George Herbert - The country priest

George Herbert - All change!

Nevertheless, the change from high-powered academic to humble country priest takes a little explaining. Herbert’s mother died in 1627, and John Donne, by Little Gidding Church, photo by Michael Trolove, available through Creative Commonsthen Dean of St Paul's, preached her funeral sermon. The year before Herbert had accepted a ‘prebend’ (or church living) near Little Gidding (in the county of Huntingdonshire) as a source of income. It brought him into touch with an Anglican community set up there by Nicholas Ferrar, a charismatic figure. In 1942 T. S. Eliot published a poem, one of his Four Quartets, on the Little Gidding of Ferrar's time. Herbert’s illnesses, loss of ambition and Ferrar's influence began to turn his thinking to more religious channels.

George Herbert's marriage

In 1629 he married, which effectively finished his career at Cambridge, as all Fellows had to be single. His wife was Jane Danvers, his stepfather's cousin.

George Herbert's ordination

With all other avenues closed, becoming an Anglican priest was still one career open to Herbert. However, unlike John Donne, he chose to accept a quiet country parish, rather than a London one. There had obviously been a gradual change of heart. Some of the steps on this path are reflected in his poems. He was ordained in 1630.

Herbert became parish priest of Bemerton, a little village just outside Salisbury, where over the next three years he acquired a reputation as a model country parson. He intuitively seemed to know how to present theological truth in every day symbols or emblems. He was not too proud to get alongside the agricultural workers of his country parish. Poems poured out of him, based on the simple items of country life or connected with parts of the church building, rebuilt at his own cost.

George Herbert's death

Sadly, Herbert died in 1633, of tuberculosis or ‘consumption’ as it was then called. He entrusted his poems to Ferrar, leaving it up to him whether to publish them or not. Ferrar had no doubt and had them printed the same year. By 1680, they had gone through thirteen printings and they have never been out of print since. For many years, they were far better known than any of Donne's poems.

‘Saintly Mr Herbert’

Later, some of Herbert’s prose writings were published too, especially his advice on how to be a good country priest: A Priest to the Temple (1652). For a long time, he was remembered as ‘saintly Mr Herbert’, and his piety was as well known as his poems, several of which later became hymns. Izaak Walton wrote a famous biography of him in 1670.

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