Facts, events, and important dates
- 1593–Born in Wales
- Education–Trinity College, Cambridge
- Held several academic posts in Cambridge, including a Fellowship at Trinity, appointed as Reader in Rhetoric, and then Public Orator.
- 1624–Served in politics as MP in Parliament.
- 1625–King James I dies, consequently Herbert decides return to his original intentions for ministry in the church.
- 1630–Herbert ordained as priest in the Church of England.
- 1633–Herbert struggled with Tuberculosis and eventually dies after a just a few years of pastoral ministry in the church.
- All of George Herbert’s poetry was composed privately, not being published until after his death. This fact is a remarkable demonstration of his characteristic refusal to seek self-aggrandizement in life.
- A Lesser Feast is dedicated to George Herbert in the Anglican Communion church calendar, celebrated on 27 February (hence, this blog post :))
Herbert’s prose and poetry has left a lasting influence on others. Henry Vaughan, Charles Wesley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins and C. S. Lewis are just a few names (more could be added) of people who have acknowledged their literary debt to Herbert; and that’s not to mention contemporary poets such as Luci Shaw or Malcom Guite.
He is best known today from two significant works, one prose and one poetry. The prose work is titled A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson and it lays out his thoughts on the ministerial vocation. His insights in this book find richly suggestive connections in some of his poems on the same topic. His collection of poetry, which he gave to his friend Nicholas Ferrar on his deathbed, is titled The Temple. It is a brilliant masterpiece whose poems can be read individually (that is, as a collection of self-contained poems) or as a larger, longer work complete with thematic development as one progresses through the poems. Throughout The Temple there are dense allusions both to scripture and to other poems within the collection.
Some of his hymns are still sung in churches today (e.g., ‘The God of love my Shepherd is’, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, and ‘Teach me, my God and King’).
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.
~extract from The English Poems of George Herbert (Page 178). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Malcolm Guite has an insightful reflection on this poem over on his blog. Click here to read it. He introduces the poem by describing it as
a kind of rainbow refraction of many insights, a scattering of many seeds broadcast. For each of these images is in its own way a little poem, or the seed of a poem, ready to grow and unfold in the readers mind. And the different seeds take root at different times, falling differently in the soil of the mind each time one returns to this poem. I have been reading it for over thirty years now and I still find its images springing up freshly in my mind and showing me new things. For the purpose of this Introduction we will delve in and examine four of these little seeds, these poems in themselves within the images, before we take a wider view and see how they all fit together in the larger poem itself.
To read Guite’s reflections on “four of these little seeds” click the link above or just buy his book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination.
There are many good editions of Herbert’s poetry that can be found. The books below are helpful introductions to his life and writings. Alternatively, if you are not yet ready to read a whole book, you can start by visiting this website that lots of interesting facts and resources: GeorgeHerbert.org.uk
Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury
Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology) edited by Philip Sheldrake
A Year With George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems by Jim Scott Orrick
A Prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer)
King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honors
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit ,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
*A note on sources…
The biographical information in this post was obtained from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (edited by Livingston and Cross) and also from Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship (by Darch and Burns).