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George Herbert

GEORGE HERBERT (1593–1633) was born at Montgomery, Powys, Wales. He was born at Montgomery Castle as were many of the distinguished Herberts before him. His lineage includes many knights that lived at the Castle. He was educated by Mr. Ireland at Westminster and at fifteen he attended Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1619 he served as Orator of the University for eight years. In 1626 he became Prebendary of Layton Ecclesia in the diocese of Lincoln. He married Jane Danvers, and in 1630 became rector of Bemerton, and at 39 he died of tuberculosis. His largest diversion was music. His most notable work is “The Temple” which is a large selection of his poems.

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Extended Biography of George Herbert

George Herbert was born in 1593 at Montgomery Castle, and educated at Westminster School, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, of which he became fellow. In 1619 he was chosen university orator, which office he held for eight years, much to the satisfaction of his hearers, and particularly of those great personages whom he had occasionally to address. On more than one occasion he pleased James I. very much, whom he also pleased by his apt and ingenious replies to Andrew Melville, the Presbyterian demagogue, at the Hampton Court conference. His talents recommended him to the notice of the celebrated Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester, and of Lord Bacon, who is said to have entertained such a high opinion of him, as to consult him in his writings before they went to press; he also dedicated to him his translation of some of the Psalms into English verse. Being at this time a favorite with the king, and "not meanly valued and loved by the most eminent and most powerful of the nobility," he began to cherish hopes of rising at court. With this view he frequently left Cambridge to attend the king, and he seldom visited Cambridge unless when his majesty was there. But, as Walton says, "God, in Whom there is an unseen, chain of causes," terminated his hopes of rising at court by the deaths of the Duke of Richmond and the Marquis of Hamilton, his chief patrons, and, about the same time, by that of King James. The loss of these friends appears to have given a new turn to his mind. He now left London, and went to the house of a gentle man in Kent, where he lived in great privacy, and, after having taken a careful retrospect of his past views and hopes, he determined to dedicate himself to the ministry.

"He did on his return," says Isaac Walton, "acquaint a court friend with his resolution to enter into sacred orders, who persuaded him to alter it, as too mean an employment, and too much below his birth, and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind. To whom he replied, 'It hath been formerly judged that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven should be of the noblest families on earth; and though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labor to make it honorable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for Him that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labor to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and meek example of my dear Jesus.'

"This was then his resolution, and the God of constancy, who intended him for a great example of virtue, continued him in it; for within that year he was made deacon, but the day when, or by whom, I cannot learn; but that he was about that time made deacon is most certain; for I find by the records of Lincoln, that he was made prebend of Layton Ecclesia, in the diocese of Lincoln, July 15, 1626, and that this prebend was given him by John, then lord bishop of that see. And now he had a fit occasion to show that piety and bounty that was derived from his generous mother and his other memorable ancestors: and the occasion was this.

"This Layton Ecclesia is a village near to Spalden, in the county of Huntingdon, and the greatest part of the parish church was fallen down, and that of it which stood was so decayed, so little, and so useless, that the parishioners could not meet to perform their duty to God in public prayer and praises; and thus it had been for almost twenty years, in which time there had been some faint endeavors for a public collection to enable the parishioners to rebuild it, but with no success, till Mr. Herbert undertook it; and he; by his own, and the contribution of many of his kindred and other noble friends, undertook the re-edification of it, and made it so much his whole business, that he became restless till he saw it finished as it now stands; being, for the workmanship, a costly mosaic; for the form, an exact cross; and for the decency and beauty, I am assured it is the most remarkable parish church that this nation affords. He lived to see it so wainscoated as to be exceeded by none; and by his order the reading-pew and pulpit were a little distant from each other, and both of an equal height; for he would often say, 'They should neither have a precedency or priority of the other; but that prayer and preaching, being equally useful, might agree like brethren, and have an equal honor and estimation.'

"Before I proceed farther I must look back to the time of Mr. Herbert's being made prebend, and tell the reader, that not long after, his mother being informed of his intentions to rebuild that church, and apprehending the great trouble and charge that he was like to draw upon himself, his relations, and friends, before it could be finished, sent for him from London to Chelsea, (where she then dwelt,) and at his coming, said:—'George, I sent for you, to persuade you to commit simony, by giving your patron as good a gift as he has given to you; namely, that you give him back his prebend; for, George, it is not for your weak body and empty purse to undertake to build churches.' Of which he desired he might have a day's time to consider, and then made her an answer. And at his return to her the next day, when he had first desired her blessing, and she had given it him, his next request was, ' That she would, at the age of thirty-three years, allow him to become an undutiful son, for he had made a vow to God, that if he were able he would rebuild that church.' And then showed her such reasons for his resolution, that she presently subscribed to be one of his benefactors, and undertook to solicit William, Earl of Pembroke, to become another, who subscribed for fifty pounds; and not long after, by a witty and persuasive letter from Mr. Herbert, made it fifty pounds more."

