The Windows of George Herbert's Life
George Herbert is an important literary figure in the seventeenth century English literature. Not only is he highly recognized for his poetry, he is also noted for his prose, and for his various notes on other works of literature. His life entails the devotion to his family, education, and career. In particular, he chose to write about the most important aspects of his life, that being first and foremost, his mother, and later in his life, his dedication to God, from which he pays homage to in verse and in vocation. Nevertheless, he is author of, The Temple, from which is the larger collection of poems that, "Windows" can be found. This poem, moreover, is only an example of the poetic genius of George Herbert. In order to understand this poet and his life, it becomes critical to delve into his background and his education, which both play an instrumental role in his work.
The background of one of seventeenth-century's greatest writers is an integral part of who George Herbert is and how he was to become such a literary success. According to T.S. Eliot, author of, Writers and Their Works, "George Herbert was born on April 3, the 'year of our redemption, 1593' " (35). He came from a wealthy family which had both power and respect, and was the fifth of ten children. John Tobin, author of, George Herbert: The Complete English Poems, states, "his father was Richard Herbert, the son of Edward Herbert, knight, the son of Richard Herbert, knight, the son of the famous Sir Richard Herbert of Colebrook, who was the youngest brother of the memorableWilliam Herbert, Earl of Pembroke who lived in the reign of our King Edward the Fourth" (268). His mother was Magdalen Newport, the youngest daughter of Sir Richard, and sister to Sir Francis Newport of High Ercall in the country of Salop, knight, and grandfather of Francis, Lord Newport, now Comptroller of His Majesty's Household" (269). Herbert had six brothers and three sisters. Edward was the oldest; he was followed by Richard, William, Charles, Henry, and Thomas, and his sisters were all married to men with fortune (270). It is readily important to know who his family was in order to understand the significance of his upbringing.
As a renown writer, one can attribute Herbert's success by means of his academic achievement. During his life George Herbert was greatly influenced by several people. According to T.S. Eliot, he was influenced by his mother, Sir John Donne, Bishop Andrews, and lastly Nicholas Ferrar, who was responsible for publishing the highly acclaimed, The Temple (38). The most highly influential person was his mother, Magdalen Newport Herbert. According to Sydney Gottlieb, author of, George Herbert, "Herbert may have spent his early years in a home without a strong father figure, but this is not to say that the household lacked a commanding presence" (147). Herbert's attachment to his mother was the reason for his academic success.. Herbert's mother tutored him at home, and then she enrolled him in Westminister School, where he studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (147). It is evident that she was a strong-willed woman who wanted the best for Herbert. In fact, "there is evidence of Herbert's deep attachment to, and even identification with, his mother throughout his works" ( Tobin 272). He loved his mother greatly, and was she, who fostered his love for his education. His poetry was, "written and sent to her as a gift, and upon her death, he deeply mourned her adoration and devotion to him throughout his childhood. Without her, he would not have had such a striving ambition to succeed and become a great poet. After having mastered several languages, his education would be further advanced. Tobin, in fact, goes on to state after finishing Westminister School, he went on to Trinity College in Cambridge, where he was to become a King's Scholar; it was also here that Dr. Nevil would become his tutor, and it was he who took him, "...into his particular care" (270). Herbert was academically successful, and his education at Cambridge would last for a period of twenty years. While at Cambridge, he gained a B.A., M.A., a Minor fellowship, and a Major fellowship; the latter of which involved devoting time as a tutor and a lecturer (Gottlieb 147). Needless to say, his academic achievement would continue to thrive. Tobin writes that at Cambridge, he was given the prestigious rank as University Orator and was responsible for making speeches and writing letters (270). Indeed, it becomes evident that his scholarly position was a direct result of his exemplary upbringing. Amy M. Charles, author of, A Life of George Herbert, writes, "at Cambridge, he was named one of four, 'Lectors Domestic' in 1617, Praelector in rhetoric in the University in 1618, and Public Orator in 1620" (145). Herbert was very grateful to have acquired this position. Furthermore, Herbert become a fellow at the age of twenty-three (Eliot 40). During his time as Orator, he learned many skills that would accredit his poetic writing. He learned to understand Italian, Spanish, and French (Tobin 279). Although Herbert had two other influences, Donne and Ferrar, it is imperative to point out that other than his mother, his other great influence was Bishop Andrews. Lancelot Andrews, who later became Bishop of Winchester, was a supporter for the making of the King James Bible (Gottlieb 147). They became life-long friends while at Cambridge, and his influence on Herbert is easily recognizable in his religious poetry. Consequently, Herbert's poetry is the pinnacle of influences by both mentors and education.
