George Herbert was born on April 3rd, 1593, seventh in a family of ten children. His parents, Richard and Magdalene (nee Newport), were at the time living in Black Hall, a large, low house situated in a valley overlooked by the towering Montgomery Castle, located in Montgomery, on the border of Wales and England (Charles 22). Both Herbert’s parents were from noble families, and Richard Herbert was a Justice of the Peace and served as a member of Parliament as Lord of Cherbury (or Chirbury, as it is sometimes spelled), as had his father before him.
The eldest in the family was Edward, who would later become Lord of Cherbury himself, and a notable poet and writer. He was followed by Elizabeth, then Margaret, Richard, William, and Charles. After Herbert was born, Magdalene had three more children; Henry, Frances, and Thomas. Richard Herbert (sr) died two months into Magdalene’s last pregnancy. Herbert was only three and a half at the time. The family moved to Oxford for a period of two years after the death of Richard (sr) (Charles 34).
It took these two years to find a suitable home and location for the large family, which at this time included Mary Herbert, Edward’s wife (Charles 32). In 1601, they moved again, this time to Charing Cross in London. In London, the Herbert family got their first taste of the high society of England. They often had guests for supper, including John Donne, who was a good friend of Magdalene (Eliot 15). Their tutors ate with them as often as once or twice a week. Musicians were hired on various occasions to provide music for the family, and the family themselves played – Herbert played the lute and viol and sang (Charles 42). Life at Charing Cross was typical of young gentleman at the turn of the 17th century. The Herberts rode horses, practiced archery and fencing, and attended church. Magdalene herself went to church every day, but the family normally attended only once a week. However, every morning and evening, prayers emanated from the Herbert household, and the day was always ended with a session of Psalm-singing (Charles 42).
Magdalene had taught the children the rudiments of grammar and writing from an early age. This was added to by tutors, brought in for all the male children, who taught them writing, reading, grammar, and Latin. By the time they lived at Charing Cross, several were old enough to enter day school. Herbert began to attend Westminster School when he was twelve. The entrance requirements for the school mandated that every prospective student already know how to read and write. Herbert could not only read and write, but his training in Latin allowed him an advanced standing (“fourth form”) in the school (Charles 51). Westminster gave the regular training focussing on Latin, French, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, but it also had a specialization in Greek and music, which Herbert enjoyed. The boys also spent several summers living with various schoolmasters. Education, for the Herberts, was a year-round activity.
In 1609 – the same year Herbert graduated from Westminster, and moved to Trinity College, Cambridge – his mother remarried, this time to Sir John Danvers (who would later be part of the plot that killed Charles I in 1649). Danvers was less than half Magdalene’s age, and thus was more like a half-brother to many of the Herbert family than a step-father (Charles 57). Herbert indicated in a letter to Danvers that the relationship between them was quite warm (Charles 57). Danvers always helped out Herbert whenever Herbert was in need, as he did for all the Herberts when the opportunity arose.
It is interesting to note that all of the Herbert children lived to adulthood, in an age where many did not. All ten of the children were fully grown before death struck the family, but inevitably it did. Within a span of three years, between 1615 and 1617, three members of the family died. The first was John Vaughan, Margaret Herbert’s husband. Then Charles and William, Herbert’s older brothers, who both died during military action in the Netherlands, only a half-year apart (Charles 86). It is not surprising that later in his career and poetry, Herbert would decry war.
Herbert was an excellent scholar. He had earned one of the three scholarships from Westminster to Trinity in 1601 (Charles 71). He continued to do well at Trinity, graduating from his Bachelor of Arts second in a class of 193, and then ninth in his Master of Arts class (Charles 71). After the final graduation, Herbert was hired to teach as an assistant lecturer at Trinity College.
Much of what is known about Herbert’s character is known from this period, for it was during the twenty-two years that Herbert stayed at Cambridge that some of his letters have been preserved. Eleven of his nineteen surviving letters issue from the Cambridge era (Charles 72). They show him to be a scholar and poet of compassion toward his family, but restrained in his affection to them, eager to serve God, and willing to impart his experience to anyone in need. They also show him to have had money issues, with seldom enough financial income from work or family incomes to support himself in the fashion he thought necessary.
