George Herbert was born into a noble family; his elder brother was Lord Herbert. George became public orator at Cambridge University in 1620, and he was a friend of the crown prince. The death of King James in 1625 turned his attention to spiritual matters, much influenced by the godly community of Nicholas Ferrar in Little Gidding. Herbert relinquished his worldly opportunities, and for the last three years of his life he pastored a small church at Bremerton, near Salisbury. His famous account of a pastoral model, A Priest to the Temple: Or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life, was published posthumously in 1652. The Temple, a volume of his lyrical poems, embodies expressions of his personal struggles of faith and was used as a device of pastoral teaching.
Just as the Book of Common Prayer sets the frame for the corporate devotion and worship of Anglicanism, so Herbert collects his poems of a lifetime into an architectural setting, with its “porch,” “supreliminary” (a passageway into the main sanctuary), and the church “proper,” with its “altar” providing the focus for worship. As Herbert cites from Psalm 29:9, “in His Temple, does every man speak of His Honor,” so the life of the Christian is subsumed within a corporate sharing in the faith, fellowship, and ordinances of the Church.
Seeing the need of unity in all of one’s life before God, Herbert identifies, in the first section of his poems, the individual’s need of right conduct before God. In the second section, Herbert seeks to deepen the Christian’s life by reviewing the spiritual virtues. In the third section, possibly composed before the poet’s scheme for The Temple had been formulated, Herbert traces the history of the “Church Militant.” Thus the book has a threefold structure in considering the significance of the symbols of the church architecture, the virtues of the Christian life, and the events of the Church’s history.
The simplicity of Herbert’s poems is deceptive, as each of the 162 poems has very varied patterns of line and rhyme. Self-reflection and scriptural meditation are inextricably bound together for the poet, for as Jesus told the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Accordingly, Herbert offers a number of explicitly biblical poems that...
(The entire section is 985 words.)