George Herbert Biography

George Herbert Biography

George Herbert (1593–1633) wrote some of the most beautiful and accessible poetry of the 17th century — yet even today, his poems offer unique spiritual insights. Learn more about this poet in the biography below, and read some of his poetry hosted by Excellence in Literature.

Engraving of George Herbert, poet.

George Herbert
by Robert White

engraving, 1674
(NPG D3251)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons License

HERBERT, GEORGE (1593–1633), poet, born at Montgomery Castle on 3 April 1593, was fourth son of Sir Richard Herbert, by his wife Magdalen, and was brother of Edward, lord Herbert of Cherbury [q. v.], of Sir Henry Herbert [q. v.], and of Thomas Herbert [q. v.] [For an account of his mother and other members of his family see under Herbert, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury.]

As a child he was educated at home under the care of his mother, whose virtues he commemorated in verse, and he may have accompanied her in 1598 to Oxford, whither she went for four years to keep house for her eldest son, Edward. In his twelfth year (1604-5) George was sent to Westminster School ; and obtained there a king’s scholarship on 5 May 1609. He matriculated from Trinity College, Cambridge, on 18 Dec. 1609, graduating B.A. in 1612-13, and M.A. 1616.

The master of the college, Dean Neville, recognised his promise, and he was elected a minor fellow on 3 Oct. 1614, major fellow 15 March 1615-16, and ‘sublector quartæ classis’ 2 Oct. 1617. Herbert was now a finished classical scholar. Throughout his life he was a good musician, not only singing, but also playing on the lute and viol. His accomplishments soon secured for him a high position in academic society, and he attracted the notice of Lancelot Andrewes, bishop of Winchester (cf. Herbert’s letter to the bishop in Grosart, iii. 466). Herbert contributed two Latin poems to the Cambridge collection of elegies on Prince Henry (1612), and one to that on Queen Anne (1619).

At an early period of his university career he wrote a series of satiric Latin verses in reply to Andrew Melville’s ‘Anti-Tami-Cami-Categoria’ (first published in 1604). Melville’s work was an attack on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for passing resolutions hostile to the puritans at the beginning of James I’s reign. Herbert’s answer cleverly defended the established church at all points, and he declared himself strongly opposed to puritanism, an attitude which he maintained through life. Loyal addresses to James I and Charles, prince of Wales, were prefixed, but this work, although circulated in manuscript while Herbert was at Cambridge, was not printed till nearly thirty years after his death, when James Duport, dean of Peterborough, prepared it for publication (1662).

In 1618 Herbert was prelector in the rhetoric school at Cambridge, and on one occasion lectured on an oration recently delivered by James I, bestowing on it extravagant commendation (Hacket, Life of Williams, i. 175; cf. D’Ewes, Diary, i. 121). Despite his preferments, his income was small, and he was unable to satisfy his taste for book-buying. When appealing for money to his stepfather, Sir John Danvers (17 March 1617-18), he announced that he was ‘setting foot into divinity to lay the foundation of my future life,’ and that he required many new books for the purpose.

Soon afterwards he left his divinity studies to become a candidate for the public oratorship at Cambridge— ‘the finest place [he declared] in the university.’ He energetically solicited the influence of Sir Francis Nethersole, the retiring orator, of his stepfather, of his kinsman, the Earl of Pembroke, and of Sir Benjamin Rudyerd. His suit proved successful, and on 21 Oct. 1619 he was appointed deputy orator. On 18 Jan. 1618-19 Nethersole finally retired, and Herbert was formally installed in his place.

His duties brought him into relations with the court and the king’s ministers. He wrote on behalf of the university all official letters to the government, and the congratulations which he addressed to Buckingham in 1619 on his elevation to the marquisate, and to Thomas Coventry on his appointment as attorney-general in 1620, prove that he easily adopted the style of a professional courtier.

Herbert frequently attended James I as the university’s representative at Newmarket or Rovston, and he sent an effusively loyal letter of thanks to the king (20 May 1620) in acknowledgment of the gift to the university of a copy of the ‘Basilikon Doron.’ The flattery delighted the king. Herbert thenceforth was constantly at court, and received marks of favour from Lodowick, duke of Lennox, and James, marquis of Hamilton.

