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Herbert, Georgefree

  • Helen Wilcox

George Herbert (1593–1633)

by Robert White [posthumous]

by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University (from MS Eng. 1405)

Herbert, George (1593–1633), Church of England clergyman and poet, was born on 3 April 1593 at Montgomery, seventh of the ten children of Richard Herbert (d. 1596) and his wife, Magdalen or Magdalene Newport (d. 1627). Herbert was (as his early biographer, Barnabas Oley, asserted) 'extracted out of a Generous, Noble, and Ancient Family' (Herbert's Remains, sig. b6r); his paternal grandfather was Sir Edward Herbert, constable of Montgomery Castle and, from 1553, lord of Cherbury, while his maternal grandfather, Sir Richard Newport, was descended from Gwenwynwyn, ruler of southern Powys. Herbert's father was MP, JP, sheriff and deputy lieutenant of the county of Montgomery, and his first son, Edward, George's eldest brother, became the philosopher, diplomat, and poet Edward Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Cherbury. George's younger brothers were Henry, born in the summer of 1594, who became Sir Henry Herbert, master of the revels from 1623, and Thomas Herbert, who became a naval officer.

George Herbert's place of birth was probably not Montgomery Castle, despite the claim of his seventeenth-century biographer, Izaak Walton; it is more likely that Herbert's parents were living in Black Hall in the valley below the castle (Charles, Life, 26–7). There is no extant record of Herbert's baptism, and the Montgomery period of his life was relatively short and overcast by mortality. When George was about six weeks old, his Herbert grandfather died, and some three and a half years later George's own father—described by Edward Herbert as a 'black haired and bearded' figure with 'a manly or somewhat stern look'—died of a 'Lethargie … which continued long upon him' (Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 2, 15). Magdalene Herbert was two months pregnant with their tenth child at the time of her husband's death. After the birth of this last son, Thomas, in May 1597, she moved with her large young family to the home of her mother, Margaret Newport, in Eyton-on-Severn in Shropshire. By early 1599, however, George's maternal grandmother had died and his family was on the move once again.

In 1599 Herbert's 'good and godly' mother (Herbert's Remains, sig. b6v) took her household to Oxford, where her eldest son, Edward, was already studying at University College. According to Walton it was during this Oxford period that Magdalene Herbert, and presumably George, met John Donne, though the earliest firm evidence of this friendship is a letter from Donne to Magdalene Herbert in July 1607. Meanwhile, however, the unsettled nature of George's early years had again reasserted itself: within two years of moving to Oxford, the family had left for London, taking a house in the Charing Cross area of the city early in 1601, at the very time of the Essex rebellion. While political frustrations were expressed on the streets of London, life within the walls of the Herbert home is vividly suggested by the extant Kitchin Booke, begun on 11 April 1601, from which is learned that there were twenty-six members of the 'ordinary Howshold' (family and staff) in total. As George's brother Edward later tartly observed:

My Mother together with my selfe and wife removed up to London where wee tooke house and kept a greater Family then became either my Mothers widdows estate or such young beginners as we were especially since six brothers and three sisters were to bee provided for.

Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 36

The Kitchin Booke also records the livestock kept in the grounds of the house at Charing Cross, the meals served, the many visitors entertained and the resources expended on them. Among the guests for supper in 1601 were the composers John Bull and William Byrd, and the historian William Camden, whose company George may also have had during the summer of 1601 when he and his brother Richard stayed at the house shared by Camden with Will Heather, a lay vicar of Westminster Abbey. By this time the eight-year-old George was hard at work on his private study, including Latin; a number of tutors' names appear in the list of those attending the household, and the Kitchin Booke records that in August 1601 George needed paper for a 'Coppie and Phrase booke'. He also regularly heard sermons by Thomas Mountfort, a close friend of Donne, at the nearby parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Formal education

George Herbert's eldest brother, Edward, acknowledged that their widowed mother 'brought up her Children carefully'; in the case of the boys of the family, this entailed not only the religious and moral discipline of the home, but a formal commitment to be 'brought up in Learning' (Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 8). George entered Westminster School as a day pupil in 1604, while the renowned scholar and preacher Lancelot Andrewes was dean of Westminster. Andrewes was said to allow the pupils 'not an hour of Loitering-time from morning to night' and to check their 'Exercises in Prose and Verse' strictly for 'Style and Proficiency' (Hacket, Scrinia reserata, 1.44). Soon afterwards, Andrewes became bishop of Chichester and was succeeded as dean by Richard Neile, upon whose recommendation Herbert was elected a scholar at Westminster and thus became a residential pupil in 1605. The chief master was Richard Ireland, who oversaw a syllabus of classical rhetoric, logic, and grammar, including an unusual amount of Greek in addition to Latin, combined with a particular emphasis on liturgical music because of the close association of the school with Westminster Abbey.

Herbert's first months as a pupil in residence coincided with the danger and political turmoil caused by the unsuccessful Gunpowder Plot against the king at the Palace of Westminster in November 1605. Despite this uneasy setting, Herbert soon showed himself to be an 'excellent' scholar (Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 8). He and his contemporary John Hacket, the future bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, were together regarded as two of the brightest and most scholarly young men of their generation. When they were both elected as Westminster scholars to Trinity College, Cambridge, their chief master was reported to have said that:

he need give them no counsel to follow their Books, but rather to study moderately, and use exercise; their parts being so good, that if they were careful not to impair their health with too much study, they would not fail to arrive at the top of learning in any Art or Science.

