Salisbury Cathedral George Herbert

Statue of George Herbert (1593-1633) at Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, UK. Photo by Richard Avery. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

George Herbert
Born April 3 1593(1593-Template:MONTHNUMBER-03)
Montgomery, Powys, Wales
Died March 1 1633(1633-Template:MONTHNUMBER-01) (aged 39)
Bemerton, Wiltshire, England
Occupation Poet, priest

George Herbert (3 April 1593 - 1 March 1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator, and Anglican priest. Throughout his life he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets.[1] Charles Cotton described him as a "soul composed of harmonies".[2] Herbert himself, in a letter to Nicholas Ferrar said of his writings, "they are a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master".[3] Some of Herbert's poems have endured as hymns, including "King of Glory, King of Peace" (Praise), "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing" (Antiphon) and "Teach me, my God and King" (The Elixir).[4] A distant relative is the modern Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.[5]


George Herbert

Herbert by Robert White (1645-1703), 1674. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Being born into an artistic and wealthy family, Herbert received a good education which led to his holding prominent positions at Cambridge University and Parliament. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, England, George Herbert excelled in languages and music. He went to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but his scholarship attracted the attention of King James I/VI. Herbert served in parliament for two years. After the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert's interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In 1630, in his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.Henry Vaughan said of him,"a most glorious saint and seer".[6]


Herbert was born in Montgomery, Powys, in Wales. His family was wealthy, eminent, intellectual and fond of the arts. His mother Magdalen was a patron and friend of John Donne and other poets;[7] his older brother Edward, later Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was an important poet and philosopher, often referred to as "the father of English deism". Herbert's father Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury died when George was three, leaving a widow and ten children.[8]

At or around the age of 12, Herbert entered Westminster School where he became a day student.[8] Though sometime after he was elevated to the level of scholar.

Herbert later was admitted on scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609 where he graduated first with a Bachelors and then with a masters degree in 1613 at the age of 20.[8] After graduating from Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge (where he achieved degrees with distinction), Herbert was elected a major fellow of his college. In 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge and in 1620 he was elected to the post of Cambridge University orator, whose duties would be served by poetic skill. He held this position until 1628.[9]

In 1624 he became a Member of Parliament, representing Montgomeryshire.[8] While these positions were suited to a career at court, and James I had shown him favour, circumstances worked against him: the King died in 1625, and two influential patrons of Herbert died later in the decade. However George Herbert's only service to parliament may have already ended in 1624 or since, although a Mr Herbert is mentioned as a committee member, there is no record in the Commons Journal for 1625 of Mr. George Herbert (a distinction carefully made in the records of the preceding parliament).[8]


He took up his duties in Bemerton, a rural parish in Wiltshire, about 75 miles southwest of London in 1630. Here he preached and wrote poetry; also helping to rebuild the church out of his own funds.[8]

In 1633 Herbert finished a collection of poems entitled The Temple, which imitates the architectural style of churches through both the meaning of the words and their visual layout. The themes of God and love are treated by Herbert as much as psychological forces as metaphysical phenomena.

Suffering from poor health, Herbert died of tuberculosis only three years after taking holy orders. On his deathbed, he reportedly gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of a semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding (a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot), telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", and otherwise, to burn them.



Herbert's "Easter Wings", a pattern poem in which the work is not only meant to be read, but its shape is meant to be appreciated: In this case, the poem was printed (original image here shown) on two pages of a book, sideways, so that the lines suggest two birds flying upward, with wings spread out.

In 1633 (see 1633 in poetry), all of Herbert's poems were published in The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations, edited by Nicholas Ferrar. The book went through eight editions by 1690.[10]

Barnabas Oley edited in 1652 Herbert's Remains, or sundry pieces of that Sweet Singer, Mr. George Herbert (containing A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson His Character, and Rule of Holy Life and Jacula Prudentum Or Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, & c., as well as a letter, several prayers, and three Latin poems). Prefixed was an unsigned preface by Oley. The second edition appeared in 1671 as A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson, with a new preface, signed Barnabas Oley. These pieces were reprinted in later editions of Herbert's Works. The manuscript of The Country Parson was the property of Herbert's friend, Arthur Wodenoth, who gave it to Oley; the prefaces were a source for Izaak Walton's memoir of Herbert.

