George Herbert was born on April 3, 1593, into one of the most distinguished families of Montgomeryshire, active both in local politics and court service. The fifth son in a family of seven sons and three daughters, he was reared principally by his mother (his father died in 1596), by all reports a remarkable woman who left a deep impression on her children. Magdalene Herbert not only shrewdly managed an extremely large household—unlike the modern-day nuclear family, the upper-class household of the seventeenth century might contain upward of a score of children, relatives, servants, and visitors—but also supervised the education of her children. Perhaps more important, as Donne relates in his commemorative sermon on her, she was a model of piety and took a great interest in the spiritual development of her family. Herbert’s early childhood thus well prepared him for a life of distinction and devotion, two clusters of values that he later spent much time trying to reconcile.
Herbert’s formal education began at Westminster School, and upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, he soon established himself as a young man of great promise. Moving quickly through A.B. and A.M. degrees and positions as a minor, then a major fellow, Herbert became the university orator in 1620. Such an appointment not only indicates the great verbal and oral skills that Herbert must have demonstrated, skills that he would later use to great advantage as both a poet and a preacher, but also testifies to the high regard in which he was held. The orator was in some respects the public spokesperson for the university, constantly communicating with government officials and dignitaries, and it was only a small step to graduate from this office to a more prestigious position at court or in state service.
This was not, however, to be Herbert’s path. Perhaps his attendance at two particularly troubling terms of Parliament (in 1624 and 1625) discouraged him from a life of secular employment. Perhaps the death of King James and the accession of Charles I left him without a strong group of supporters to back any possible ambitions. Perhaps as he grew older, passed through several serious illnesses, and deepened his devotions, he came to see that a secular career did not, in the long run, have nearly as much to offer as a life of holy service. For whatever reason, Herbert chose to be ordained as a deacon by 1626, and four years later, he became a priest. With his wife, whom he married in 1629, Herbert lived the remaining years of his life at Bemerton, a small parish near Salisbury. He died on March 1, 1633.
Herbert’s poetry is often deeply personal, so that many readers insist on looking at The Temple as a kind of veiled autobiography. Surely the major themes of his life are indeed the major themes in his poetry: On one level, The Temple dramatizes Herbert’s conflicting drives toward secular achievement and religious retreat, his search for a satisfying vocation, and his apparently constant self-doubts and worries about his unworthiness to be a lowly servant of God, let alone a priest. The Temple is ultimately, however, far more than autobiographical, and the reader should not assume that every statement made by Herbert the poet is literally true of Herbert the man. The persona who narrates and undergoes a variety of experiences in The Temple is very much like Herbert but also very much like the readers of The Temple. Herbert’s purpose in writing his poems was not so much to express his personal concerns as it was to clarify and perhaps resolve certain important problems that all Christians—some would broaden this to include all thoughtful readers—share. The details of Herbert’s life thus figure largely in his poems, but as part of a design that is much more inclusive.
The fifth son of an aristocratic family, the poet George Herbert received his early education from his mother, whom he characterizes in his Parentalia , the only volume published in his...
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