Hacket, Century of Sermons, v

Herbert did indeed arrive at the 'top of learning' in Cambridge, where he was admitted to Trinity College on 5 May 1609. He became a bachelor of arts in 1613 (ranked second of the 193 graduates in the year), proceeded to become a minor fellow of Trinity College in 1614, and was promoted to major fellow and master of arts in 1616. In 1617 he was employed as sublector quartae classis (assistant lecturer) at Trinity, after which he became praelector in rhetoric in 1618, deputy to the university orator, Sir Francis Nethersole, in 1619, and university orator in 1620. His Cambridge years were marred, however, by persistent bouts of ill health and a continuing shortage of money for books, both of which are mentioned in the surviving letters written from Cambridge by Herbert to, among others, his stepfather. In 1608, just before George went up to Cambridge, Magdalene Herbert had ended her twelve years of widowhood and single-handed raising of ten children (all of whom survived into adulthood) by marrying Sir John Danvers, a man less than half her age. Danvers came from a distinguished Wiltshire family and was said by contemporaries to be a man whom 'People would run after in the street' in order to see and admire (Charles, Life, 56). Magdalene Herbert's marriage to this striking young man led to the establishment of a second family home—Danvers's house by the Thames in Chelsea—which was frequently visited by Sir Francis Bacon and John Donne as well as, presumably, by Herbert in his vacations from Cambridge.

During his Cambridge years Herbert also began the activity for which he is now most famous: writing poetry. As early as 1610, if Walton's dating is to be trusted, Herbert sent two sonnets in English to his mother, lamenting the fact that poetry always wears 'Venus livery' and, in the accompanying letter, resolving 'that my poor Abilities in Poetry, shall be all, and ever consecrated to Gods glory' (Works, 206, 363). Although no firm dates can be assigned to his poems in manuscript, he probably wrote devotional poetry in English throughout his time at Cambridge; Herbert's late twentieth-century biographer suggests a date as early as 1614 for 'The Church-Porch' (Charles, Life, 80–84). Meanwhile, in 1612, Herbert contributed two Latin poems—his first publication—to a Cambridge collection of elegies on the death of Prince Henry, heir to James I, who died of typhoid fever aged eighteen (he was just a year younger than the poet); in 1619 he similarly published a Latin elegy for James I's queen, Anne of Denmark (in Lacrymae Cantabrigienses, 1619). While in Cambridge, Herbert also wrote an unpublished set of Latin epigrams, Musae responsoriae, satirizing the puritan extremism of the Scottish church reformer, Andrew Melville. Melville's poem attacking the ceremonies of the Church of England, Anti-tami-cami-categoria (written in 1603–4), was first published in 1620, and Herbert's response was probably written in that year, though it remained unpublished until 1662 when it appeared in Ecclesiastes Solomonis by James Duport, fellow and vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Herbert's devotional poems in Latin, Passio discerpta and Lucus, were both appended to the early manuscript of his English poems and are also likely to date from his last years in Cambridge, the early 1620s. They explore in epigrammatic baroque style the sufferings of Christ and the paradoxes of faith. They were not published as a group until Alexander Grosart's edition of Herbert's works in 1874. Among a small number of miscellaneous English poems attributed to ‘G. H.’ in the seventeenth century, one—'To the Queene of Bohemia' with its associated 'L'Envoy' (Works, 211–13)—seems to be genuinely by Herbert, judged on stylistic grounds, and dates from 1621–2 when the poem's subject, Elizabeth, daughter of James I and queen to the elector palatine, was in exile in Holland.


Much debate centres around George Herbert's plans and hopes after 1620. Did he become Cambridge University orator as part of a longer-term plan to move into the public world of court and politics? In letters to his stepfather in 1619, Herbert had sought to convince Sir John Danvers of the worth of the position, describing it as 'the finest place in the University' and a 'dignity' that 'hath no such earthiness in it, but it may very well be joined with Heaven' (Works, 369, 370). As orator, Herbert came into contact with the highest in the land, addressing letters and speeches to King James I, Charles, prince of Wales, and the earl of Buckingham, as well as to visiting ambassadors and dignitaries. On 12 March 1623 Herbert gave an oration in the presence of the king, and a contemporary observed that 'his majesty was pleased to stay there, while the orator Mr Herbert did make a short Farewell Speech unto him' after which the king called for a copy of 'an epigram the orator made' (BL, Harley MS 7041, fol. 38v). According to Walton, James regarded Herbert at the time as 'the Jewel of that University' (Walton, 23).

It is quite possible that Herbert saw the position of public orator as the means to a career at court, since his two predecessors in the post, Sir Robert Naunton and Sir Francis Nethersole, both went on to become secretaries of state. The role of orator required not only rhetorical skill, but also adroit manoeuvrings in the complexities of current policy, especially England's difficult relations with Spain. Herbert's third oration, Reditum Caroli, delivered on 8 October 1623 on Prince Charles's return from Spain without the infanta as his bride, carefully but bravely upheld the principle of peace despite the prince's known warlike intentions. It is, however, difficult to discern whether Herbert took any more than linguistic delight in his negotiation of such political labyrinths.

In 1624 Herbert stood for parliament and was elected to represent the borough of Montgomery, a traditional function for male members of the Herbert family. Again it is unclear whether he took on the role of MP as a duty or a career move, but its temporary nature is at any rate indicated by the mere six months of leave granted to their orator by the Cambridge University senate. The 1624 parliamentary session in which Herbert participated was stormy, dominated not only by the continuing diplomatic drama with Spain, but also by the crisis in the Virginia Company (with which his stepfather was closely involved). Herbert would have observed the political fortunes of factions and individuals—including his stepfather, his distant cousin and patron, the earl of Pembroke, and his friend John Williams, bishop of Lincoln—rising and falling around him. For whatever reason, Herbert's parliamentary career was short-lived; by the 1626 session of parliament, the MP for Montgomery was no longer George but his brother Henry.

Several of Herbert's early biographers suggested that he entertained courtly or political ambitions which failed in the mid-1620s. Barnabas Oley cited 'sober men' who censured Herbert as 'a man that did not manage his brave parts to his best advantage and preferment' (Herbert's Remains, sig. b11v–b12r), and in his 1670 Life of Mr George Herbert Izaak Walton suggested that Herbert's 'Court-hopes' were dashed by the deaths of his likely patrons, the duke of Lennox, the marquess of Hamilton, and the king himself, by 1625 (Walton, 30). However, the evidence that Herbert had set his sights on a courtly future is more circumstantial than convincing; Walton, for instance, took Herbert's phrase 'my friends die' in the lyric 'Affliction' (I) to imply that Herbert gave up his secular ambitions because his patrons died. The term 'friends' was used in the seventeenth century to refer to relatives, and Herbert had suffered a number of severe losses in his family, including the deaths of four of his siblings between 1617 and 1623, two of his brothers (William and Richard) dying as a result of the war in the Low Countries. It is therefore possible that 'Affliction' (I), clearly an autobiographical poem, outlines a general sense of depression and uncertainty in 'a world of strife' rather than the failure of specific secular hopes.

'Setting foot into Divinity'

While public orator and member of parliament, Herbert was already thinking of a career in a different direction, namely the church. As early as 1618, in a letter to his stepfather requesting money to buy more theological books, Herbert explained that he was 'setting foot into Divinity, to lay the platform of my future life', and he was busily reading 'infinite Volumes of Divinity' throughout the time that he was employed as fellow and orator in Cambridge (Works, 364–5). Another letter written from Cambridge reveals that Herbert assumed he would at some date have 'enter'd into a Benefice' (ibid., 367). Indeed, by accepting a major fellowship at Trinity, he had committed himself to being ordained within seven years (that is, by 1623), though he would have known that this rule was not always strictly enforced.

Evidence brought to light relatively recently (Charles, Deacon, 272–6) confirms that, while he was the member of parliament for Montgomery, Herbert was envisaging his immediate future in a less secular sphere. In autumn 1624 he applied to the archbishop of Canterbury for permission to be ordained deacon at any time (and not after the normal waiting period of a year) by John Williams, lord keeper, dean of Westminster, and bishop of Lincoln. The permission was granted on 3 November 1624. Unfortunately there is (as yet) no evidence of the date of Herbert's actual ordination as deacon, but it probably took place soon after the permission was given, since on 6 December 1624 Bishop Williams presented Herbert to a portion of the rectory of Llandinam in Montgomeryshire, a preferment (with no residential duties) which Herbert held until he died. The ordination must certainly have taken place by 5 July 1626 when Herbert was installed as canon of Lincoln Cathedral and prebendary of Leighton Ecclesia in Huntingdonshire. The installation had to take place by proxy since Herbert was involved in the same month with his last public duties as orator of Cambridge University, addressing the duke of Buckingham at York House on 13 July 1626 on behalf of the university to welcome him as its new chancellor.

In his new role as deacon and non-residentiary canon of Lincoln Cathedral, Herbert was required to deliver an annual sermon, and although it was possible to put in a deputy, there is evidence that Herbert himself fulfilled the duty at least once, at Whitsuntide 1629 (Charles, Life, 124). As for his commitment to Leighton Ecclesia, Herbert is said by Walton to have vowed to rebuild the then disused church, and he continued to plan and raise money for the refurbishment of the building during the remainder of his life. It is still possible to see within the church (at Leighton Bromswold) the pulpit and reading desk of equal height, signifying that the words of the preacher should not be regarded as higher than the words of scripture. Herbert's connection with Leighton also took him close to Little Gidding, home of the religious community established by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, who was later to play a major role in the posthumous publication of Herbert's English poems. Ferrar and members of his family withdrew into a life of devotion which eventually led their puritan critics to denounce the household as an 'Arminian nunnery' (the title of a 1641 pamphlet); in the twentieth century T. S. Eliot named one of his Four Quartets (1942) after Little Gidding and regarded it, by contrast, as a place 'where prayer has been valid'.

After his ordination as deacon Herbert continued to spend at least some of his time living at the home of his mother and stepfather in Chelsea. For the second half of 1625 Donne was in residence with them, taking refuge from the plague in London, and in a letter written in December 1625 Donne confirmed that 'Mr. George Herbert is here' (Bald, 276). In 1626 Herbert 'betook himself to a Retreat from London' (Walton, 30), first to the home of a friend in Kent and later to his brother Henry's house at Woodford in Essex. By May 1627, Herbert is known to have been back in Chelsea, since he wrote a letter of advice (in Latin) from there on 6 May to his deputy orator in Cambridge, Robert Creighton. The following month, June 1627, Magdalene Herbert, Lady Danvers, pillar of the Herbert family and the single most important influence in George's formative years, died, probably in her mid-sixties; she had been intermittently unwell since at least May 1622, when Herbert had written a long letter 'To his Mother, in her sickness' (Works, 372–4). She was buried in Chelsea parish church on 8 June 1627, and on 1 July Donne preached a commemorative sermon there, creating a vivid image of a woman of passion and principle who successfully stewarded the resources of her two husbands and led her large family with 'holy cheerfulnesse', summoning them to their daily devotions with the cry, 'For God's sake let's go' (Sermons, 7.88, 86). The sermon was registered for publication by Philemon Stephens on 7 July 1627, along with Herbert's elegiac verses in Latin and Greek entitled Memoriae matris sacrum. This collection, Herbert's first published poems on a personal rather than a public subject, celebrates his mother's 'wit / And wisdom' and her 'spirit bright' which illuminated the whole house. The poet argues that 'you taught me how to write', and therefore 'That skill owes you praise' (Latin Poetry, 127, 125, 129).

Although there is no evidence that Herbert had lived in Cambridge or functioned fully as public orator since his request for leave of absence in 1624, it was not until 28 January 1628 that the senate of Cambridge University elected a new orator—Herbert's deputy, Robert Creighton. The year 1628 was thus a decisive turning point for Herbert, marking the end of both his long connection with Cambridge and his extended association with his mother and her homes in London. Herbert went to Dauntesey in Wiltshire to stay with Henry Danvers, earl of Danby, the elder brother of his stepfather, and came into contact with their cousin, Jane Danvers (d. 1661). This led to another decisive move for Herbert, into matrimony: on 5 March 1629 he and Jane were married in Edington Priory, the parish church of her home at Baynton House, Wiltshire. Walton claimed (no doubt with greater romance than accuracy) that Herbert had met his wife only three days before their wedding, having conducted the courtship by proxy. Although this story is unlikely to be true, there was certainly something unusual about the timing of their marriage, with the drawing up of the bond (dated 26 February 1629) and the ceremony itself both occurring in Lent, and the period before the wedding being too short for banns to be called. Whatever the circumstances of their courtship and marriage, Herbert chose as his wife a 'loving and vertuous Lady' according to Oley (Herbert's Remains, sig. c5v), though Jane's relative John Aubrey characterized her more colourfully as 'a handsome bona roba and ingeniose' (Brief Lives, 295), suggesting that she combined a well-rounded body with a keen mind. The newly married couple continued to live with Jane's widowed mother at Baynton, near Dauntesey, until Herbert was presented as rector to the living of Fugglestone-with-Bemerton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, in April 1630. He had thus finally committed himself fully to the path of 'Divinity', though not perhaps in the way that had been expected; he remained the rector of Bemerton until his death.


Although Herbert only lived and worked in Bemerton for just under three years, it is the place with which he has come to be most frequently associated. The small fourteenth-century church of St Andrew's, and the modest stone rectory across the road from it, are taken to typify the humble choice made by Herbert to serve as a parish priest in a rural setting; as some of his contemporaries put it, he 'lost himself in an humble way' (Herbert's Remains, sig. a12r). However, it is misleading to overlook the courtly connections which led Herbert and his wife to Bemerton. The parish boundaries took in Wilton House, the seat of his relations, the earls of Pembroke, and it was at their request that King Charles I presented George to the vacant living in Bemerton on 16 April 1630. (As William Herbert, the third earl, died on 10 April 1630, it is not clear whether it was he or his brother Philip, the fourth earl—or both—who used his influence on George's behalf. A few years earlier, William Herbert had been instrumental in gaining a knighthood for George's brother Henry.) Although Herbert's appointment at Bemerton did not include the position of chaplain to Wilton House, it is likely that he kept in close contact with his aristocratic relations, since a letter dated December 1631 reveals that he had become a friend and spiritual adviser to the fourth earl's wife, the diarist Lady Anne Clifford. Among Herbert's English poems is a lyric entitled 'A Parodie' which is a sacred version of a secular love song, 'Soules joy, when I am gone', written by the third earl of Pembroke.

A detailed account of Herbert's induction to Bemerton church on 26 April 1630 is given in Walton's Life on the basis of information supplied to the biographer by Herbert's friend, Arthur Woodnoth, the cousin of Nicholas Ferrar; Woodnoth was said to have recalled the unusually long time spent by the new rector prostrate with humility before the altar of his church. At the time of this significant move into the service of the church, Herbert was still a deacon; his ordination to the priesthood took place at Salisbury Cathedral on 19 September 1630. It is not easy to discern why Herbert's ordination had been so long delayed, particularly as it now seems clear that he had been a deacon since 1624; possible reasons for his late entry into the priesthood may include long-term financial uncertainty, a sense of unworthiness (attested to in the poem 'The Priesthood'), continuing interest in a secular career—academic or courtly—and his chronic ill health. Even after he had become rector of Bemerton, however, Herbert did not take the earliest opportunity to be ordained priest; twelve men, including his curate Nathanael Bostocke, were made priests at Salisbury Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, 23 May 1630, a month after Herbert's installation at Bemerton. Herbert's biographer Amy Charles suggests that Herbert was unable to be present for ordination in Salisbury at that time as he would have been discharging his final duty as canon of Lincoln Cathedral before committing himself wholly to a ministry in Wiltshire. The ceremony at Salisbury in September 1630 was in fact the next opportunity in his diocese for Herbert to be ordained.

The duties carried out by Herbert in the Bemerton parish are likely to have matched those described in his prose handbook, A Priest to the Temple (otherwise known as The Country Parson his Character and Rule of Holy Life), written in the early 1630s and published with Barnabas Oley's prefatory biography of Herbert in 1652. In this work Herbert particularly emphasized the parson's humility, charity, patience, and 'grave livelinesse' in prayer, but also recommended a proper restraint (he should not exceed 'an hour in preaching', for example) and the appropriate liturgical 'middle way between superstition, and slovenlinesse' (Works, 231, 235, 246). Despite his immense learning, evident rhetorical skills, and lifelong attachment to books, Herbert defined 'The Countrey Parson's Library' not as a Cambridge-style collection of volumes but 'a holy Life' (ibid., 278). He saw the function of a priest in a community in practical terms: primarily spiritual, of course, through teaching, preaching, charity, and the celebration of the sacraments, but extending also to the giving of legal advice and the provision of health care. It is not known whether Jane Herbert possessed 'the skill of healing a wound, or helping the sick' recommended in a parson's wife (ibid., 260), but it is certainly clear that she was willing to welcome into her household Herbert's nieces (daughters of his elder sister, Margaret, widow of John Vaughan) who were orphaned in 1623 and came to join the Herberts at Bemerton rectory in 1630.

In addition to his work as rector and his intense poetic activities in this period, Herbert was also afforded the opportunity to enjoy what he termed (in his lyric 'Church Music') 'the sweetest of sweets'—liturgical music—and to practise his own considerable skills as a musician. Twice a week, according to Walton, Herbert walked from Bemerton to Salisbury to attend evensong at the cathedral, followed by a 'private Musick meeting' at which he would 'sing and play his part' (Walton, 60). One of Walton's most memorable (though no doubt apocryphal) anecdotes about Herbert concerns a musical evening at which the rector arrived in a dishevelled state, having helped a 'poor man, with a poorer horse' while on his way there. Unruffled by the critical reactions of his fellow musicians, Herbert is said to have defended his charitable act (which 'would prove Musick to him at Midnight') and, without any further ado, concluded, 'And now, let's tune our instruments' (ibid., 62–3). According to Aubrey, Herbert 'had a very good hand on the lute' (Brief Lives, 295) and was thought to have set some of his own poems to music, and Walton recounted that Herbert rose from his deathbed to sing verses from 'Sunday' and 'The Thanksgiving' (Walton, 77). The frequent use of musical forms and metaphors in his English lyrics certainly bears witness to a creative partnership between poetry and music.

Illness and death

Throughout his life Herbert had endured bouts of poor health, referred to openly in his letters as well as indirectly in his poems. As early as 1610 he had reported suffering from an 'Ague' while in Cambridge (Works, 363), and in 1617 and 1622 he had undergone periods of a particularly serious illness which would now be called tuberculosis; in 1629 this became what Walton termed 'a sharp Quotidian Ague' (Walton, 35). In a letter to his mother in May 1622, when she herself was unwell, Herbert had commented: 'I alwaies fear'd sickness more then death, because sickness hath made me unable to perform those Offices for which I came into the world, and must yet be kept in it' (Works, 373). Presumably this sense of frustration must have afflicted Herbert when he became terminally ill after about two years as a priest, even though he saw death itself as 'fair and full of grace' rather than an 'uncouth hideous thing' (Death). On 19 October 1632 he found it necessary to employ a second curate to assist him in carrying out his duties, and by the early weeks of 1633 he was on his deathbed, suffering from the last stages of consumption. On 25 February 1633 he dictated his will to his first curate, Nathanael Bostocke, naming Arthur Woodnoth as executor and Sir John Danvers, his stepfather, as overseer of the will. Less than a week later, on 1 March 1633, he died in the presence of Bostocke and Woodnoth, while (according to Walton) his wife and nieces wept and prayed in an adjoining room. Herbert's funeral service was sung by the 'singing men of Sarum' (Brief Lives, 295) at St Andrew's, Bemerton, on 3 March 1633, exactly a month before his fortieth birthday; his body was buried in an unmarked grave near the altar of the church of which he had been rector.

According to his elder brother Edward, George Herbert made such an impression with his 'holy and exemplary' life at Bemerton that he was 'litle less than Sainted' in the area around Salisbury. Edward added, however, that George 'was not exempt from passion and Choler, being infirmities to which all our Race is subject, but that excepted, without reproach in his Actions' (Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 8–9). This potentially contradictory portrait of George Herbert is a reminder of the complexity of his career and the difficulty of interpreting the known facts of his life history. While some biographers (notably Charles) are keen to stress the continuity of his life, seeing him as consistently devoted to religion, others (particularly Walton) suggest a dramatic change of heart in response to the apparent failure of his courtly ambitions. The range encompassed by his relatively short adult life is indeed striking: the university orator who addressed King James I became the priest who asserted that preachers should not be 'witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy' (Works, 233). However, whether this signifies a continuing line of development towards a higher calling, or a shift of purpose (for whatever reason) remains open to interpretation. What may further strike the modern interpreter is the restlessness of Herbert's life, lacking both a father and a stable place of residence in his early years, and uneasily seeking the right 'employment' (as often referred to in his verse) in his adulthood. Ironically, he appears to have found both domestic security and a clear vocation only in his last few years, at which stage he could boldly advise, in The Country Parson, 'Do well, and right, and let the world sinke' (ibid., 270).

There is one extant visual image of George Herbert, a pencil drawing by Robert White (1645–1703) taken from an unidentified portrait (possibly by Sir Anthony van Dyck or Cornelius Janssen), made by White as preparation for an engraving which appeared in Walton's Life (1670) and the tenth edition of The Temple (1674); it is now in the Houghton Library, Harvard. All other known likenesses of Herbert are based on this drawing, which depicts the head and shoulders of a sober churchman with sharply defined, sensitive features and shoulder-length wavy hair. Herbert had no direct descendants: he and his wife had no children, though Jane Herbert later married Sir Robert Cook of Highnam in Gloucestershire, with whom she had one daughter.

The Temple (1633)

The most profound and lasting impression of George Herbert is to be found in his poetry, on which his high reputation to this present day is largely based. During his lifetime, however, none of his English poems was published, nor is there any evidence that they were circulated among his friends or family, with the exception of the early sonnets sent to his mother. There are two surviving manuscripts of the devotional poems eventually published as The Temple, held respectively at Dr Williams's Library in London (MS Jones B62, known as W) and the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Tanner 307, known as B). The earlier of the two manuscripts, W, contains seventy-nine English poems (as well as the Latin sequences Passio discerpta and Lucus) and reveals that, at an early stage, Herbert had already organized his collection of English poetry into three sections, 'The Church-Porch', 'The Church', and 'The Church Militant'. The manuscript includes revisions in Herbert's own hand and was almost certainly completed well before he moved to Bemerton in 1630. The later manuscript, B, contains 165 English poems, many of which are further revised versions of those in W, though more than half of them are new lyrics probably written towards the end of his life. B is not in Herbert's hand but was copied out at Little Gidding, probably by Nicholas Ferrar's nieces, Anna and Mary Collett. Walton recounted how, not long before he died, Herbert had given a 'little Book' to Ferrar's friend Edmund Duncon, instructing him to pass it on to Ferrar since it contained 'a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master' (Walton, 74). Ferrar was advised by Herbert, according to Walton, to publish the work 'if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul', but otherwise the instruction was, 'let him burn it'. Fortunately for posterity, Ferrar chose the first of the two options, though it is clear that B is not the original 'little Book' brought to him by Duncon, but a folio fair copy made for presentation to the press.

