Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979.
HERBERT, GEORGE (1593-1633) George Herbert was born in Wales, the seventh child of 10 to Richard and Magdalene Herbert. His father died when Herbert was about three, and the family moved to live with George's maternal grandmother in Eyton, Shropshire. Two years later, they again relocated, this time to oxford, only to move yet again in 1601 to Charing Cross, London. Having reached the proper age, Herbert began his education at Westminster School, where he enjoyed the honor of being elected scholar. The poet John Donne knew Herbert's brother, the poet Edward Herbert, and wrote to Herbert's mother in 1607, and the following year may have sent her the poems that later formed his collection, La Corona; he dedicated to her his elegy "Autumnal Beauty."
Magdalene remarried at age 40 in February 1609 to the 20-year-old John Danvers, who a month later was knighted. George Herbert entered Cambridge as king's scholar that same year and in December matriculated to Trinity. He presented his first sonnets to his mother on New Year's Day 1610. Of interest is his relation to Sir Philip Sidney, a fourth cousin, who originated the form of the sonnet sequence. Some critics argue the hints at misogyny in two of Herbert's sonnets may have been induced by jealousy of his mother's young husband. He countered the Petrarchan standard that praised fair women with golden hair. However, he announced in 1610 his intention to write religious verse reflective of the Sidney-Herbert group.
In 1612 Herbert published Latin poetry in a Cambridge volume on the death of Prince Henry of typhoid fever. Those first printed poems reflected his talent for writing with a nationalistic tone. The fact that at only age 19 he was asked to contribute to such an important collection indicates his serious consideration as a Latin scholar. In addition to Latin, he learned Greek and became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and French. No doubt Herbert participated in literary coteries, gatherings during which poets shared their work. Those coteries were supervised by Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, sister to Philip and a poet in her own right. Because publication by members of the upper class was considered vulgar, the coterie provided a manner by which wealthy poets could recite or sing their poetry with musical accompaniment; Herbert also proved an accomplished musician. An auspicious writing career thus began, as Herbert supported the use of religious love as a topic for the sonnet.
Herbert earned his bachelor of arts in 1613 and looked forward to a privileged life, suitable to his high social rank. He cultivated the patronage of the duke of Richmond and the marquis of Hamilton in hopes of political advancement. He contributed occasional poems to help celebrate a visit to Cambridge by Frederick, elector Palatine, husband to Princess Elizabeth, and Prince Charles. Herbert clearly demonstrated a commitment to Protestantism in his two contributions. He does advise Elizabeth against war, suggesting instead that she remain patient until God restores her to the throne; Herbert's antiwar stance would be a lifelong trait. By 1614 he was a minor fellow at Trinity. The following year Donne was ordained and probably wrote a Latin poem to Herbert at that time. Herbert became a major fellow at Trinity one year later and took his master of arts in 1616. By 1617 Herbert was a lecturer at Trinity but suffered a loss with the death of two of his brothers. He wrote a congratulatory letter in 1618 to the duke of Buckingham on his becoming a marquis and apparently requested by letter funds from Sir John Danvers for books and the expenses of settling in Cambridge. In 1619 a poem on the death of Queen Anne was published, and Herbert asked Danvers to assist him in gaining a public oratorship, later assuring his stepfather that appointment would not interfere with his ordination. Herbert had become a celebrant of sacred love in his poetry amd eventually became the best known religious poet in the English language.
In october Herbert enjoyed an appointment as deputy orator at Cambridge, undergoing official election to public orator in May 1620. He sent a letter of gratitude to King James for the monarch's gift of 13th-century philosopher and theologian Ramon Lull's Opera Latina.. other letters reflecting his distinguished position went to Robert Naunton, secretary of state; Francis Bacon, lord chancellor; and Fulke Greville, expressing his gratitude for their support in a local dispute over whether the Bedford fens should be drained. After Bacon delivered the Instauratio Magna, his plan to restore man to mastery over nature (Great Instauration), at Cambridge, Herbert sent another letter of thanks. Herbert's brother Edward dedicated a 1622 manuscript titled De Veritate to him and also to his secretary, William Boswell, requesting their help in editing any reference that seemed inappropriate to their faith and morals. Herbert's brother Henry became a servant to King James in 1622, while another brother, Richard, died at the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom. Throughout that year Herbert made clear his devotion to Protestantism, and most of his works were later characterized by critics as written with a purpose to flatter those in high places who could promote his ambitions.
The year 1623 marked a busy time for Herbert, who delivered an oration to the Spanish and Austrian ambassadors and received an honorary master of arts. An epigram written to King James in farewell as he departed Cambridge was later published by command, presumably of a member of court. He lost a sister, Margaret, to death and in october delivered an antiwar speech to Prince Charles and the duke of Buckingham, an oration later published. He continued writing poetry and performing some translation and became a member of Parliament in 1624. By November 3, Herbert received a dispensation for immediate ordination as a deacon and was granted a sinecure in Montgomeryshire. Presumably, he saw his opportunity for preferments dwindle as his two patrons died. Much scholarly writing about Herbert traditionally held that when King James died in 1625, all hopes of an appointment for Herbert died with him, characterizing him as a man without a focus. However, newer scholarship, including that by Cristina Malcolmson, suggests that Herbert remained quite active as part of a literary coterie, not engaging in the isolationism of private contemplation long believed to occupy his last years.
Ineligible for Parliament in 1625, Herbert visited Donne, who stayed in Chelsea with Danvers to escape the plague. Bacon dedicated his Translation of Certaine Psalmes into English Verse to Herbert. Bacon died the following year, and Herbert probably helped collect contributors to a volume in his memory, in addition to publishing his own Latin poem. He became canon of Lincoln Cathedral and lived for a time with his brother Henry in Essex as he recovered from an illness. When Magdalene Herbert Danvers died in 1627, Donne delivered the funeral sermon. The next year Herbert lived for a time with Danvers's brother, the earl of Danby, near Chippenham, Wiltshire.
Herbert at last married in 1629, wedding Jane Danvers, the earl's cousin, and the two resided in Wiltshire with her family according to some critics; others claim they lived with the earl. The following year he was ordained as a priest in Salisbury Cathedral, and he lived the next two years peacefully. He fell ill and, confident of impending death, sent a copy of his collection of poetry, later titled The Temple, to his lifelong friend Nicholas Ferrar. He famously requested that Ferrar pass judgment on the work, burning or publishing it, whichever he felt the manuscript deserved. Ferrar published two editions after Herbert's death of consumption in 1633. The volume contains all of the poems still read centuries later. The collection appeared in 13 editions between 1633 and 1679, followed by a loss of scholarly and reader interest in Herbert. A 1799 edition rekindled public interest, and the poems have never been out of print.
The Temple is divided into three sections. The first section, titled "The Church-porch," is composed of a number of precepts that help in directing typical behavior, such as transactions requiring the exchange of money, drinking, and quarreling. The subtitle, "Perirrhaneterium," refers to the sprinkling of holy water by a specific implement, which suggests the
206 HERBERT, MARY SIDNEY, COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE
"Church-porch" aphorisms are designed to prepare Christians for a spiritual state. For example, the first line of "2" reads, "Beware of lust: it doth pollute and foul," while that of "5" cautions, "Drink not the third glass, which thou canst not tame." The second portion of the collection titled "The Church" contains all those popular lyrics most often associated with Herbert. Select widely anthologized selections include "The Altar," "Redemption," "Easter," "Easter Wings," "Affliction," "Prayer," "Jordan," "Church Monuments," "The Windows," "Virtue," "Man," "Time," "The Bunch of Grapes," "The Pilgrimage," "The Holdfast," "The Collar," "The Pulley," "The Flower," "Discipline," "Death," and "Love." The third and final portion, titled "The Church-militant," refers to a community of believers who must constantly battle evil. Apocalyptic in nature, it little resembles Herbert's other works. Some critics argue it represents the poet's immature attempts, written at an early stage of his life. Others feel it represents his disappointment with the Church of England and with the Stuart court; it acts as a type of protest.
Critics continue to debate details of Herbert's biography and authorship; aspects of The Temple particularly generated debate. Because no evidence exists that Herbert titled his collection, arbitrary choices, such as its title, were made by someone, probably Ferrar. This suggests other important details may have been altered. Even Herbert's appearance remains in question. The most famous reproduction of Herbert's likeness was cast years after his death; many believe it was based on a lost portrait. The biography held as seminal for years, written by Izaak Walton in 1670, was subsequently found to contain various errors, later corrected by Amy Charles's A Life of George Herbert (1977). As with any life and work that existed centuries ago, complete details remain missing, and some questions may never find satisfactory answers. Herbert's importance to the genre of religious poetry, however, has never been in doubt. His works remain readily available in print and electronic form, and a George Herbert Journal also exists.
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