From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Being born into an artistic and wealthy family, he received a good education which led on to him holding prominent positions at Cambridge University and Parliament. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, England, George Herbert excelled in languages and music. He went to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but his scholarship attracted the attention of King James I. Herbert served in parliament for two years. After the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert's interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In 1630, in his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of St. Andrew Bemerton, near Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Throughout his life he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favored by the metaphysical school of poets. He is best remembered as a writer of poems and the hymn "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life." He is commemorated on February 27 throughout the Anglican Communion and on March 1 of the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Herbert was born in Montgomery in Wales. His family was wealthy, eminent, intellectual and fond of the arts. His mother Magdalen was a patron and friend of John Donne and other poets; his older brother Edward, later Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was an important poet and philosopher, often referred to as "the father of English deism". Herbert's father died when George was three, leaving a widow and ten children.
After graduating from Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge (where he achieved degrees with distinction), Herbert was elected a major fellow of his college. In 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge and in 1620 he was elected to the post of "public orator", whose duties would be served by poetic skill. He held this position until 1628.
In 1624 he became a Member of Parliament, representing Montgomeryshire. While these positions were suited to a career at court, and James I had shown him favor, circumstances worked against him: the King died in 1625, and two influential patrons of Herbert died later in the decade.
In 1633 Herbert finished a collection of poems entitled The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, which imitates the architectural style of churches through both the meaning of the words and their visual layout. The themes of God and love are treated by Herbert as much as psychological forces as metaphysical phenomena.
Suffering from poor health, Herbert died of tuberculosis only three years after taking holy orders. On his deathbed, he gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of a semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding (a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot), telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", and otherwise, to burn them. In less than 50 years, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations had gone through thirteen printings.
All of Herbert's surviving poems are religious, and some have been used as hymns. They are characterised by directness of expression and some conceits which can appear quaint. Many of the poems have intricate rhyme schemes, and variations of lines within stanzas.
Herbert also wrote A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) offering practical advice to country parsons. In it, he advises that "things of ordinary use" such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to "serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths".
His Jacula Prudentium (sometimes seen as Jacula Prudentum), a collection of pithy proverbs published in 1651, included many sayings still repeated today, for example "His bark is worse than his bite."
Richard Baxter said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books". Dame Helen Gardner adds "head-work" because of his "intellectual vivacity".