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George Herbert

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George Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican priest and religious poet, and is an important figure for English Renaissance literature and the group of writers referred to as the metaphysical poets. His most famous work is a collection of poems entitled The Temple, a group of poems arranged to replicate moving through a temple. Though his poetry is less conceptually dense than Donne's, drawing more from the Bible than contemporary philosophy, Herbert's poetry is complex and formally innovative.

Biography

Herbert was born on April 3, 1593 at Montgomery in Wales, the seventh of ten children. He came from an aristocratic family with a love of literature. (One member of the family was the Countess of Pembroke to whom Sir Philip Sidney dedicated Arcadia.) Among his brothers were the poet and writer Edward Herbert, generally known as Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Sir Henry Herbert who became Master of the Revels. Several years after his birth, and following the death of Herbert's father, his mother moved her ten children, first to stay with her mother at Eyton-on-Severn in Shropshire in 1597, and then to Oxford in 1599. In 1604, George began classes at Westminster School, studying Greek, Latin, and liturgical music, and he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609.

Herbert moved through the ranks at Cambridge, which ultimately culminated in his becoming an orator at the university in 1620. This position entailed crafting speeches and writings for high ranking government officials, and in the March of 1623 Herbert delivered a speech to King James VI and I.

In 1624, in accordance with family tradition, Herbert was elected as the MP for Montgomery. It seemed likely at this stage that he would have a successful career at court or as an ambassador: it may have been the death of King James which put an end to his hopes. By 1626 he relinquished his parliamentary seat to his brother Henry and became a deacon in the Church of England.

In June 1627, Herbert's mother died after an extended sickness. Herbert wrote poetry in Latin and Greek to commemorate her, and John Donne gave a sermon at the funeral (he had been acquainted with the family since at least 1607). In 1629, Herbert married Jane Danvers, a cousin of his stepfather, and in 1630 he became a priest and the rector of Fugglestone-with-Bemerton. Though his station at Bemerton has done much to contribute to the romantic picture of Herbert as a rural parish priest, Herbert seems to have maintained his high society connections, though his own lifestyle was relatively modest. He was conscientious in carrying out his duties. He gave generously towards the rebuilding of his parish church. Izaak Walton, who knew George Herbert and published a life of him in 1670, records one occasion when he encountered a man whose horse had fallen, helped the horse back on to its feet, and helped the owner reload the cart. On another occasion he is said to have given his cloak to a poor man on the way to dinner with wealthy acquaintances,

His chief prose work - A Priest for the Temple - was published in 1652. This was a guide for country parsons in which he suggested that the ordinary aspects of rural life - such as ploughs and dances - could be used as "lights even of Heavenly Truths" - an approach very much in keeping with the ethos of his poetry. The year before appeared an anthology of proverbs, Jacula Prudentium.

Two years later, Herbert became gravely ill, probably with tuberculosis. He died on March 1, 1633, at age 39. His festival or commemoration is observed in churches of the Anglican communion on February 27.

Poetry

When he knew he was dying, he gave a manuscript of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, who founded a semi-monastic Anglican community at Little Gidding. They were published shortly after his death as a collection called The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. Several of these poems have been set to music as well-known hymns: The God of Love my Shepherd is; King of Glory, King of Peace; Teach me, my God and King; and Let all the World in Every Corner Sing.

His poems range from complex metaphysical meditations to simple adoration of God. He uses objects and metaphors from the world immediately around him to convey deep spiritual insights, and for the most part he prefers to use short words from everyday language and relatively simple syntax. Some poems show him wrestling with God in a way reminiscent of some of the biblical Psalms. Like other metaphysical poets, he makes considerable use of conceits and puns. One poem - Easter Wings - is laid out on the page to look like a pair of wings.

The poems' worth was quickly recognised and they were frequently reprinted. They were a major influence on the poetry of a later metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan.