George Herbert, 1593–1633

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Biographical note

Poet, educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1616, and was public orator 1619–27. He became the friend of Sir H. Wotton, Donne, and Bacon, the last of whom is said to have held him in such high esteem as to submit his writings to him before publication. He 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, and of Laud, he took orders in 1626 and, after serving for a few years as prebendary 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. His health, however, failed, and he died in his 40th year.

His 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, according to Izaak Walton, who was Herbert’s biographer, having been sold in a few years. Among its admirers were Charles I., Cowper, and Coleridge.

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

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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