He made the personal acquaintance of Bacon, the lord chancellor. As orator he had thanked Bacon for a gift to the university of his ‘Instauratio’ (4 Nov. 1620), and had written complimentary Latin verses on it in his private capacity. Bacon dedicated to Herbert his ‘translation of certaine psalms’ (1625), ‘in recognition of the pains that it pleased you to take about some of my writings.’ In 1623 Herbert delivered an oration at Cambridge congratulating Prince Charles on his return from Spain, and he expressed regret, in the interests of peace, that the Spanish match had been abandoned.

Herbert at the time undoubtedly hoped to follow the example of Sir Robert Naunton and Sir Francis Nethersole, his predecessors in the office of orator, and obtain high preferment in the service of the state. But the death, in 1625, of the king and of two of his chief patrons, and his suspicions of the wisdom of Buckingham’s policy, led him to reconsider his position. His own early inclinations were towards the church, and his mother had often urged him to take holy orders. To resolve his doubts whether to pursue ‘the painted pleasures of a court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity,’ he withdrew to a friend’s house in Kent, and studied with such energy as to injure his health.

While still undecided, John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, presented him to the prebend of Layton Ecclesia. To the prebend was attached an estate at Leighton Bromswold, Huntingdonshire, on which stood a dilapidated church. Herbert was not ordained, and was thus unable to perform the duties connected with the benefice; but the presentation called into new life the religious ardour of his youth.

Two miles from Leighton was Little Gidding, the home of Nicholas Ferrar [q. v.], with whom Herbert had some slight acquaintance while both were students at Cambridge. Herbert offered to transfer the prebend to Ferrar; but Ferrar declined the offer, and urged Herbert to set to work to restore the ruined church (Ferrar, Life of Nicholas Ferrar, ed. Mayor, pp. 49-50). Herbert eagerly followed Ferrar’s advice. Two thousand pounds were needed. His own resources were unequal to that demand, but with the help of friends he carried the work through.

With Ferrar, who gave money as well as advice, Herbert thenceforth corresponded on terms of great intimacy. They styled each other ‘most entire’ friends and brothers, but they seem only to have met once in later years. Herbert’s final absorption in a religious life was doubtless largely due to Ferrar’s guidance. Donne, the friend of Herbert’s mother, proved also a sympathetic friend, especially at the time of Lady Danvers’s death in 1627. To Herbert, Donne gave one of his well-known seals, bearing on it a crucifix shaped like an anchor.

Owing partly to ill-health, and partly to his attendance at court, Herbert had already delegated his duties as orator at Cambridge to a deputy, Herbert Thorndike, and at the close of 1627 he resigned the post altogether. Threatened with consumption he spent the year 1628 at the house of his brother, Sir Henry Herbert, at Woodford, Essex, and early in 1629 visited the Earl of Danby, brother of his stepfather, at Dauntsey, Wiltshire. There he met, and fell in love with, a relative of his host, Jane Danvers, whose father, Charles Danvers of Baynton, Wiltshire, lately dead, had formed a high opinion of Herbert’s character, and openly told him that he wished him to marry one of his daughters. The marriage took place at Edington on 5 March 1628-9.

Soon afterwards, on 6 April 1630, Charles I, at the request of the Earl of Pembroke, presented Herbert to the rectory of Fugglestone with Bemerton, Wiltshire. He was in doubt whether or no to accept the presentation, but went to Wilton to thank the earl for his kind offices. Laud, bishop of London, was then with the king at Salisbury, and Pembroke immediately informed him of Herbert’s hesitation. Laud sent for Herbert, and convinced him that it was sinful to refuse the benefice.

