About George Herbert
George Herbert was born in Montgomery Castle, Shropshire, in 1593 and died at the age of forty. He was descended on his father's side from the earls of Pembroke and on his mother's from a family of Shropshire knights. He was a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge at the age of twenty two and later was appointed Orator for the university, which position brought him to the attention of the king. He had great hopes of advancement; both his predecessors had become Secretaries of State.
Then his life changed direction: he took holy orders, married and later moved to be priest in the country parish of Bemerton, Wiltshire. His poetry reflects his Anglicanism, with its emphasis on balance, neither Puritan at one extreme nor Catholic at the other ('man well dressed'). But it also expresses the conflict within him between the pleasures of the worldly life he might have had and the priestly duties he had now sworn to undertake. After his death in 1633, his collection of poems, The Temple, was published in Cambridge and became an instant success.
'The Collar' dramatises a potential rebellion against this contemplative life in a witty play on the idea of the priest's collar. The poem is striking in its sense of a living relationship with God, closest to a marriage, and in its direct and jagged expression of frustration. The poet craftsman is also in evidence: the rhyme scheme of the poem ends where it starts, so that the poem itself is a collar, enclosing him. In 'Jordan' he makes his view of writing poetry manifest: as with his religion, he prefers it to at least seem simple, capable of being understood by anyone. In truth, of course, his own directness is achieved through formidable tenchnique.
'Love 1, 2 and 3' most profoundly and movingly express both the tensions and the joy of his relationship with God. The first two are sonnets of profound praise, humble but not grovelling, full of alert piety, clear and not self regarding. The third is a beautiful dramatisation of his sense of hesitation and failure, built around a witty parallel with the sacrament of Holy Communion, but transcending its cleverness with complete simplicity: 'so I did sit and eat'.
At his induction to the parish of Bemerton, George Herbert prostrated himself before the altar, consecrating himself to God and to the duties that lay ahead of him. These poems tell the inner story of what that meant to a priest whose life might have taken a different course.
George Herbert: The Complete English Works (Everyman,...
George Herbert: The Complete English Poems (Penguin...
George Herbert (editor), Faber & Faber, 2006
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