The poetry of George Herbert defines who he is and gives us a brief understanding of the importance of his upbringing. While at Cambridge, George Herbert wrote most of his poetry. In fact, Gottlieb further writes that, "he began, auspiciously enough, with a vow, made in a letter accompanying two sonnets sent to his mother as a New Year's gift in 1610..." (148). The sonnets were indicative of his everlasting piety. Moreover, Herbert chose to re-direct his poetry from the subject of love to religion. Consequently, "King James helped encourage this kind of revolution by writing and publishing his own religious poems" (Charles 147). The two poems given to his mother, in fact, gave a preview of what was to come in his later works. Not much evidence is available to date most of Herbert's early works. Gottlieb states, however, that ,"not all of his early poetic efforts were the kind of impassioned sacred lyrics promised by the sonnets to his mother" (148). Nevertheless, much can be stated about his other early works. For example, according to Tobin, "Herbert viewed and used poetry as a medium of social discourse, not just self-analysis and devotion" (283). It was not his early works, although they are worth merit, that made him the poetic genius that his is today. His modern reputation is relies heavily on his later works. According to Robyn V. Young, author of, George Herbert:, "most scholars of Herbert's poetry have accepted the division of The Temple into three major sections: "The Church, "The Church Porch, and "The Church Militant" (98). Because of these three poems, one can assume that Herbert earned his rank amongst the great poets. Furthermore, Gottlieb states of his later collection of poems, "Musae Responsoriae" (1662) that, "it is a witty volume aimed to tease and please, but it is also an integral part of Herbert's life-long attempt to define his church..." (152). Indeed Herbert uses the church as the subject of later works. Herbert goes on to write other collections of Latin poems , Lucus and Passio Discerpta, which," both represent a distinctive stage in the development of his style and ...thematically have much in common with poems in "The Church" (Tobin 283). Later in his life, Herbert continues to write poetry of which some in dedicated to his mother. In particular, Herbert writes, Memoriae Matris Sacrum, a month after her death, and interestingly enough, it is the only collection he published during his lifetime (Gottlieb 157). It is truly evident that indeed she was his inspiration. Herbert not only wrote poetry and of his prose we are aware of , A Priest to the Temple, notes on The Hundred and Ten Considerations by Juan de Valdes, the translations of Luigi Cornaros' Treatise of Temperance and Sobrietie, some of his Latin letters and orations, and a portion of his private correspondences (Tobin 302). It goes without mention that Herbert went on to be a literary success and wrote countless other works that need not be noted in order to get a glimpse of who he was and how important he was to the seventeenth-century. Despite his success as a writer, Herbert's life entailed much more than poetry. While at Cambridge, he suffered financial problems due to debts incurred as a result of his illness and purchase of an infinite number of books (Charles 150). After writing, he tried his hand at another vocation. Next, he attempted a position at Parliament but was unsuccessful due to political differences and decided to turn to a life of ministry (Tobin 301). Indeed, Herbert had a love for God that extended far beyond poetry. Although he was ordained to remain Orator at Cambridge, he delegated most of his duties to others, and because he did not,"deliver the funeral oration commemorating the death of King James on March 27, 1625,...he was officially replaced as University Orator in January of 1628" (Gottlieb 154). As a member of the ministry, however, his problems were not resolved. While he was given several, "church livings, one at Llandinam...in 1624...and another at Lincoln Cathedral in Huntingtonshire...in 1626,..."(154) he did not make enough to support himself and had to choose alternative means by which to live. Amy Charles goes on to state that he stayed with his step-father and mother at Chelsea, with a friend in Kent, his brother at Woodford, and Henry Danvers in Wilshire (182). Because his family and friends were able to help him through troubled times, he was able to become somewhat financially sound, but moreso when his royal lineage was re-affirmed. In particular, he was given land in Worcestershire by a Crown Grant in July of 1627 (Gottlieb 155-156). With this in mind, it becomes evident that his resignation in Cambridge was guaranteeably a feasible option, and hence, reason for his undedicated will to remain in his position. Due to his recently acquired wealth, he turned his energy towards other projects such as rebuilding churches; nevertheless, he was without vocation and this factor is indicative in his poetry (Tobin 307). Not much is known about the courtship of his wife and the events leading up to their marriage. What is known is, "insomuch that she changed her name into Herbert the third day after [their] first interview" (Tobin 308). It must have been quite a meeting, nonetheless. She was in fact, Jan Danvers, cousin to Sir John Danvers, whom Herbert stayed with briefly during his financial bout (Charles 160). Their marriage, quite surprisingly, was a happy one. They lived in Bemerton Rectory, where he was Parson (160). It was here he lived a charitable and modest life. Moreover, he visited the poor and sick while continuing to write, and just before The Temple was published by Ferrar, "he continued meditating and praying, and rejoicing till the day of his death" (Tobin 313). He died, therefore, happily, a martyr and a poet. George Herbert, author of The Temple, of which the poem, "Windows," can be found, was indeed a great poet. Although most of his life was dedicated to education, he went on to devote his final days honoring the subject of most of his poetry. George Herbert devoted much of his poetry to God, and, in essence, became reputable for paying homage to his Creator.