Tailors were summoned to supply clerical vestments, and Herbert was instituted to the rectory by John Davenant, bishop of Salisbury, on 26 April 1630. Herbert’s life at Bemerton was characterised by a saint-like devotion to the duties of his office. There he wrote his far-famed series of sacred poems. He still practised music in his leisure, and twice a week he walked to Salisbury Cathedral. He repaired Bemerton Church (thoroughly restored by Wyatt in 1866), and rebuilt the parsonage, inscribing on the latter some verses addressed to his successor. Friends contributed to these expenses, but he spent (he wrote to his brother Henry) 200l. from his own resources, ‘which to me that have nothing yet is very much.’ But consumption soon declared itself, and after an incumbency of less than three years he was buried beneath the altar of his church on 3 March 1632-3.

He had no children, and left all his property to his wife, saving a few legacies of money and books to friends. His widow afterwards married Sir Robert Cook of Highnam House, Gloucestershire, whither she carried many of Herbert’s writings. These were burnt with the house by the parliamentary forces during the civil war. A library of books which Herbert had deposited, with chains affixed to the volumes, in a room in Montgomery Castle, met with a very similar fate (Powysland Club Coll. vii. 132). Herbert’s widow was buried at Highnam in 1656 (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. ii. 157).

Besides the Latin poems contributed to the Cambridge collections, Herbert only published in his lifetime ‘Parentalia,’ verses in Latin and Greek to his mother’s memory, which were appended to Dr. Donne’s funeral sermon (London, 1627,12mo), and ‘Oratioquâ auspicatissimum Serenissimi Principis Caroli Reditum ex Hispanijs celebrauit Georgius Herbert, Academiæ Cantabrigiensis Orator,’ printed by Cantrell Legge at the Cambridge University Press, 1623. All the poetic work by which he is remembered was published posthumously.

On his deathbed Herbert directed a little manuscript volume of verse to be delivered to his friend Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, with a view to publication. Ferrar at once applied for a license to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, who hesitated, on the ground that two lines in one of Herbert’s poems (‘The Church Militant’) alluded somewhat contemptuously to the emigration of religion from England to America. But the prohibition was soon withdrawn.

The volume was entitled ‘The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations,’ and Ferrar, the editor, described in a preface Herbert’s piety. Except the opening and closing poems, entitled respectively ‘The Church Porch’ and ‘The Church Militant,’ almost all the pieces are very brief. The earliest edition, which probably appeared within three weeks of Herbert’s death, bears no date on the title-page. It was apparently printed for private circulation only. A unique copy of it is in the Huth Library.

Herbert is also credited with verse-renderings of eight psalms,which are signed ‘G.H.,’ in John Playford’s ‘Psalms and Hymns,’ London, 1671, fol. Walton, in his ‘Life of Herbert,’ prints two sonnets addressed by him to his mother. Aubrey quotes inscriptions assigned to Herbert on the tomb of Lord Dunvers at Dauntsey, and on the picture of Sir John Danvers, his stepfather’s father. A poem by Herbert called ‘A-Paradox’ in the Rawlinson MSS. at the Bodleian Library, and a poetic address to the queen of Bohemia in Brit. Mus. Harl. MS. 3910, pp. 121-2, were first printed by Dr. Grosart.

Herbert’s chief work in prose is ‘A Priest to the Temple, or the Countrey Parson, his Character and Rule of Holy Life,’ which was first issued in a little volume (Lond. 1652, 12mo) bearing the general title ‘Herbert’s Remains,’ and including a second tract called ‘Jacula Prudentum’ (see below). A brief address to the reader, signed by Herbert, is dated 1632, and there is a biographical notice of the author by Barnabas Oley. The book is a record of the duties and aspirations of a pious country clergyman.

In 1640 there appeared in ‘Witt’s Recreations’ a little tract entitled ‘Outlandish Proverbs selected by Mr. G. H.’—a collection of 1,010 proverbs. This tract was republished with many additions and alterations as ‘Jacula Prudentum, or Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, &c., selected by Mr. George Herbert, late Orator of the Universitie of Cambridge,’ in 1651, and with it were printed ‘The Author’s Prayers before and after Sermons’ (which also appear in Herbert’s ‘Country Parson’); his letter to Ferrar ‘upon the translation of Valdesso’ (dated from Bemerton, 29 Sept. 1632); and Latin verses on Bacon’s ‘Instanratio Magna,’ on Bacon’s death, and on Dr. Donne’s seal. The volume concludes with ‘An Addition of Apothegmes by Severall Authours.’ This book was reissued in 1652 as a second part of the volume entitled Herbert’s ‘Remains’ (Lond. 12mo).

