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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Herbert (1593–1633)

THE COUNTRY clergyman whose verse made the little vicarage at Bemerton in Wiltshire a place of pilgrimage for several generations, was not a pious rustic, but the descendant of an illustrious house and the favorite of a court. He came of the line of Pembroke,—that handsome and learned swaggerer Lord Herbert of Cherbury being his elder brother. Among his intimate friends were the poets Donne and Wotton, and his “best lover” Izaak Walton, who says of him that “he enjoyed his genteel humor for clothes and courtlike company, and seldom looked toward Cambridge (where he had a fellowship) unless the King were there; and then he never failed.” In short, “holy George Herbert,” handsome and ready-witted, full of parts and ambition, singled out by King James for special kindnesses, very naturally expected and longed for that advancement which less deserving courtiers found no difficulty in securing. But the death of the King in 1625, followed by the death of the young poet’s powerful friends the Duke of Richmond and the Marquis of Hamilton, shattered his prospect of a Secretaryship. Not long after, he took orders; partly, perhaps, because his brilliant and persuasive mother had always wished it, partly because no other profession becoming a gentleman was open to a man already past thirty, with fine aptitudes but with no special training, but surely in great part because the whole tone and bent of his soul was not worldliness but “other-worldliness.”

In 1630 King Charles presented him, quite unexpectedly, with the benefice of Bemerton near Salisbury.

  • “The third day after he was made rector,” says Walton, “and had changed his sword and silk clothes into a canonical habit, he returned so habited with his friend Mr. Woodnot to Bainton; and immediately after he had seen and saluted his wife (a kinswoman of the Earl of Danby), he said to her:—‘You are now a minister’s wife, and must now so far forget your father’s house as not to claim precedence of any of your parishioners; for you are to know that a priest’s wife can challenge no precedence or place but that which she purchases by her obliging humility; and I am sure, places so purchased do best become them. And let me tell you, I am so good a herald as to assure you that this is truth.’ And she was so meek a wife (though she was but lately wed, after a three-days’ courtship) as to assure him it was no vexing news to her, and that he should see her observe it with a cheerful willingness.”
  • Herbert took up his duties with an ardor that made them pleasures. In the first year of his priesthood he wrote:—

  • “I now look back upon my aspiring thoughts, and think myself more happy than if I had attained what then I so ambitiously thirsted for; and I can now behold the court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud, and titles, and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary, painted pleasures—pleasures that are so empty as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed.”
  • Nor were good Mr. Herbert’s grapes really sour. For there was that in his nature which made asceticism welcome, though his self-abasement was not the less sincere because it was pleasurable. Indeed, the chief attribute of his poetry is its quaint sincerity, often expressed with the utmost artificiality. With scarcely an exception, it is all of a religious character, frequently tinged with the ascetic’s ever-present sense of his shortcomings. But such little poems as the ones entitled ‘Virtue,’ ‘The Pulley,’ and ‘The Collar’ have force, condensation of thought, and withal poetic grace; while ‘Life’ and ‘The Rose’ possess an Elizabethan freshness and charm.

    One long poem, ‘The Church Porch,’ stands in marked contrast to the rest of his work. It shows him as a young man, as yet untouched by thoughts of priestly consecration and the mental struggles which afterwards beset him. Some of the terse couplets have become almost proverbs:—

  • “Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie:
  • A fault which needs it most, grows two thereby.”
  • “For he that needs five thousand pounds to live
  • Is full as poor as he that needs but five.”
  • “Kneeling ne’er spoiled silk stockings.”
  • The quaintness of Herbert’s verse is not its most engaging quality. What is called quaintness is often mere perverseness of ingenuity, showy affectation. Herbert’s taste was like that of the red Indian, preferring the bizarre, the artificial, and the ugly; while yet his inspiration was genuine. His friendship for Donne no doubt confirmed his liking for fantastic and over-labored verse. But with all his defects, his best poetry has delighted pious hearts for more than two centuries. ‘The Temple, or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations,’ which contains his principal verses, was not published until after his death. Walton said it was “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.” The pious Richard Baxter found, “next the Scripture poems,” “none so savoury” as Herbert’s, who “speaks to God as a man really believing in God”; and Charles I. read the little book in his last melancholy days in prison, and found “much comfort” in it.

    Of Herbert’s sincere and even passionate piety in later life, there is no doubt. He worked early and late for the bodies and souls of his flock, preaching, teaching, comforting, exposing himself to storms and to sickness, wearing himself out in their service. Three years of this terrible toil exhausted a constitution never strong, and he died at Bemerton, loved and honored, at the early age of thirty-nine. In his prose volume ‘A Priest to the Temple’ he has set forth the code of duty which he followed:—

  • “The Country Parson desires to be all to his parish, and not only a pastor, but a lawyer also, and a physician. Therefore he endures not that any of his flock should go to law; but in any controversy, that they should resort to him as their judge. To this end he hath gotten to himself some insight in things ordinarily incident and controverted, by experience and by reading….
  • “Then he shows them how to go to law, even as brethren, and not as enemies, neither avoiding therefore one another’s company, much less defaming one another. Now, as the parson is in law, so is he in sickness also: if there be any of his flock sick, he is their physician,—or at least his wife, of whom, instead of the qualities of the world, he asks no other but to have the skill of healing a wound or helping the sick…. Accordingly, for salves, his wife seeks not the city, but prefers her garden and fields before all outlandish gums. And surely hyssop, valerian, mercury, adder’s-tongue, yarrow, melilot, and St. John’s-wort made into a salve, and elder, camomile, mallows, comphrey, and smallage made into a poultice, have done great and rare cures. In curing of any, the parson and his family use to premise prayers; for this is to cure like a parson, and this raiseth the action from the shop to the Church.”
  • All the selections are from ‘The Temple.’