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 which close to both the national and local government. At one point his father was a member of parliament as well as a justice of the peace. For a time Richard Herbert serve as a high sheriff and custom 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.
Early Career and Religious Training
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 favour with King James I during this time period but the king died in 1625, as well as two patron 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 which 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.
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 were 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 see 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 ploughs, 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.