Sir Richard Herbert, an aristocrat of Norman descent, died when his son George was three years old. His ten children were reared by their mother, who is known to have been a wise, witty, generous, and religious woman. John Donne said, “Her house was a court in the conversation of the best.” Too frail for the family profession of soldiering, George Herbert was early guided toward the priesthood by his mother. He was not ordained until 1630, but Magdalen Herbert seems to have influenced the course of his life as much as Donne influenced his poetry. The first sonnets he wrote were addressed to her, and in them he vowed to devote himself to religious poetry.
The Latin verses that Herbert wrote at Cambridge are full of classical allusion. In The Temple, the main body of his English verse, he eschewed all archaic references and poetic rhetoric as studiously as Donne did himself. From Donne he also learned to transmute thought into feeling so that the intellectual concept becomes the emotional experience of the poem. Like Donne’s, his rhythms are colloquial; his imagery, although not often as dramatic as that of Donne, is similarly practical, concrete, and arresting.
Herbert’s range was narrower than Donne’s, for he wrote only religious poetry and none that was tortuous or complicated. Though Herbert can be said to have a moral simplicity, however, his work is anything but simple. Within his one central preoccupation, his thought is varied. In his last letter to Nicholas Ferrar, to whom he sent the manuscript of The Temple, he described his poems as “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.” His anguish was not caused by the possibility that he had lost his faith or was threatened with damnation but by the idea that he should prove not to be a good and worthy servant to God. Herbert’s greatest temptation was worldly ambition.
At Cambridge, Herbert’s relaxation was music; he played the lute and wrote accompaniments to his Latin poems. This interest is evident in the vocabulary and also in the rhythm of many of his poems. Some, like his version of the Twenty-third Psalm, were written to be sung. In “Easter,” the lute is an image for the body of Christ on the cross:
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,Who bore the same.His stretched sinews taught all strings, what keyIs best to celebrate this most high day.
The equation in the second stanza of the Crucifixion and the lute communicates the glory and pathos of Easter. The eager invocations to the poet’s own heart and lute in the first stanza are found also in the third, which carries the full implications of the previous image and reinforces it:
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a songPleasant and long:Or since all musick is but three parts vied,And multiplied;O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,And make up our defects with his sweet art.
Ambition for worldly acclaim is as recurrent in Herbert’s poetry as is music. In The Temple he often analyzes the delights of success, and the rejection of these delights is as meaningful poetically as it was in his life. In “The Pearl,” Herbert speaks of his knowledge of learning, honor, and pleasure, and he concludes each stanza with the refrain “Yet I love thee.” In the last stanza, the value of such knowledge is justified and explained: It renders his love of God significant and reasoned. “Therefore not sealed but with open eyes/ I flie to thee.” This quality of quietness, certitude, and moral simplicity at the end of many of Herbert’s poems gives them peculiar power. A controlled and intense late poem of rebellion contemplated, “The Collar” reflects at its close Herbert’s...
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