Four affectionate letters to his younger brother, Sir Henry Herbert, dated 1618 and later, appear in Warner’s ‘Epistolary Curiosities,’ 1818, pp. 1-10. His letters to Ferrar are inserted in Webb’s ‘Life of Ferrar;’ his letters to his mother were printed by Walton, and some official letters from Cambridge as orator are extant in the university archives.

Herbert’s poems found much favour with his seriously-minded contemporaries. Richard Crashaw, in presenting the ‘Temple’ ‘to a Gentlewoman,’ speaks enthusiastically of Herbert’s ‘devotions’ and expositions of ‘divinest love.’ Walton, who in his ‘Angler’ quotes two of his poems, ‘Virtue’ and ‘Contemplation of God’s Providence,’ characterises the ‘Temple,’ in his life of Donne, as ‘a book in which, by declaring his own spiritual conflicts, he hath comforted and raised many a dejected and discomposed soul and charmed them with sweet and quiet thoughts.’

Richard Baxter found, ‘next the scripture poems,’ ‘none so savoury’ as Herbert’s, who ‘speaks to God like a man that really believeth in God’ (Poetical Fragments, pref. 1681). Henry Vaughan, in the preface to his ‘Silex Scintilians,’ 1650, credits Herbert with checking by his holy life and verse ‘the foul and overflowing stream’ of amatory poetry which flourished in his day. Charles I read the ‘Temple’ while in prison. Archbishop Leighton carefully annotated his copy with appreciative manuscript notes. Cowper’s religious melancholy was best alleviated by poring over the book all day long. Coleridge wrote of the weight, number, and compression of Herbert’s thoughts, and the simple dignity of the language (Biog. Lit.)

His sincere piety and devotional fervour are undeniable, and in portraying his spiritual conflicts and his attainment of a settled faith he makes no undue parade of doctrinal theology. He was at all times a careful literary workman, and the extant manuscript versions show that he was continually altering his poems with a view to satisfying a punctilious regard for form.

In two poems, ‘Easter Wings’ and ‘The Altar,’ he arranges his lines so as to present their subjects pictorially. But on very rare occasions, as in his best-known poem, that on ‘Virtue,’ beginning ‘Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright,’ or in that entitled ‘The Pulley,’ he shows full mastery of his art, and, despite some characteristic blemishes, writes as though he were genuinely inspired.

[Barnabas Oley’s biographical notice of Herbert prefixed to the 1652 edition of the Country Parson is valuable as the testimony of a personal friend. The very sympathetic memoir written by Izaak Walton, who was not personally acquainted with Herbert, was first published in 1670, with some letters written by Herbert to his mother while he was at Cambridge, and extracts from Donne’s correspondence with Lady Herbert. Walton’s Life was republished in 1674 with his collected lives of Donne, Hooker. &c., and with the 1674 and later editions of Herbert’s poems. See also Nicholas Ferrar, two lives edited by Professor J. E. B. Mayor (Cambridge, 1855, 8vo); Powysland Club collections, vii. 132 sq.; and Dr. Grosart’s valuable introduction to his collected edition of all Herbert’s known writings, with his notes on Walton’s memoir.]

S. L. L.

Text adapted from Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900Volume 26


Read George Herbert poems hosted by Excellence in Literature

If you enjoy George Herbert’s devotional poetry, you’ll want to read Working it Out: Growing Spiritually with the Poetry of George Herbert by Joseph L. Womack. This delightful volume offers a minister’s explication of selected Herbert poems. For each poem he covers The Big Picture, The Parts of the Picture, The Parts of the Picture Come Together, Reflections, and Scriptures for Further Reflection. It’s not just a devotional guide; it’s also a very helpful example of how to get the most from reading poetry. Highly recommended.


When will you read George Herbert’s writing in Excellence in Literature?

You will study Herbert as part of EIL Unit 4 (British Literature)

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