George Herbert

G eorge Herbert was a very religious man whose poetry was not appreciated until long after his death. His best-known poems, such as ‘The Collar,’ employ a specific shape in the arrangement of their text, something known as shape poetry. He wrote for everyday people as well as for the clergy to whom he offered advice.


Life Facts

  • George Herbert was born in Montgomery, Powys, Wales in April of 1593.
  • Herbert’s first work,Qua auspicatissimum Serenissimi Principis Caroli’, was published in 1623.
  • In 1653, Herbert’s only prose work ‘A Priest to the Temple’ was published. 
  • In 1633 he took ill and died of consumption. 
  • After Herbert’s death, a book of proverbs was published in 1640, titled, ‘His Outlandish Proverbs.’

Interesting Facts

  • His poetry was not appreciated until decades after his death. 
  • King James I enjoyed his poetry and his piety. 
  • He studied Latin and Greek. 
  • He has a short career in Parliament. 
  • George Herbert could play the lute. 


Famous Poems by George Herbert

The Altar  is a devotional poem that depicts the speaker’s desire to make a sacrifice similar to Christ’s. This poem is one of several that Herbert wrote that depicts an image in the arrangement of the text. In this case, an altar. The poem describes the metaphorical process of building an altar out of one’s heart. The speaker depicts how one move at a time he’s going to create an altar to God, built from his own body. 

 

The Flower focuses on the seasons and how transitions change how the speaker experiences religion and God. Spring is a time of year that brings with it great emotional peace and happiness. But, as winter approaches, the speaker like a flower, withers up and has to work harder to maintain his faith.

 

The Collar is an interesting poem that suggests that life as a religious man was not as easy for Herbert as other poems suggest. In it, the priest’s collar is presented as a symbol of restraint. He is living in a prison o this own belief and wants to find a way out of it. Eventually, God speaks to him and calms him down.

 

The Pulley describes the story of creation and the moment in which God chose to give humankind knowledge, as well as wisdom and beauty. These things came to humanity easily and now their defining features of the species. But, there is one blessing the God did not release—rest. He chose to keep it close so that when human beings get weary they turn to God. 

 

Easter Wings is another religious poem in which the speaker discusses the fall of man and his own desire to do better. The poem is laid out in the shape of a bird’s wings, a technique that Herbert enjoyed employing. In the text, the speaker describes man’s foolishness in the Garden of Eden and how he doesn’t like being stuck in the darkness. He asks God that he be able to rise up and into the light. 


Early Life

George Herbert was born in Montgomery, Powys, Wales in April of 1593. His parents were Richard Herbert and Magdalen Herbert and he was one of ten children born to the couple. He grew up in a very affluent household that was close to both the national and local governments. At one point his father was a member of parliament as well as a justice of the peace. For a time Richard Herbert served as a high sheriff and custos rotulorum, or keeper of the rolls, in Montgomeryshire. 

 

Herbert’s mother was inclined to a more artistic life. She was a patron and close friend of the poet John Donne, as well as a number of other poets, writers, and artists. Donne was made Herbert’s godfather after the death of Richard Herbert. The children were primarily raised by their mother who spent a great deal of time worrying about their education. 

 

When he was twelve years old Herbert entered Westminster School as a day pupil. He later became a residential scholar and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609. It was from here that he graduated with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. He graduated in 1616 at the age of 23. After his time at university, he was elected a major fellow of the college and was appointed Reader in Rhetoric. Throughout his years of education, he devoted a great deal of time studying Latin and Greek. These skills allowed him to attain the post of the University’s Public Orator. He remained in this role until 1627. 


Literary Career

Herbert’s first work, Qua auspicatissimum Serenissimi Principis Caroli, was published in 1623. He is known today for writing in English, Latin, and Greek. It was in 1624 that Herbert became a member of parliament, representing Montgomery. He gained favor with King James I during this time period but the king died in 1625, as well as two patrons who were helping to fund the young man’s career. Herbert’s short career in parliament was over but he quickly moved from politics to the church. 

 

In 1626, he was presented with the Prebendary of Leighton Bromswold in the Diocese of Lincoln, a high-level position that was in the upper levels of the clergy. During this same time period, he was a don at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was not until 1629 that Herbert decided to enter the priesthood. He became the rector of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Herbert lived in this town for the rest of his life, writing, and preaching. 

 

In 1633 he published, The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, which was printed in eight different editions before 1690. Like most of Herbert’s poems, these are on a religious theme. He proceeds through the book from the front of the church, to ‘The Altar,’ to ‘The Sacrifice.’ Of his work, it has been said that there is a true closeness to God. Herbert’s devotion was clear through the text. Herbert’s life in Bemerton was not long. In 1633 he took ill and died of consumption. 


Legacy and Posthumous Publication

After Herbert’s death, a book of proverbs was published in 1640, titled, His Outlandish Provers. It listed over 1,000 aphorisms in English which had been gathered from a number of different countries. These proverbs, as well as another 150, were re-published posthumously in the collection, Herbert’s Remains. 

 

A reader of Herbert’s text will also take note of the ways in which many of the poems are printed. Often the text was varied on the page, such as appearing sideways, in an effort to enhance the meaning of the piece. One example of this technique can be seen in the poem, ‘The Altar,’ in which the shorter and longer lines are arranged so they form the image of an altar. 

 

In 1653, Herbert’s only prose work A Priest to the Temple (usually known as The Country Parson) was published. It offered practical advice to rural members of the clergy and explained that what may seem to be worldly objects, such as plows, could be made to serve God’s truth. In addition to Herbert’s skill with the written word, he was known for his ability to play the lute. He often set his own verses and since his death over ninety of his poems have been set to music. 

 

It was not for many centuries after his death that Herbert was appreciated for more than just his piety. His poetic works were not truly admired until a great deal of time had passed. 


Influence from other Poets

George Herbert was notably influenced by religious writers and thinkers, as well as Shakespeare and Milton. His work eventually influenced other well-known poets such as Henry Vaughan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and even Emily Dickinson. 


Poems by George Herbert

Explore poetry by George Herbert below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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