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George Herbert

George Herbert

George Herbert (3rd April 1593-1st March 1633) was a Welsh poet, who spent time as both an academic and a priest. He wrote poetry prolifically, with much of it only being published posthumously. Herbert's best-known works include 'The Collar' (1633) and 'Love' (1633).

Below is a biography of Herbert and a table of key quotes from his poetry. You will also find a summary of his poetic career and an analysis of some particular poems.

George Herbert: biography

Read on to learn about George Herbert's life.

George Herbert: early life

George Herbert was born on 3rd April 1593 in Wales. His father was part of a highly influential and wealthy Welsh family, but he passed away when Herbert was very young. Herbert grew extremely close to his mother who moved the family to various parts of England so that her ten children could have access to a good education.

George Herbert: education and career

Herbert attended Westminster School, a prestigious private school, where he received a classical education, learning Latin. He then went to Cambridge, where he found great academic success, gaining a master's and eventually taking a job as a lecturer. He was also the Orator of Cambridge, an admired and influential position in which he could spend time with royalty. This period in Cambridge was also when Herbert began to write poetry. Many of these poems revolved around the themes of religion and love, written both in English and Latin because of Herbert's classical background.

In the 1600s, being a university Orator was an important position. An Orator's job was to be a representative for the university on public occasions. Orators were figureheads that people associated with whichever prestigious university they represented.

Orators made speeches on these occasions in English or Latin to attendees, many of which were members of royalty and the aristocracy. As an Orator, Herbert became close to these kinds of people.

Many close to him had hoped that Herbert would pursue a political career because of his success as Cambridge's orator. He had gained many political connections. However, Herbert felt very drawn by religious life and was ordained as a deacon in 1624.

A deacon is a lay member of a Church of England congregation who is also ordained. They may have particular duties to aid in religious ceremonies.

The late 1620s were a difficult and turbulent time for Herbert. He often found himself in financial difficulty and spent much of 1626 severely ill. He lost his mother the following year and the ensuing grief profoundly impacted Herbert's poetry.

A few years later, in 1629, Herbert married Jane Danvers, a relation of his stepfather, in what is likely to have been an arranged marriage. Regardless, the couple enjoyed a pleasant companionship.1 They never had any children.

The next year Herbert fulfilled his long-held goal of being ordained as a priest in the Church of England. His best-known work of prose, The Country Parson (1652), was written during his time as a priest, as was his important poetry collection, The Temple (1703). The collection was published posthumously. On his deathbed, Herbert spoke to a close friend and arranged for it to be published.

George Herbert: cause of death

After many years of poor health and various illnesses, Herbert passed away from tuberculosis on 1st March 1633. He was relatively unknown as a poet at this time, but this was to change posthumously.

George Herbert: poems

While Herbert did write extensively, many of his poems were not published in his lifetime. He gave a collection of his works to a publisher shortly before his death, hoping that some would be judged good enough for publication. The Temple, one of his most complete and sophisticated collections, was published in 1703. As the title suggests, The Temple focuses heavily on religious themes. For example, 'Christmas I' and 'The Sacrifice' detail Jesus's birth and death, respectively. Herbert also made a great effort to explore the trials and tribulations of dedicating one's life to God, an issue that caused him great personal struggle. 'The Glimpse' and 'The Collar' both explore such themes.

Some of the first recorded poems by Herbert were found in letters written to his mother when he was in Cambridge. These were mostly sonnets investigating the difficulty of prioritising one's love for God over one's human love for a partner or lover. Some of the sonnets were quite erotic and detailed. While an unusual topic to send in letters to his mother, the poems displayed a deep devotion to God that would be key in the rest of Herbert's work.

Today, Herbert is recognised as one of the era's most important Metaphysical poets.