About 1629 he was seized with a quotidian ague, which obliged him to remove to Woodford, in Essex, for change of air; and when, after his ague had abated, some consumptive appearances were apprehended, he went to Dauntsey, in Wiltshire, the seat of Lord Danvers, Earl of Danby. He afterwards married Jane Danvers, daughter of Mr. Charles Danvers, of Bainton, in Wiltshire. About three months after his marriage, Dr. Curle, who was then rector of Bemerton, in Wiltshire, was made Bishop of Bath and Wells, (and not long after translated to Winchester,) and by that means the presentation of a clerk to Bemerton did not fall to the Earl of Pembroke, (who was the undoubted patron of it,) but to the king, by reason of Dr. Curle's advancement: but Philip, then Earl of Pembroke, (for William was lately dead,) requested the king to bestow it upon his kinsman George Herbert; and the king said, "Most willingly to Mr. Herbert, if it be worth his acceptance:" and the earl as willingly and suddenly sent it to him, without seeking. But though Mr. Herbert had put on a resolution for the clergy, yet, at receiving this presentation, the apprehension of the last great account that he was to make for the cure of so many souls made him fast and pray often, and consider for not less than a month; in which time he had some resolutions to decline both the priesthood and that living. And in this time of considering, "He endured" (as he would often say) "such spiritual conflicts as none can think but only those that have endured them."

In the midst of these conflicts, his old and dear friend Mr. Arthur Woodnot, took a journey to salute him at Bainton (where he then was with his wife's friends and relations) and was joyful to be an eye witness of his health, and happy marriage. And after they had rejoiced together some few days, they took journey to Wilton, the famous seat of the Earls of Pembroke; at which time, the king, the earl, and the whole court were there, or at Salisbury, which is near to it. And at this time Mr. Herbert presented his thanks to the earl, for his presentation to Bemerton, but had not yet resolved to accept it, and told him the reason why; but that night, the earl acquainted Dr. Laud, then Bishop of London, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, with his kinsman's irresolution. And the bishop did the next day so convince Mr. Herbert, that the refusal of it was a sin; that a tailor was sent for to come speedily from Salisbury to Wilton, to take measure, and make his canonical clothes, against next day: which the tailor did; and Mr. Herbert being so habited, went with his presentation to the learned Dr. Davenant, who was then Bishop of Salisbury, and he gave him institution immediately (for Mr. Herbert had been made deacon some years before) and he was also the same day (which was April 26th, 1630,) inducted into the good and more pleasant, than healthful parsonage of Bemerton: which is a mile from Salisbury.

Here he passed the remainder of his days, discharging the duties of a parish priest in a manner so exemplary, that the history of his life here, as given by Walton, or perhaps as delineated by himself in his Country Parson, may justly be recommended as a model.

"He was accustomed to appear constantly with his wife, and three nieces (the daughters of a deceased sister) and his whole family, twice every day at the Church prayers, in the chapel which does almost join to his parsonage house. And for the time of his appearing, it was strictly at the canonical hours of ten and four; and then, and there he lifted up pure and charitable hands to God in the midst of the congregation. And he would joy to have spent that time in that place, where the honor of his Master Jesus dwelleth; and there, by that inward devotion which he testified constantly by an humble behavior, and visible adoration, he like Joshua brought not only his own household thus to serve the Lord; but brought most of his parishioners, and many gentlemen in the neighborhood, constantly to make a part of his congregation twice a day; and some of the meaner sort of his parish, did so love and reverence Mr. Herbert, that they would let their plough rest when Mr. Herbert's saint-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotions to God with him; and would return back to their plough. And his most holy life was such, that it begot such reverence to God, and to him, that they thought themselves the happier, when they carried Mr. Herbert's blessing back with them to their labor.—Thus powerful was his reason, and example, to persuade others to a practical piety and devotion.

"And his constant public prayers did never make him to neglect his own private devotions, nor those prayers that he thought himself bound to perform with his family, which always were a set form, and not long; and he did always conclude them with that collect which the Church hath appointed for the day or week.—Thus he made every day's sanctity a step towards that kingdom where impurity cannot enter.

"His chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and, did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol; and, though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days, to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, ' That his time spent in prayer, and cathedral music, elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth.' But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part, at an appointed private music meeting; and, to justify this practice, he would often say, 'Religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates, and sets rules to it.' "

Unhappily, however, for his flock, his life was shortened by a return of the consumptive symptoms which had formerly appeared, and he died in February 1632. He published, Oratio qua auspicatissimum sereniss. Princ. Caroli reditum ex Hispaniis celebravit G. H. Acad. Cantab. Orator; a translation of Cornaro On Temperance; Herbert's Remains—in this volume is his Priest to the Temple, or the Country Parson's Character and Rule of Holy Life; The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. This has been often reprinted.—Walton.

Source: Hook, Walter F. An Ecclesiastical Biography containing the Lives of Ancient Father and modern Divines, Vol. 6. London: F. and J. Rivington, 1850.