Ferrar chose to publish the poems in Cambridge rather than London, and the first edition, expertly set by the university printer, Thomas Buck, was ready by September 1633. The process was not without its problems: in private, there were tensions between Ferrar and Herbert's executor, Woodnoth, over where the poems should be published, and in Cambridge the vice-chancellor delayed the publication since lines 235–6 of 'The Church Militant' were thought to be potentially dangerous in their reference to 'religion' passing over to the 'American strand' (Works, 196). However, the poems were eventually published in an unaltered state and their impact was enormous: by 1641 there had already been six editions of The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations by 'Mr. George Herbert, late Oratour of the Universitie of Cambridge' (title-page as reset later in 1633). The idea of naming the volume The Temple probably came not from Herbert but from Ferrar, in whose hand the title and supporting epigraph ('In his Temple doth every man speak of his honour', Psalm 29, verse 8) were inserted into B. Ferrar also added a preface, 'The printers to the reader', which constitutes the earliest biographical sketch of Herbert and led to the reading of the poems as the work of one who, 'Quitting both his deserts and all the opportunities that he had for worldly preferment, … betook himself to the Sanctuarie and Temple of God, choosing rather to serve at Gods Altar, then to seek the honour of State-employments' (Works, 3).

As admirers of the 'late Oratour' might have expected, Herbert's English poems are notable for their controlled and inventive use of form: the central section of The Temple, 'The Church', contains over 160 lyrics in a striking variety of poetic structures, from sonnets and hymns to hieroglyphic lyrics with stanza forms unique to their composition and subject. In tone and narrative mode, too, Herbert demonstrated his versatility, writing lyric conversations, allegories, fables, monologues, epigrams, meditations, and prayers. More surprising in a classical rhetorician, however, was Herbert's conscious simplicity of purpose and manner, given expression in lyrics such as 'A True Hymn' and the 'Jordan' poems with their desire to 'plainly say, My God, My King', and finding perhaps his most poised triumphs in 'The Flower', 'Virtue', and 'Love' (III). In his attention to formal variety as well as to the subject of writing itself, Herbert was working in the poetic tradition of Philip Sidney and his sister Mary (wife of Herbert's distant relative the second earl of Pembroke), whose translation of the psalms into English lyric verse was the clearest poetic influence on The Temple. In fact, in the number of lyrics and the range of moods they represent, as well as in their scriptural tone and borrowings, Herbert's English poems most closely resemble the biblical book of the Psalms; this was presumably the reason for Ferrar's choice of title and Oley's description of Herbert as 'The sweet singer of the Temple' (Herbert's Remains, sig. a11v). Like the psalms, too, the lyrics construct many different voices: the self-confident narrator of the sonnet 'Redemption', the troubled believer in 'Deniall', the rebellious speaker of 'The Collar', and the accepting voice in 'The Forerunners'. From the despair of the 'Affliction' poems through the intensity of a lyric such as 'Longing' to the joy celebrated in 'Easter' and 'The Odour', The Temple vividly encompasses the complete spectrum of devotional experience.

Other writings

In addition to his collections of Latin and Greek verse, Herbert wrote four occasional Latin poems in honour of Francis Bacon and his works, and one in reply to Donne's Latin verse sent to Herbert with one of Donne's seals 'of the Anchor and Christ'. Herbert's Latin response, 'In sacram anchoram piscatoris', with two English versions, was appended to Donne's Poems (1650); it praises the 'eloquence' of the older poet and preacher as well as the appropriateness of the anchor and cross together as 'the symbole' of 'certainty' (Works, 439). His extant Latin prose consists of three of his public orations (two of which, addressed to the Spanish ambassadors and to the prince of Wales, were published separately in 1623) and eighteen epistles (all but two of which come from a manuscript collection in Cambridge entitled The Orator's Book). Of the two epistles written by Herbert in his private capacity, rather than as orator, one was addressed to his teacher, Lancelot Andrewes, bishop of Winchester, confirming continuing contact with this distinguished 'Father in God' (ibid., 473) after his appointment to the see of Winchester in 1619.

The most significant of Herbert's prose writing in English is A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson), the priestly conduct book written in his last years which not only puts forward Herbert's model churchman but also reveals the fundamental principles of faith, human relationships, and religious rhetoric which underlie his poems. He advised, for instance, that 'things of ordinary use' such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to 'serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths' (Works, 257). Further insight into Herbert's poetic principles is afforded by his enormous collection of proverbial sayings, first published in 1640 as Outlandish Proverbs, Selected by Mr G. H. (containing 1032 sayings) and enlarged with a further sixty-eight proverbs in Jacula prudentum (1651). The homely wit of these wise observations is frequently echoed in The Temple, and is particularly present in poems such as 'The Church-Porch' and 'Charms and Knots'. A Priest to the Temple and Jacula prudentum were published together as Herbert's Remains (1652), prefaced by Oley's 'View of the life and vertues of the authour'.

Nineteen of Herbert's English letters survive, several of which have been individually cited as biographical evidence but which together deserve further consideration. His most frequent correspondent was his stepfather, and other members of his family to whom letters are extant include his mother, his brother Henry, and his eldest sister, Elizabeth. Among the friends to whom he wrote were Nicholas Ferrar and Lady Anne Clifford. His elegant letters reveal a recurring concern for others in sickness or difficulty, frequent anxiety about his own poor health, a love of books and fine language, his need for security of employment, and a constant awareness that, as he wrote to his mother, 'the thred of Life' is 'like other threds or skenes of silk, full of snarles and incumbrances' (Works, 373).

Herbert also played an active part in a number of translation projects. He was one of the scholars who translated Bacon's Advancement of Learning into Latin, published as De augmentis scientiae in 1623, and, in recognition of these 'paines' taken by Herbert 'about some of my Writings', Bacon dedicated his Translation of Certaine Psalmes into English Verse to Herbert in 1625 (Bacon, sig. A3r). Nearer the end of Herbert's life, his friend Nicholas Ferrar prepared an English translation, as The Divine Considerations, of a work by the sixteenth-century Castilian humanist, Juan de Valdes, and sent it to Herbert in 1632 for his comments. Herbert's resulting 'Brief notes on Valdesso's Considerations' were published with the translation in 1638, after the deaths of both translator and commentator. Herbert identified the original (Catholic) author as a 'true servant of God' but was persistently critical of Valdesso for showing insufficient respect for the scriptures (Works, 304–20). It was also in connection with Ferrar's Little Gidding community that Herbert himself undertook the translation, under the title Treatise of Temperance and Sobriety, of a mid-sixteenth-century Italian work by Luigi Cornaro. Although Herbert apparently knew Italian, as well as Spanish and French (Walton, 27), his translation was largely based on a Latin version of the text and was published in 1634 with a preface explaining that:

Master George Herbert of blessed memorie, having at the request of a Noble Personage translated it [Cornaro's treatise] into English, sent a copie thereof, not many moneths before his death, unto some friends of his, who a good while before had given an attempt of regulating themselves in matter of Diet.

Works, 565

It is likely that the 'Noble Personage' who commissioned the translation was Bacon and the 'friends' were the Ferrars.

These humanist literary activities of Herbert are a reminder that he was far more than a major lyric poet in English: he was a busy writer in many spheres of practical theology, received wisdom and folklore, politics, ecclesiastical satire, public and private elegy, devotional epigram, and rhetorical prose for all occasions.

Reputation and influence

The pattern of Herbert's career, and the works published during his lifetime, suggest that he was respected by his contemporaries as an 'esteemed Master in the Roman eloquence' (Works, xl) and one in whom 'Divinitie, and Poesie, met' (Bacon, sig. A3v), but was probably not known as a writer of English verse. Even after his death and the publication of The Temple, his fame as a classicist continued to predominate in some quarters. His brother Edward, for example, wrote that George's English works, though 'rare', were 'far short of expressing those perfections which he had in the Greek and Latin Tongue, and all divine and human Literature' (Life, ed. Shuttleworth, 8). Other commentators disagreed, arguing as Oley did that although the Musae responsoriae were 'very good', yet they were 'dull or dead in comparison of his Temple Poems' (Herbert's Remains, sig. b7r). Another important element began to shape Herbert's reputation soon after his death, and that was the holiness of his last years. Oley described Herbert as 'A Peer to the primitive Saints, and more then a pattern to his own age' (ibid., sig. b8v), while in the Little Gidding 'family' Herbert's life and work were seen as a model for those who 'feared God, and loved the Church of England' (Blackstone, 59). Walton's 1670 Life confirmed this emphasis on Herbert's personal holiness—'thus he liv'd, and thus he dy'd like a Saint' (Walton, 79)—and, moreover, detailed the poet's commitment to the established church. The second half of Walton's biography turns into a celebration of the liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer, as well as of Herbert's diligent upholding of its practice. Some of Herbert's poems (particularly 'The 23d Psalme', 'Antiphon' (I), 'Praise' (II), and 'The Elixir') continue to be sung regularly as hymns, and so pervasive is the continuing respect for this Anglican ‘saint’ that in 1980 the Church of England designated 27 February as the commemorative day of 'George Herbert, priest, pastor, poet'.

Without calling Herbert's holiness into question, it is important to perceive his posthumous reputation in context, since it was inevitably coloured by the political revolutions which followed within a decade of his death; the biographical sketches of him which appeared during the seventeenth century tell as much about the ecclesiastical loyalties (and cultural nostalgia) of their authors as about Herbert's own life. Meanwhile, Herbert's English poetry, despite its entanglement with his more partisan personal reputation, was enormously popular. The Temple went through thirteen editions by 1709 and appealed to a readership spanning the political and ecclesiastical spectrum: Charles I read Herbert's poems when imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle before his execution, while at the same time The Temple was undoubtedly admired by at least one of the regicides (Herbert's own stepfather) and recommended as devotional reading by the chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, Peter Sterry. Herbert's verses were put to an extraordinary variety of uses: The Temple was cited in treatises against Quakers and to reform 'drunkards and tipplers'; parts of it were translated into scholarly Latin while other verses were turned into a devotional alphabet for children; lyrics were set to music by Lawes, Purcell, and Blow, and in 1697 a volume of Select Hymns Taken out of Mr Herbert's ‘Temple’ was published for congregational use (Wilcox, 153–68). The moderate nonconformist Richard Baxter spoke for many seventeenth-century readers when he praised The Temple as a text in which 'Heart-work and Heaven-work' were combined (Baxter, sig. A7r).

In addition to his posthumous fame as a holy individual and a writer whose work gave spiritual comfort to readers from all traditions, Herbert also had a considerable influence on the development of English poetry—so much so, that it is more accurate to speak of a school of Herbert than a school of Donne. From its first publication The Temple had attracted imitators such as Christopher Harvey, whose sequence entitled The Synagogue was bound with Herbert's poems from the sixth edition of The Temple (1641) onwards, and Ralph Knevet, who supplied a poetic Gallery to the Temple in the late 1640s. Among Herbert's more imaginative seventeenth-century poetic admirers were Cardell Goodman, Richard Crashaw, and, above all, Henry Vaughan, who declared in the preface to the second edition of his sacred poems, Silex scintillans (1655), that he owed his inspiration to 'the blessed man, Mr. George Herbert, whose holy life and verse gained many pious converts (of whom I am the least)'. Herbert's fame and influence spread abroad, too, as is indicated by the Herbertian style of the early American poets Edward Taylor and Philip Pain. The very popularity of sequences of English devotional lyrics in the seventeenth century may be attributed to the influence of The Temple.

The decline of Herbert's reputation, at least as a poet, began in the classical period of the later seventeenth century and was typified by Dryden's mockery in Mac Flecknoe (1682) of poets who inhabit 'Acrostick Land' and display poems in the shapes of 'wings' and 'altars', obviously alluding to Herbert's 'Easter-wings' and 'The Altar'. No new editions of The Temple appeared between 1709 and 1799, while Dr Johnson's attack on the 'race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets' in his life of Cowley (Lives of the Poets, 1781) confirmed that Herbert's mode of wit continued to be out of fashion. The revival of interest in The Temple began in the early nineteenth century with Coleridge's admiration recorded in Biographia literaria, followed by the editions of Herbert's collected poetry and prose brought out by William Pickering (1835–6) and Alexander Grosart (1874). In the twentieth century the first landmark was George Herbert Palmer's edition (1905), in which he made a bold though ultimately doomed attempt to arrange the English lyrics in chronological order. One of Herbert's most influential admirers of the century was T. S. Eliot, and the most significant textual publication was F. E. Hutchinson's 1941 edition of the complete Works. Herbert continues to be a major influence on poets writing in English, including—among those in the twentieth century—the American writer Elizabeth Bishop and the Irish poet and critic Seamus Heaney.

Herbert's devotional poetry still fascinates, inspires, and intrigues a range of readers, and, though the quality of his work has been accepted without question since the publication of Joseph Summers's pioneering study, George Herbert, his Religion and Art (1954), the critical debates about The Temple are unceasing. Recent discussions have focused on issues such as the nature of Herbert's church allegiance (for which all positions from pro-Catholic via moderate Anglican to extreme Calvinist have been claimed) and the relationship of Herbert's sacred writing to secular matters, including sexual desire and political controversy. Particular features of the lyrics—their achieved and graceful simplicity, their musical and biblical echoes, the careful process of their revision, their emblematic titles, the subtle arrangement of the sequence in 'The Church'—continue to generate critical analysis and appreciation. Herbert has undoubtedly achieved an assured place in literary history as the greatest of English devotional poets.


  • A. M. Charles, A life of George Herbert (1977)
  • The works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (1941)
  • Herbert's remains (1652)
  • I. Walton, The life of Mr George Herbert (1670)
  • The Latin poetry of George Herbert, ed. M. McCloskey and P. R. Murphy (1965)
  • DWL, Jones MS B62 [W]
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 307 [B]
  • G. Herbert, The temple (1633)
  • The life of Edward, first Lord Herbert of Cherbury written by himself, ed. J. M. Shuttleworth (1976)
  • The sermons of John Donne, ed. G. R. Potter and E. M. Simpson, 10 vols. (1953–1962)
  • B. Blackstone, ed., The Ferrar papers: containing a life of Nicolas Ferrar … a selection of family letters (1938)
  • A. M. Charles, ‘George Herbert, deacon’, Modern Philology, 72 (1974–5), 272–6
  • D. Benet, ‘Herbert's experience of politics and patronage in 1624’, George Herbert Journal, 10 (1986–7), 33–45
  • J. Hacket, Scrinia reserata: a memorial offer'd to the great deservings of John Williams, 2 pts (1693)
  • J. Hacket, A century of sermons upon several remarkable subjects (1675)
  • H. Vaughan, Silex scintillans (1655)
  • R. C. Bald, John Donne: a life, ed. W. Milgate (1970)
  • H. Wilcox, ‘Herbert's Temple and seventeenth-century devotion’, Images of belief in literature, ed. D. Jasper (1984), 153–68
  • T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (1962)
  • J. H. Summers, George Herbert, his religion and art (1954)
  • R. Baxter, Poetical fragments (1681)
  • D. W. Doerksen, ‘Nicholas Ferrar, Arthur Woodnoth, and the publication of George Herbert's The temple, 1633’, George Herbert Journal, 3 (1979–80), 22–44
  • F. Bacon, Translation of certaine psalmes into English verse (1625)
  • The alternative service book (1980)
  • J. D. K. Lloyd, ‘Where was George Herbert born?’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 119 (1970), 139–43
  • A. Charles, ‘Mrs Herbert's Kitchin booke’, English Literary Renaissance, 4 (1974), 164–73
  • J. Powers-Buck, The Herbert family dialogue (1998)


  • NRA, letters and literary papers


  • R. White, line engraving (after R. White), BM, NPG; repro. in G. Herbert, The temple, 10th edn (1674)
  • R. White, pencil drawing (after portrait), Harvard U., Houghton L., MS Eng. 1405 [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£750; plus money, books, and furniture bequeathed to wife: Works, ed. Hutchinson, 1633

Bodleian Library, Oxford