George Herbert Poetry

Poems by George Herbert (1593–1633)

Engraving of George Herbert, poet.

George Herbert
by Robert White

engraving, 1674
(NPG D3251)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons License

George Herbert was a 17th-century British poet, now recognized as one of the best devotional poets in the English language.

You may read two of his poems available from EIL:

Gratefulnesse

Easter Wings

If you enjoy George Herbert’s devotional poetry, you’ll want to read Working it Out: Growing Spiritually with the Poetry of George Herbert by Joseph L. Womack. This delightful volume offers a minister’s explication of selected Herbert poems. For each poem he covers The Big Picture, The Parts of the Picture, The Parts of the Picture Come Together, Reflections, and Scriptures for Further Reflection. It’s not just a devotional guide; it’s also a very helpful example of how to get the most from reading poetry. Highly recommended.

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George Herbert (1593–1633) was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College., Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1616, and was public orator from 1619-27. He became the friend of Sir H. Wotton, John Donne, and Francis Bacon, the last of whom is said to have held him in such high esteem as to submit his writings to him before publication.

Herbert also acquired the favour of James I., who conferred upon him a sinecure worth £120 a year, and having powerful friends, he attached himself for some time to the Court in the hope of preferment. The death of two of his patrons, however, led him to change his views, and coming under the influence of Nicholas Ferrar, the quietist of Little Gidding (mentioned in Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot), and of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, he took orders in 1626.

After serving for a few years as clergyman of Layton Ecclesia, or Leighton Broomswold, he became in 1630 Rector of Bemerton, Wilts, where he passed the remainder of his life, discharging the duties of a parish priest with conscientious assiduity. However, his health failed, and he died in his 40th year.

The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics) by George HerbertHis chief works are The Temple, or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1634), The Country Parson (1652), and Jacula Prudentium, a collection of pithy proverbial sayings, the two last in prose. Not published until the year after his death, The Temple had immediate acceptance: 20,000 copies were sold in just a few years, according to I. Walton, who was Herbert’s biographer. Among its admirers were Charles I., William Cowper, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Herbert wrote some of the most exquisite sacred poetry in the language, although his style, influenced by John Donne, is at times characterised by artificiality and conceits. He was an excellent classical scholar and an accomplished musician.

Biography adapted from the “Herbert, George,” entry in A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John William Cousin, London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1910. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

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If you would like to learn more about George Herbert’s life, you may wish to read this longer biography.

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