George Herbert is widely considered England's finest religious poet. Like John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, and Andrew Marvell, he belongs to a small group of 17th century poets (commonly known as the metaphysical poets), whose poetry combines powerful emotion, ingenious versification, witty imagery, intellectualism, and originality of thought. His admirers fall into two distinct groups-those for whom he is a model of simple faith and saintly devotion and those for whom his chief virtue is the complexity of his wit and poetic craftsmanship. A careful examination of his life helps to show how these disparate characteristics could be combined in a single individual.
Herbert was born into a distinguished family whose holdings included the Earldom of Pembroke. His mother Magdalen was a woman of great sensitivity and intelligence as well as piety, and she is known particularly as a friend and patroness to John Donne. His elder brother Edward achieved fame as a soldier, diplomat, philosopher, and writer, and it was only after their deaths that Edward was overshadowed by his younger brother. It appears that his mother had always intended the Church for George Herbert (his father had died when he was 3), but he made such a success of academic life both at Westminster School and then at Cambridge that he was tempted into an academic career. By the age of 21 he was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and within a few years was appointed first as University Reader in Rhetoric and then as Public Orator for the University. This brought him to the attention of the royal court and also gave rise to political ambitions that culminated in his election to Parliament in 1624 as Member of Parliament (MP) for his home town of Montgomery. By the age of 32, however, he began to turn his back on worldly ambitions and decided to take Holy Orders. After an extended period of ill health (and perhaps soul-searching), he married Jane Danvers in 1629 and accepted the living of Bemerton near Salisbury a year later. For the remaining 3 years of his life, he was an exemplary priest, devoting himself to his duties and to his parishioners so completely that he was revered almost as a saint. Most of the 160 poems he wrote altogether in English were written during this time at Bemerton, though they were not published (in a collection called The Temple) until after his death. Within 50 years of his death, The Temple had passed through 13 editions and was widely venerated as a model of practical devotion.
Though he never wrote mystical verse, his poems exemplify a wide diversity of spiritual qualities and experiences. First, there are poems of simple praise and adoration of God; some of these, such as "Praise (II)" and "Antiphon (I)" have been set to music and are frequently found in hymnbooks even today. Secondly, there are poems of meditation, including the long poem "The Sacrifice," which highlights many of the ironies and paradoxes associated with the events of Passion Week. A third category consists of poetry whose subject is about the personal spiritual experience. This experience is wide-ranging, including an overwhelming sense of personal unworthiness ["Love (III)"], rebellion ("The Collar"), repentance ("Confession"), continuing spiritual conflicts ["Affliction (I)"], and the sense of calm which comes with reassurance of God's love ("The Flower"). Fourthly, some of his poetry is designed to strengthen the reader's faith ("The Quip") or moral character ("Vertue"). Finally, there is poetry that depends for its effect on other (perhaps less directly religious) spiritual qualities, like creativity and imagination. "Hope" is built around a sequence of complex symbols, while "Jordan (I)" provides a witty justification for his own verse by arguing for the equal status of religious and love poetry.