesses and shame

Thou didst so punish sinne,

That I became

Most thinne.

With thee

Let me combine

And feel this day thy victorie:

For, if I imp my wing on thine

Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

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