To combat his financial woes, Herbert took on several jobs at the university. He tutored, was a popular lecturer, and in 1620 became the public orator of the university, a prestigious post (Charles 98). As orator, Herbert would have had to offer “official thanks for favors past or pending, artful flattery, and formal academic compliment,” in the form of letters or speeches (Charles 100). However, Herbert did not always perform his duties as he was expected to. On at one occasion, he delivered a scathingly satiric speech about Prince Charles I, who was returning from a voyage to Spain. Herbert was supposed to deliver an oration in praise of Charles, which he did – however, he also wove into that main speech “a supposed desire of the Prince for peace. In full knowledge that Charles and Buckingham had returned home determined on war, Herbert courageously extolled the blessings of peace” (Charles 100). Although publishing opinions contrary to the royal line rarely goes well, especially in the 1600’s, Herbert was not chastised publicly for his deviation, perhaps owing in part to his prior smooth relationship with King James. However, in writing such a divergent opinion from the Prince’s, especially when James was falling more and more ill every day, Herbert certainly ended any hope he might have had for being promoted into the ranks of the court.
In 1923, Herbert stood as a peer to represent the borough of Montgomery, his traditional family grounds (Charles 106). He was never very involved in the workings of Parliament, serving on only one committee during his entire term (Charles 107). The theme of his term was the dissolution of the Virginia Company, a private venture to colonize Virginia, which was making no profit and had caused the deaths of many colonists (Charles 108). Herbert was involved with this through his step-father, Sir Danvers, who was a principal shareholder in the Company, and through Herbert’s close friend Nicholas Ferrar, who had invested in the business (Charles 108). Although Herbert was ready to serve another term after his first, it never began, on account of being prorogued three times by Charles I (Charles 109).
Serving in Parliament was Herbert’s last secular venture. Early in 1924, Herbert received permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to immediately become a deacon, a process that usually took more than a year (Charles 113). Herbert was ordained a deacon a little later that year, and prepared to leave Cambridge. During the summer of 1625, Herbert lived with his mother and step-father in their Chelsea home. As the plague was ravaging London, John Donne joined them until the New Year (Charles 119). The next year, Herbert became the canon (a type of administrator) of Lincoln Cathedral, where his duties were to preach one sermon a year and pay the salaries of various church functionaries, since he himself did not live in Lincoln (Charles 122). Herbert had family who lived close to Lincoln, and his friends the Ferrar’s also lived nearby, so Herbert’s pleasure at having this responsibility can well be imagined. Herbert took great care of Lincoln Cathedral and one of its companion churches, Leighton Bromswold, which Herbert had rebuilt at the expense of himself and his family (Charles 128).
In the spring of 1627, Herbert’s mother, Magdalene, became so acutely ill that Herbert, who had been living with his brother Sir Henry and Henry’s wife, moved back down to Chelsea to be with her (Charles 131). She died later that summer, and in honour of her life, Herbert composed a series of Latin and Greek poems entitled Memoriae Matris Sacrum (Charles 132). Donne preached Magdalene’s burial sermon. Shortly after his mother’s death, Herbert gained partial ownership of lands in Worcestershire. These lands were soon sold to Sir Henry for three thousand pounds, and the interest from Herbert’s share of that was amply enough to support him for the rest of his life (Charles 134, 135).
After Magdalene’s death, Herbert almost immediately gave his resignation as orator of Trinity College, Cambridge, and moved to Sir Danver’s brother’s estate in Dauntesey (Charles 137, 138). It was here that he most probably composed the majority of The Temple, during this last time of peaceful rest in his life (Charles 138 – 141). For the first time in his life, Herbert was healthy, comfortable financially, and enjoying his work. It was a reasonable time to get married, and soon he had developed a relationship with the woman who would be his wife, Jane Danvers, a cousin to Sir Danvers. Very little is known about Jane, except that she was around ten years younger than Herbert (Charles 143, 144). They were married on March 6, 1929 (Charles 144).
In April of 1630, Herbert was given the responsibility of a pastoral charge, in Fugglestone-with-Bemerton (Charles 146). The church and rectory at Bemerton were being repaired, and so Herbert’s ordination as a priest did not take place until September of that same year (Charles 147, 148). During his tenure as priest, Herbert wrote The Country Parson, his practical how-to guide to being a country priest. Judging from the duties that he sets out in the book, he must have led a busy life. It was partially due to the demands that he put on his rather frail body that he so quickly became sick again (Charles 173).
George Herbert died on March 1, 1633. His manuscripts had been sent to his friend Nicholas Ferrar either shortly before or after Herbert died (Charles 179). Ferrar took the finished copy of The Temple to Cambridge to be printed there. It was published around October of 1633, and was immediately popular with audiences.
Herbert is a metaphysical poet, and is part of the school of Donne. He is primarily known for his English poetry, but he wrote Greek and Latin verse that was well regarded in his time, and collected proverbs, which he published in other collections as the Outlandish Proverbs. His literary fame diminished after the turn of the seventeenth century, to be revived by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the nineteen thirties.
Charles, Amy M. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Eliot, T.S. George Herbert. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers, Ltd., 1962.