All of Herbert's English surviving poems are religious, and some have been used as hymns. William Cowper said of them I found in them a strain of piety which I could not but admire.[11] They are characterised by directness of expression and some conceits which can appear quaint. Many of the poems have intricate rhyme schemes, and variations of lines within stanzas described as 'a cascade of form floats through the temple'.[12]

An example of Herbert's religious poetry is "The Altar." A "pattern poem in which the words of the poem itself form a shape suggesting an altar, and this altar becomes his conceit for how one should offer himself as a sacrifice to the Lord. He also makes allusions to scripture, such as Psalm 51:17, where it states that the Lord requires the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

Herbert also wrote A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) offering practical advice to clergy. In it, he advises that "things of ordinary use" such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to "serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths".

His Jacula Prudentium (sometimes seen as Jacula Prudentum), a collection of pithy proverbs published in 1651, included many sayings still repeated today, for example "His bark is worse than his bite." Similarly oft quoted is his Outlandish Proverbs published in 1630.

Richard Baxter said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books". Dame Helen Gardner adds "head-work" because of his "intellectual vivacity".

Herbert wrote poems in Greek and in Latin. The latter mainly concern ceremonial controversy with the Puritans, but include a response to Pope Urban VIII's treatment of the ROMA AMOR anagram.He was also a collector of 'Outlandish proverbs' some of which are used in his poem 'The Sacrifice'.[13] and he wrote in many poetic forms, appropriate to their theme,and invented, as it were, to embody them [14]

Herbert influenced his fellow metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan who, in turn, influenced William Wordsworth.

Critical introductionEdit

by George Augustus Simcox

The Temple is the enigmatical history of a difficult resignation; it is full of the author’s baffled ambition and his distress, now at the want of a sphere for his energies, now at the fluctuations of spirit, the ebb and flow of intellectual activity, natural to a temperament as frail as it was eager. There is something a little feverish and disproportioned in his passionate heart-searchings.

The facts of the case lie in a nutshell. Herbert was a younger son of a large family; he lost his father early, and his mother, a devout, tender, imperious woman, decided, partly out of piety and partly out of distrust of his power to make his own way in the world, that he should be provided for in the Church. When he was twenty-six he was appointed Public Orator at Cambridge, and hoped to make this position a stepping-stone to employment at court. After eight years his patrons and his mother were dead, and he made up his mind to settle down with a wife on the living of Bemerton, where he died after a short but memorable incumbency of three years. The flower of his poetry seems to belong to the two years of acute crisis which preceded his installation at Bemerton or to the Indian summer of content when he imagined that his failure as a courtier was a prelude to his success in the higher character of a country parson.

The well-known poem on Sunday, which he sang to his lute so near the end, and the quaint poem on the ideal priest, which we extract, may date from Bemerton. The Quip and The Collar may date from the years of crisis. Still, much, like the poems on Employment, of which we insert a specimen, dates from the years of hopeful ambition. There are no traces of consecration or defeat in the Church Porch, where Herbert, like a precocious Polonius, frames a rule of life for himself and other pious courtiers. Herbert, who had thought much of national destiny, and decided that religion and true prosperity were to take flight for America, considered that England was ‘full of sin, but most of sloth.’

The plain truth is, that after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the submission of the chieftains of Ulster, and the tardy pacification of the Netherlands, the English gentry were for the first time since the Field of the Cloth of Gold without a rational object of public concern. Poets were left for the first time to feed idly on their own fancies and feelings: that all kinds of enterprise were feasible, as Herbert repeatedly urged, was of little avail in the absence of motive power. The excitement without impulse which characterises Herbert is the explanation of the old criticism that he has ‘enthusiasm without sublimity.’ He was, it may be, too fastidious to have succeeded in the best of times. The ascetic temper shows early —

‘Look on meat, think it dirt, then eat a bit,
And say withal—“earth to earth I commit”;’

and more pleasantly —

  ‘Welcome dear feast of Lent. Who loves not thee
He loves not temperance or authority.

  • * * * *

Beside the cleanness of sweet abstinence
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
    A face not fearing light.’

He thinks thrift and cleanness go well together, and likes strictness and method for their own sake. The worldling’s false pride in licence offends him from the first. There is more self-complacency than penitence in a poem like The Size. From the first he is preoccupied with the thought of death, and hungers for eternity. Only at first the feeling is that he holds of God for two lives, and hopes to make improvement in both: it is affliction that convinces him that he must sacrifice everything in the present life.

