Metaphysical and religious poet, George Herbert (1593-1633) was the fifth son of Richard and Magdalen Newport Herbert, a noble and distinguished family from Montgomery , Wales . His great, great grandfather was the brother of Sir William Herbert who was granted an Earldom by Edward IV, for his services in the White Rose (the symbol of Yorkish partisans in the War of the Roses). He was born on April 3, 1593 , in Montgomery , Wales .  After the death of his father in 1596, his mother moved her family of seven boys and three girls first to Oxford and then five years later to London in order to educate them and raise them as loyal Anglicans. In Oxford , Magdalen Herbert became a patron for John Donne, the famed poet and preacher, who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her. Herbert was tutored at home until the age of twelve, then sent to Westminster School, where, according to his first biographer Izaak Walton, “the beauties of his pretty behaviour and wit shined and became so eminent and lovely in this his innocent age, that he seemed to be marked out for piety” (379).  In 1596, Magdalen Herbert married Sir John Danvers. In 1610, Herbert sent his first two sonnets to his mother, maintaining in them that the love of God is a worthier subject for verse than the love of a woman. In 1612, two memorial poems in Latin on the death of Prince Henry (the heir apparent to the throne) were published.

      After earning distinction as a Westminster King’s Scholar, Herbert studied at Trinity College , Cambridge . He earned his B.A. in 1613 and his M.A. in 1616. In 1618, he became a Reader in Rhetoric and was elected Public Orator (official spokesperson ) for the University from 1620-1628, a post which required that he write the official letters of the university and deliver speeches of praise to visiting dignitaries. This post gave him access to powerful political contacts, including Sir Francis Bacon and King James I. Both of these contacts thought highly of Herbert. Bacon had Herbert read his works before he published them, and dedicated his Tranlation of Certaine Psalmes (The Psalms of King David) to Herbert whom he saw “as the best judge of divine poetry,” and King James saw Herbert as “the jewel of the University” for his eloquent and learned ability to express in Latin the thoughts of the university on public matters (qtd. In Walton 387). In addition, he served as a member of Parliament for Montgomery in 1624 and 1625.

      Instead of pursuing these secular aims, which offered much promise as made evident by the appointment of his two immediate predecessors as Secretaries of State, Herbert chose a path similar to the one that he had earlier taken in regard to his poetry by choosing to become a deacon in 1626 and resigning from his post as Orator in 1627. In this same year, his mother died and her funeral sermon was delivered by John Donne. On March 5, 1629 , after a brief courtship, he married Jane Danvers, his step-father’s cousin. That year also saw his brother Edward Herbert, a noted philosopher and poet, raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Cherbury. In April of 1630, he was presented by King Charles I the rectorship of St. Andrew’s at Bemerton in Salisbury , and in September of that same year, he was ordained an Anglican Priest.

      At St. Andrew’s Herbert devoted himself to the flock entrusted to him by faithfully tending to the needs of his parishioners. These tasks included the rebuilding of the church out of his own monies, conducting Morning and Evening prayer, and visiting and nurturing his flock through word and action. His treatise, A Priest to the Temple , Or, The Country Parson (1652) bears witness to the duties he maintained as a priest.  Herbert had been sickly for quite some time, and on his deathbed he gave the manuscript of The Temple ; or, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations to Edmund Duncon to convey to Mr. Nicholas Ferrar, his friend. Herbert told Duncon that the manuscript contains “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 soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it” (qtd. In Walton 419). Shortly after his death of consumption in 1633 at the age of forty, Ferrar had The Temple (1633) published; it received much acclaim and by 1680 had been reprinted twenty times.  Aside from this poetry collection and The Country Parson (published in 1652 as part of Herbert’s Remains), Herbert also wrote Latin poetry and compiled  proverbs.


Links to biographies of George Herbert:

[George Herbert at Bemerton]Luminarium. Biography. Timeline.

Biographies of Saints and religious people, for February 27 by James Kiefer

Isaak Walton, "The Life of George Herbert [Link]," 1670. More important for his reputation than accuracy of his life.

Article in Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. VII on "George Herbert's personality and divided aims reflected in his poems."

Biography by St. James' Church, Manotick

Biographical by Brent Ehrig, et al. (students at SW Texas Community College)

Biography at The Columbia Encyclopedia

Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia