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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

II. The Sacred Poets

§ 2. George Herbert’s personality and divided aims reflected in his poems

The fascination of George Herbert is due as much to his character as to his writings. It is true that the reputation of The Temple was assured, and nine editions called for, before Izaak Walton’s Life made Herbert one of the most familiar figures of the century. But The Temple, and its prose companion, A Priest to the Temple (1652), had already revealed the presence of conflicting traits in their author’s character, as, with a rare and almost morbid sensitiveness, he watched his own growth and scrutinised his moods. His personal history, therefore, is of more than ordinary moment for understanding his poems.

The famous Border family of the Herberts had furnished a long line of soldiers, courtiers, judges and men of affairs—an ancestry such as lord Herbert of Cherbury delighted to tell of with a pleasing vanity. The persuasion to a more peaceful calling reached George Herbert, not through his father’s line, but through his mother, Magdalen, daughter of Sir Richard Newport of High Ercall, Shropshire. Her husband died in 1596, leaving her with a family of seven sons and three daughters, “Job’s number and Job’s distribution as she herself would very often remember.” George, the fifth son, was born at Montgomery on 3 April, 1593, in the same year as Walton his biographer, and Nicholas Ferrar who stood sponsor to The Temple. Magdalen Herbert had all her sons “brought up in learning,” but most of them chose the life of the court or the camp. It was natural to a Herbert to “chase brave employments with a naked sword throughout the world,” and not even George escaped the “passion and choler” of his race.

At Westminster school, under Richard Ireland, he laid the foundation of his scholarship. His boyish performance in answer to the veteran Andrew Melville’s Anti-Tami-Cami-Categoria may be lightly dismissed as deserving neither praise nor blame; an injudicious admirer printed it thirty years after Herbert’s death. Of greater importance are the two sonnets which he sent to his mother as a New Year’s gift, soon after his becoming a scholar of Trinity college, Cambridge. “Doth poetry wear Venus’ livery, only serve her turn?” he asks,

  • Cannot Thy love
  • Heighten a spirit to sound out Thy praise
  • As well as any she?
  • In this sixteen-year-old challenge to the love poetry of the day, he probably reveals the influence of John Donne, who was already his mother’s friend, and had written many of his Divine Poems, though they first appeared in print in the same year as The Temple. If Herbert’s early ambition to become a sacred poet never faded from his mind, it hardly held its own during the next fifteen years with academic ambitions of scholarship, and civic ambitions of state employment. Even on the death of his mother in 1627, Parentalia, the filial odes which he appended to Donne’s funeral sermon, did not include any English poems, and deserved Barnabas Oley’s comment, “he made his ink with water of Helicon.” His rapid success in the university raised higher hopes. Fellow of Trinity in 1616, and praelector of rhetoric in 1618, he aspired to the office of public orator, “the finest place in the University,” as he called it, especially because it brought the orator into relations with the court. The retiring orator, Sir Francis Nethersole, and his predecessor, Sir Robert Naunton, held important political offices. Herbert’s high connections, courtly address and knowledge of languages were likely to win him similar promotion. He had made no secret of his intention ultimately to seek the priesthood, and now brushed aside Nethersole’s warning that the orator’s office might divert him too much from divinity. He canvassed friends and kinsfolk for their support, and sought to “work the Heads to my purpose.” He was installed orator on 18 January, 1619, and held the post till his mother’s death. As the official mouth-piece of the university, he was expected to use the language of flattery in addressing those whom Cambridge delighted to honour, and he was well qualified to “trade in courtesies and wit”; but, even in an age of adulation, his hyperboles are conspicuous. It is impossible to acquit him of self-seeking in his use of the orator’s opportunities. As Walton honestly says, “he enjoyed his gentile humour for cloaths, and courtlike company, and seldom look’d towards Cambridge, unless the King were there, and then he never failed.” According to the same witness, “all Mr. Herbert’s Court hopes” died with the death in rapid succession of his two most influential friends, and of the king himself in 1625. It is difficult to believe that the chances were all gone for a man of his parts, but the sudden check served to bring once more to the fore that alternative career which he had never put wholly from him. Retiring “to a friend in Kent, where he lived very privately,” he debated with himself whether he should return to “the painted pleasures of a Court life,” or take orders. Some part of his hesitancy must have been overcome very soon, for he was already a deacon, when he was instituted by proxy, on 5 July, 1626, to the prebend of Leighton Ecclesia in Lincoln cathedral. How far his entering the diaconate committed him to clerical life cannot easily be gauged. It was one thing to qualify for honorary preferments, it was another to throw in his lot unreservedly with “a despised order” and its professional duties. The parallel case of his friend Ferrar, ordained deacon in this same summer, may throw some light upon the contemporary opinion of the diaconate. Highly as Ferrar regarded it, he protested that “he durst not advance one step higher,” and clearly shared that growing regard for the priesthood which the school of Andrewes had encouraged. The point is important, because it indicates that the period of conflict for Herbert was not over, and its long continuance wrung from him poems which bear the marks of mental suffering. The poems of this period have also many references to his agues and failing health. Life was slipping from him, with nothing achieved, when his marriage to Jane Danvers, in 1629, brought a happier state of mind and greater willingness to adopt clerical life. In 1630, Philip, earl of Pembroke, asked king Charles, in whose gift the living was for that turn, to give Bemerton to his kinsman, and, on 26 April, Herbert was instituted to the rectory of Fulston St. Peter’s with Bemerton, Wiltshire; on 19 September he was ordained priest. The three years at Bemerton, ending with his burial “in his own church under the altar” on 3 March, 1633, form that part of Walton’s Life, and of the common tradition about Herbert, which needs least correction. “Holy Mr. Herbert” is no idealised picture of a biographer who saw him but once; it is the estimate of his contemporaries, of Ferrar and Oley, and of lord Herbert, who wrote that “his life was most holy and exemplary; in so much that about Salisbury, where he lived, beneficed for many years, he was little less than sainted.” The intensity of the long struggle with himself, which had its echoes even in Bemerton days, saves his life and writings from anything like tameness, though there was peace at the last. The personal note in The Temple is an unfailing interest. Herbert himself gave the best description of his unpublished book, when, from his deathbed, he sent it to his “dear brother Ferrar,” with the message that he would “find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” It is this history of a soul which gives unity to The Temple, and makes it a book, in a sense in which Steps to the Temple is only a collection.