George Herbert found, as most poets have, that the eﬀort to put the glimpse of glory into striking or moving words makes the glimpse grow. The poetic eﬀort to say beautifully was a way of seeing beauty. The eﬀort to ﬁnd worthy words for Christ opens to us more fully the worth of Christ — and the experience of the worth of Christ. As Herbert says of his own poetic eﬀort, “It is that which, while I use, I am with thee.”
If you go to the mainstream poetry website Poetry Foundation and click on George Herbert’s name, what you read is this: “He is . . . enormously popular, deeply and broadly inﬂuential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist of this or any other time.” This is an extraordinary tribute to a man who never published a single poem in English during his lifetime and died as an obscure country pastor when he was 39. But there are reasons for his enduring inﬂuence.
His Short Life
George Herbert was born April 3, 1593, in Montgomeryshire, Wales. He was the seventh of ten children born to Richard and Magdalene Herbert, but his father died when he was three, leaving ten children, the oldest of which was 13. This didn’t put them in ﬁnancial hardship, however, because Richard’s estate, which he left to Magdalene, was sizable.
Herbert was an outstanding student at a Westminster preparatory school, writing Latin essays when he was eleven years old, which would later be published. At Cambridge, he distinguished himself in the study of classics. He graduated second in a class of 193 in 1612 with a bachelor of arts, and then in 1616, he took his master of arts and became a major fellow of the university.
In 1619, he was elected public orator of Cambridge University. This was a prestigious post with huge public responsibility. A few years later, however, the conﬂict of his soul over a call to the pastoral ministry intensiﬁed. And a vow he had made to his mother during his ﬁrst year at Cambridge took hold in his heart. He submitted himself totally to God and to the ministry of a parish priest. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1626 and then became the ordained priest of the little country church at Bemerton in 1630. There were never more than a hundred people in his church.
At the age of 36 and in failing health, Herbert married Jane Danvers the year before coming to Bemerton, March 5, 1629. He and Jane never had children, though they adopted three nieces who had lost their parents. Then, on March 1, 1633, after fewer than three years in the ministry, and just a month before his fortieth birthday, Herbert died of tuberculosis, which he had suﬀered from most of his adult life. His body lies under the chancel of the church, and there is only a simple plaque on the wall with the initials GH.
His Dying Gift
That’s the bare outline of Herbert’s life. And if that were all there was, nobody today would have ever heard of George Herbert. The reason anyone knows of him today is because of something climactic that happened a few weeks before he died.
His close friend Nicholas Ferrar sent a fellow pastor, Edmund Duncon, to see how Herbert was doing. On Duncon’s second visit, Herbert knew that the end was near.