The term Metaphysical is used to describe a group of poets from the 1600s. This is a term used by critics retrospectively, often these poets did not know each other. Metaphysical works think deeply and philosophically about life, frequently focusing on morals and spirituality. They also subvert traditional poetic forms. Well-known metaphysical poets include John Donne and Abraham Cowley.

George Herbert: poem analysis

Below is an analysis of some of Herbert's key poems.

George Herbert: 'Love'

Herbert wrote three poems entitled 'Love'; 'Love I', 'Love II', and 'Love III'. The first two poems explore human love, but the third focuses on the love between God and man.

'Love III' is a conversation between a human narrator and God. The narrator is welcomed by a kind and loving God, but feels unworthy of this love. He lists his flaws as the fact that he is 'unkind' and 'ungrateful', but God accepts him regardless. The figure of God is named 'Love' in Herbert's poem. Doing this suggests that God is love itself and encapsulates the very concept. The poem also has a consistent form, mirroring the consistent and constant nature of God's love.

'Love' explores the doubts felt by many religious people. It soothes these fears by stating that God is ever-loving and ever-forgiving. The poem is likely inspired by many of the religious doubts Herbert often had himself.

George Herbert: 'The Collar'

'The Collar' is another Herbert poem that revolves around religious themes. It is a monologue from the perspective of a priest. He is extremely frustrated with the restrictions of his religious life. He feels trapped by the multitude of moral rules he must follow. Through a series of rhetorical questions, the narrator questions the very validity of these rules.

Rhetorical questions are when a character or narrator asks a question where either the answer is obvious or there is no clear answer. They can be used to convince an audience of a particular opinion or emphasise an issue.

The tone of 'The Collar' is highly frustrated and angry, showcasing the priest's mood. He swears he will move away from the priesthood and live a new life, full of options and opportunities. However, at the end of the poem, the narrator writes that he can hear the voice of God calling to him and readily responds. Herbert subverts the mood of 'The Collar' to imply that the priest may not abandon his vocation after all. With this ending, he suggests that while religious life may be difficult and complex, it is also worthwhile.

George Herbert quotes

Below is a selection of key quotes from Herbert's poetry.

Quote LocationExplanation
'But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild At every word,Methought I heard one calling, Child! And I replied My Lord.''The Collar', ll. 33-36.These are the last lines of 'The Collar'. After the long and infuriated monologue by the narrator, the atmosphere of the poem changes noticeably. He once again turns to God and his vocation.
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on Thee.'Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 'Who made the eyes but I?"'Love III', ll. 9-12.Herbert depicts a conversation between the narrator of 'Love III' and God. The narrator can't help but focus on his flaws, feeling unworthy of God's presence. However, God, named here as 'Love', comforts him by reminding him that he made the narrator and he cannot be wrong.
'There when I came, whom found I but my dear,My dearest Lord, expecting till the griefOf pleasures brought me to Him, ready thereTo be all passengers' most sweet relief?''Christmas I', ll. 5-8.These lines make up the second stanza of Herbert's poem. The poem tells the tale of a man riding his horse through Bethlehem, looking for an inn to rest. The quoted lines show his discovery that he is sharing the inn with the newly born baby Jesus. The man recognises that he is in the presence of God and is grateful for this, seeing him as humanity's saviour.
'Whither away delight?Thou cam'st but now; wilt thou so soon depart,And give me up to night?For many weeks of ling'ring pain and smartBut one half hour of comfort for my heart?''The Glimpse', ll. 1-5.Herbert opens 'The Glimpse' with these lines. They detail a narrator experiencing joy and pleasure for the first time in a long time. However, he knows the joy will end soon and already feels it fading. He is regularly in deep distress and will soon return to this state.

George Herbert - Key takeaways

  • George Herbert was a Metaphysical poet from the 1600s.

  • He was a successful academic who then entered the priesthood.

  • Two of Herbert's most well-known works include The Country Parson (1652) and The Temple (1703).

  • 'The Collar' and 'Love' are some of Herbert's most important poems.

