Sure, you’ve heard of Shakespeare, and you might even know about Marlowe.
But what about Herbert? In this lesson, you’ll encounter George Herbert – one of the most prolific yet unmentioned Shakespearean contemporaries – as well as some of his poetry.
The Saintly Psalmist: A Brief Biography of George Herbert
The fifth of ten children born to the prominent Herbert family, George Herbert arrived on April 3, 1593 at the family’s estate in Montgomery, Wales. His father Richard died when George was only three, and his mother Magdalen moved the family to London, where George was enrolled in the prestigious Westminster School.
Here, he learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew along with other foundations of education at the time. This is where George also met Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop and scholar who undoubtedly influenced the course of Herbert’s life.In 1609, George left for Trinity College at Cambridge – in service to which he would spend almost half his life. There, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a major fellowship. He was also awarded the position of University orator in 1620, which enabled him to represent Cambridge at official functions, as well as to engage in activities beyond school grounds.
Between 1624 and 1625, Herbert represented his hometown of Montgomery in Parliament. However, his political career was cut short. With his ordination as a deacon in 1624 and the death or disgrace of many of his most powerful and influential friends in the surrounding years, Herbert knew he would have to find employment elsewhere than in public office.Though he belonged to a family of great means, Herbert personally struggled with money. The meager earnings he made from managing the smaller parishes he had been assigned were barely enough to feed him; however, a fortunate land grant in 1627 seemed to solve his money troubles. By this time, Herbert had all but dissociated himself from Cambridge, spending most of his time in devotion to the Church. He married Jane Danvers in 1629 and entered the Anglican priesthood in late 1630.
George then took his final religious assignment at the tiny country parish of Bemerton in Wiltshire, where he would finish out his work and his days.
The Death and Sainthood of George Herbert
While at Bemerton, George used his newfound wealth to repair his and other churches in the area. It is also during this time that he wrote his only prose work: The Country Parson, a guidebook for clergy on positive involvement in the community. Sadly, though, his time in Bemerton was short-lived. Throughout his life, Herbert had suffered from exceedingly poor health, even once becoming bedridden for nearly an entire year. At the young age of 39, George Herbert died of consumption on March 1, 1633. His years of dedication and service to various parishes and to the Church of England in general, though, have earned him commemoration in the Anglican Calendar of Saints, with his feast day observed on February 27.
Poems by George Herbert
Although not published until 1633 as part of Herbert’s famous The Temple, this 79-stanza devotional poem was probably written sometime around 1614. George composed spiritual advice to his brother Henry in a poem because he thought that ‘A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies.’ This mentality was shared by John Donne and other writers of metaphysical poetry – verse works of the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore concepts of love or religion.
Herbert is considered one of the masters of this poetic movement and employs a wide variety of vivid and culturally accessible metaphors to discuss complicated (not to mention touchy) moral issues. Take for instance Stanza 16 from The Church-porch, in which Herbert utilizes the well-known images of sheep and the medieval illness of lethargy (associated with phlegm) to condemn the idleness and apathy of the British people.O England! full of sinne, but most of sloth;Spit out thy flegme, and fill thy brest with glorie:Thy Gentrie bleats, as if thy native clothTransfus’d a sheepishnesse into thy storie:Not that they all are so; but that the mostAre gone to grasse, and in the pasture lost.
This poem can be found as part of The Church, the largest portion of Herbert’s collection of devotional poetry known as The Temple. This portion is a metaphorical exploration of the internal features of a church, representative of a person’s own internal sanctification. Many of the poems in this section, including Easter Wings, are designed to coincide with certain liturgical celebrations (i.e.
Easter); however, George also uses them to discuss his own personal struggles with poor finances and health as in the stanza excerpted below. It is through acknowledging his adversities, though, that Herbert realizes the need for closeness with God in poems like these.My tender age in sorrow did beginne:And still with sicknesses and shameThou didst so punish sinne,That I becameMost thinne.With theeLet me combineAnd feel this day thy victorie:For, if I imp my wing on thineAffliction shall advance the flight in me.Easter Wings is special in another way, as well. Not only does Herbert use the words of the poem to describe his ascension to God’s presence, but he also arranges those words in such a way that they visually illustrate a pair of wings.
Verse works like these that use typographical elements (i.e. word spacing, line length, etc.) of the poetry to form a visual image are known as concrete poetry.
And those (like Herbert’s) that are on predominantly religious subjects are further classified as altar poems.
Memoriae Matris Sacrum
Written in 1627 to commemorate the death of Magdalen, A Poem Consecrated to the Memory of my Mother (Memoriae Matris Sacrum) is the only work that Herbert ever published during his lifetime. It is also one of the several, however, that he wrote in either Latin or Greek. In this instance, Herbert also maintains the tradition of Roman and Greek authors to attack their own work – especially while eulogizing someone in verse.Throughout the Memoriae, Herbert illustrates the fortunate yet complicated relationship he had with his mother, a woman of considerable talents for recognizing (and patronizing) skilled poets. In the excerpt translated below, you’ll find George’s acknowledgement of his mother’s hand in his early education.
He claims, though, that his skill with the letters his mother taught him to read and write is scarcely enough to thank her.With your son so grieved, you will truly be praisedForever, mother: the letters by which you taught meOwe you this (much); in praising Mother, those that followWill smear of their own accord the pages belonging to the greatestFruit of my labors, when those unaware oppose (them).
Descended from a prominent Welsh family, George Herbert chose a life of solemn devotion to God through deeds and poetry. He also served Cambridge University for a good portion of his life, acting as orator – one of the most prestigious positions available. Additionally, George briefly represented his hometown in Parliament.
Ordained as a deacon and later a priest in the Anglican tradition, Herbert spent the majority of his life and resources on benefiting the Church, for which he is commemorated with a festival. Religious concepts also occupied his literary pursuits, and George was highly involved in producing metaphysical poetry exploring primarily the concepts of love or religion (i.e. The Church-porch). He was also quite fond of poetry on predominantly religious subjects that uses typographical elements to form a visual image, known as an altar poem (i.
e. Easter Wings). Memoriae Matris Sacrum, the only work to be published in his lifetime, also reflects Herbert’s tendency to write poetry in Latin or Greek.