To the last his piety lacks wings: he is always tormenting himself that he does not love as he should; his fastidious imagination cannot stop short of the highest good, and then he finds that the imagination cannot carry the affections with it in its flight. He tries vainly to chide and argue himself into fervour: when the mood of fanciful exaltation becomes unattainable he trembles under a sense of deserved displeasure: he feels the pathos of his own ingratitude more keenly than he feels the majesty or the generosity of the Being he is trying to love. He is far too ingenious for the contagious passion of the great mystics: he moves us most when he subsides into meek wistful yearning, and then he is more interesting for himself than for his subject.[15]


George Herbert Window

Nicholas Ferrar (left) and George Herbert, Church of St. Andrew, Bemerton. Photo by Weglinde. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A memorial window commemoratingHerbert and Willim Cowper is in St. George's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.[16]

Herbert has a statue in niche 188 on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral.

He is commemorated on 27 February throughout the Anglican Communion and on 1 March of the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Six of his poems ("Virtue", "Easter", "Discipline", "A Dialogue," "The Pulley," and "Love") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[17]

His poetry has been set to music by several composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Judith Weir, Randall Thompson, William Walton and Patrick Larley.




  • Oratio Qua auspicatissimum Serenissimi Principis Caroli. Cambridge, UK: 1623.
  • Memoriae Matris Sacrum, printed with A Sermon of commemoracion of the ladye Danvers by John Donne ... with other Commemoracions of her by George Herbert. London: Philemon Stephens & Christopher Meredith, 1627.[18]
  • A priest to the temple, or, The country parson, his character, and rule of holy life. London: T.R. for Benj. Tooke, 1675;
  • Herbert's Remains; Or, Sundry pieces of that sweet singer of the Temple (edited by Barnabas Oley). London: Timothy Garthwait, 1652.[18]
    • London: William Pickering, 1845; Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970.

Collected editionsEdit

Volume III

  • The Temple / A priest to the Temple. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1908.
  • The Works of George Herbert (edited by F. E. Hutchinson). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941
    • revised, 1945.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the WorldCat.[20]

See alsoEdit


  • Falloon Jane, Heart in Pilgrimage ,A Study of George Herbert,Author House,Milton Keynes 2007 ISBN 978-1-4259-7755-9
  • Lewis-Anthony Justin, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him:radically re-thinking priestly ministry,an exploration of the life of George Herbert as a take-off for a re-evaluation of the ministry within the Church of England.August 2009.
  • Sheldrake, Philip (2009) Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and his writings. Canterbury Press ISBN 978-1-85311-948-4


  1. The Grolier 1996 Multimedia Encyclopedia, Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.
  2. Schmidt Michael, Poets on Poets, (Essay on George Herbert), Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1997 ISBN 1-85754-339-4
  3. Maycock A.L., Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding,SPCK,London 1938
  4. The Baptist Hymn Book,Poems and Hymn Trust,London 1962
  5. "The New York Times". 29 July 1998. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-19. 
  6. Henry Vaughan, Mount of Olives, 1652
  7. Donne would later become godfather to the young Herbert after the death of Herbert's biological father.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Charles, Amy M. (1977). A Life of George Herbert. Cornell University Press. p. 28. 
  9. Herbert, George in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  10. Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, p 92, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6
  11. William Cowper,Memoirs of the Early Life of William Cowper,written by Himself, 1816
  12. Vendler H, The Poetry of George Herbert, Harvard Universiry Press, 1975 ISBN 978-0-674-67959-7
  13. Hutchinson F E (ed),The Works of George Herbert, Oxford 1940 ISBN
  14. Schmidt Michael, Essay -George Herbert, Poets on Poets, Carcarnet Press, Manchester, 1997 ISBN 1-85754-339-4.
  15. from George Augustus Simcox, "Critical Introduction: Sandys, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 10, 2016.
  16. George Herbert, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  17. George Herbert in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 18, 2012.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 George Herbert 1593-1633, Poetry Foundation, Web, Oct. 3, 2012.
  19. A Priest to the Temple], Internet Archive. Web, Jan. 29, 2013.
  20. Search results = au:George Herbert, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 10, 2016.

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