  • Herbert often focused on the themes of love and religion in his work.


References

  1. Sidney Gottlieb, George Herbert (3 April 1593-1 March 1633), Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1993.

Frequently Asked Questions about George Herbert

Herbert is known for his religious poetry.

The main features of Herbert's poetry are elements of Metaphysical literature and the themes of love and religion.

Herbert wrote religious and Metaphysical poetry.

Herbert is often known as this because of his immense devotion to his vocation as a priest and his constant attempts to better himself spiritually.

George Herbert was a Welsh priest and Metaphysical poet.

Final George Herbert Quiz

Question

When was 'Redemption' written?

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1633.

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What type of poet was George Herbert?

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Metaphysical.

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What form is 'Redemption'?

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Answer

An English/Shakespearean sonnet.

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How many lines does a sonnet have?

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Fourteen.

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What metre is 'Redemption' in?

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Iambic pentameter.

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What are two key themes in 'Redemption'?

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God's love and perseverance.

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What is 'Redemption' an allegory for?

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God's willingness to give salvation to all.

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Who does the landlord represent in the poem?

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God.

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What two literary devices are used in 'Redemption'?

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Allegory and enjambment.

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What is enjambment?

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When lines run into the next without being broken up by punctuation.

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What aspect of the English sonnet does Herbert change?

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The rhyme scheme.

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How can the tone of 'Redemption' be described?

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Reverent and hopeful.

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What does the lord's death at the end of the poem symbolise?

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Jesus dying for humanity.

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What topic are sonnets usually about?

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Love.

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What two kinds of imagery are found in 'Redemption'?

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Earthly and heavenly.

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When was 'The Collar' written?

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1633.

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What metre does 'The Collar' have?

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No set metre.

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What are two key themes in 'The Collar'?

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The difficulty of devotion and doubt.

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What two literary devices are used in 'The Collar'?

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Answer

Rhetorical questions and alliteration.

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What is alliteration?

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When a work has the same consonant sounds, often at the beginning of words, located closely together.

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What rhyme scheme do the closing lines of 'The Collar' have?

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ABAB.

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What is the meaning of 'The Collar'?

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That religious life is complex but worthwhile.

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Why is the narrator of 'The Collar' so frustrated?

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Because he feels trapped by religious life.

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How can the tone of 'The Collar' be described?

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Frustrated, angry, and resentful.

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How many lines does 'The Collar' have?

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Thirty-six.

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What kind of imagery is found in 'The Collar'?

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Imagery of confinement.

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Why are so many rhetorical questions asked in 'The Collar'?

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To emphasise the unknowable nature of religious life.

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Why does Herbert's poem have the title 'The Collar'?

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Because priests often wear a collar.

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How does the poem change in the closing lines?

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God speaks to the narrator and he replies.

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What does the poem's chaotic form represent?

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The chaotic nature of the narrator's life.

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When was George Herbert born?

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3rd April 1593.

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What university did Herbert attend?

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Cambridge.

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What prestigious job did Herbert hold while in Cambridge?

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University Orator.

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What is the name of Herbert's best-known poetry collection?

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The Temple.

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What two themes did Herbert often write on?

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Religion and love.

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How many poems did Herbert write with the title of 'Love'?

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3.

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What literary device was used in 'The Collar'?

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Rhetorical questions.

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What job did Herbert always aspire towards?

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Priest.

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Apart from English, what other language did Herbert write in?

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Latin.

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What is Herbert's best-known prose work?

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The Country Parson.

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What kind of poet was Herbert?

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Metaphysical.

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What is 'Christmas I' about?

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A man staying at an inn in Bethlehem and discovering he is sharing it with baby Jesus.

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Who did Herbert send some of his first ever poems to?

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His mother.

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Why is God called 'Love' in the poem 'Love III'?

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Because he encapsulates the concept of love.

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What is wrong with the narrator in 'The Collar'?

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He feels trapped in his religious life.

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