George Herbert

3 April 1593–1 March 1632/3

Note: Herbert died on 1 Mar. 1632, during a time period in which the new year did not begin until 25 March, so some biographies give the corrected calendar year as 1633.

 

George Herbert, engraving by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery, London.

GEORGE HERBERT, of Bemerton, the prince and model of all country parsons, was born in the castle that had long been held by his illustrious ancestors, near Montgomery, on April 3, 1593. On the father’s side he belonged to the family of the Earl of Pembroke, and his eldest brother was the eminent philosophical writer, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. His mother, to  whom he was much indebted, and the more because of the early death of his father, was the youngest daughter of Sir Richard Newport. George was the fifth son in a family of ten children. After receiving some home education, he studied at Westminster School, and at the age of 15 was elected therefrom to Trinity College, Cambridge, whither he went. Soon after his arrival he sent his mother a sonnet, which gave promise of the peculiarities and excellences of his later style. It was sent as a testimony that his “poor abilities in poetry should be all and ever consecrated to God's glory.”

He was B.A. in the year 1611, Major Fellow of the College, March 15, 1615, and M.A. the same year. And, along with severer studies, he gave much attention to music, of which he was very fond. In 1619 he was chosen Orator for the University, an office he filled with honour for eight years. During this period the University was visited by King James I, the great philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, Bishop Andrews, and other eminent personages, from whom he received marks of favour when the duties of his office brought him under their notice. This kept alive his hope of being appointed a Secretary of State, and he learned some modern languages to qualify himself for that position. But the death of the King, and of some other powerful friends, put an end to his hopes of Court-favour, and he retired to live with a friend in Kent.

In his retirement he meditated upon his position and prospects; and, after much conflict of mind, he resolved to give up the more attractive pleasures of the Court, and to devote himself to the work of the ministry. In July, 1626, he was made prebend of Layton Ecclesia, a village in the county of Huntingdon. There he found the church in ruins, and, by the assistance of his rich kinsmen and friends, rebuilt and beautified it. About the year 1629, his health began to fail by the inroads of disease, which first attacked him in the form of quotidian ague. Change of air and attention to diet for a time afforded him relief.  He is said to have removed to Woodford, in Essex. His mother died in 1627.  He then resigned the Oratorship at Cambridge, and in 1630 was very happily married to Jane, daughter of Charles Danvers, Esq., of Bainton, Wilts, a kinsman of the Earl of Danby.

In the same year he received from King Charles I the living of Bemerton, near Salisbury. On his induction, when left alone in the church to toll the bell (as the law required him), he remained so long that his friends went to seek him, and found him prostrate before the altar. He was making some of those holy resolutions which he has recorded so admirably in his Country Parson, but which were still better embodied in his short but exemplary pastoral life.  He was very devoted to the services of the Church, and carefully explained their character and meaning to his parishioners. And, in addition to the services in the Church, he daily assembled his household, and as many as possible of his parishioners, for service at 10 and 4, in the chapel adjoining his parsonage house.

Of his love to music, Izaak Walton says, in his Life of him: “His chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol: and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week, on certain appointed days, to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say that his time spent in prayer and cathedral-music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth.”

But his course of holy enjoyment and active benevolence was soon brought to an end. His disease took the form of consumption; and his failing strength being no longer sufficient for his duties, he laid them aside one by one, and at length peacefully sank in the arms of death, in 1632, in the thirty-ninth year of his age. The poet left no family, but his widow afterwards married Sir Robert Cook. She lived till 1663, and left one daughter. It was about three weeks before his death that Herbert sent his poems, entitled The Temple, and from which the hymns by him are taken, to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, with this message: “I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom. Desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it, for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.” Mr. N. Ferrar, anticipating the favourable verdict of posterity, published The Temple in 1633, and it met with a large sale then, as it now maintains an undying reputation. His prose work, A Priest to the Temple: or the Country Parson, his Character and Rule of Holy Life, to which we have already referred, is dated, in the author's preface, A.D. 1632. It appeared in Herbert’s Remains, edited by Mr. Barnabas Oley (1652).

Izaak Walton relates that “The Sunday before his death the poet rose suddenly from his couch, called for one of his instruments, took it in his hand, and said—

My God, My God,
My music shall find Thee,
And every string
Shall have his attribute to sing.

And having tuned it, he played and sung the fifth stanza of his piece on Sunday—“The Sundays of man’s life,” &c. Thus he sang on earth such hymns and anthems as the angels and he and Mr. Ferrar now sing in heaven.” Herbert's poems are sometimes difficult, because of the depth and variety of meaning they contain, and because of the quaintness of their manner, though the language is invariably clear and bold; but to the patient seeker they supply many pearls. Baxter said, of all the poems written up to his time, that “next to Scripture poems there were none so savoury to him as Herbert’s,” and that “heart-work and heaven-work made up his books.”

In The Temple, there is a piece entitled “A True Hymn,” in which Herbert, who had a claim to be heard on this subject, says truly:

The fineness, which a hymn or psalm affords,
Is when the soul unto the lines accords.
He who craves all the mind,
And all the soul, and strength, and time;
If the words only rhyme,
Justly complains, that somewhat is behind
To make his verse, or write a hymn in kind.

by Josiah Miller
Singers and Songs of the Church (1869)


Featured Hymns:

Come, my way, my truth, my life (The Call)
Let all the world in every corner sing (Antiphon)
Oh all ye who pass by (The Sacrifice)
Teach me, my God and King (The Elixir)

Published Works:

The Temple (1633): PDF
Outlandish Proverbs (1640): PDF
Herbert’s Remains (1652): PDF
A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson (1652): PDF

Manuscripts:

Volume of Poems by George Herbert (28.169, “The Williams Manuscript,” or MS Jones B62), Dr. Williams Library, Bloomsbury, London:
https://dwl.ac.uk/index.php

George Herbert’s manuscript of The Temple, Bodleian Library, Tanner Manuscripts, No. 307:
http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/online.htm

The Bodleian Manuscript of George Herbert’s Poems: A Facsimile of Tanner 307 (NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1984): WorldCat

Editions:

Select Hymns Taken out of Mr Herbert’s Temple and Turned into Common Metre (1697): PDF

The Works of George Herbert (London: Wm. Pickering, 1846)

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF

George Herbert Palmer, The English Works of George Herbert (1905):

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF
Volume 3: PDF
Volume 4: PDF
Volume 5: PDF
Volume 6: PDF

Ann Pasternak Slater, George Herbert: The Complete English Works (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): Amazon

Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: University Press, 2007): Amazon

Jim Scott Orrick, A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011): Amazon

John Drury & Victoria Moul, George Herbert: The Complete Poetry (Penguin, 2015): Amazon


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Biographies:

Isaak Walton, The Life of Mr. George Herbert (1670): PDF

Josiah Miller, “George Herbert,” Singers and Songs of the Church (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869), pp. 61-64: Archive.org

William T. Brooke, “George Herbert,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 511-512: Google Books

Duncan Campbell, “George Herbert,” Hymns and Hymn Makers (1898), pp. 27-29: Archive.org

Amy M. Charles, A Life of George Herbert (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977): WorldCat

John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2013): Amazon

Related Links:

“George Herbert,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/person/Herbert_G

Robert Gullifer, “George Herbert,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/g/george-herbert

Helen Wilcox, “George Herbert,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/13025