Wildly Different Poets

De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images
‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila’; sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, mid-seventeenth century

George Herbert is among the best-loved English poets, and he is singular in that he is valued as much for his personality—his humility, gentleness, and holiness—as for his poetry. In this respect he is the polar opposite of, for example, Shakespeare, who is valued solely for his poetry, since we know nothing about his personality. Herbert himself did not, it seems, think of himself primarily as a poet. There is no evidence that he circulated his poems in manuscript among his acquaintances, as his friend John Donne did, nor did he have them published in his lifetime. On his deathbed—in 1633, at the age of thirty-nine—he described them as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul,” and asked that they should be burned, unless it was thought that publication of them might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” His friend Nicholas Ferrar evidently did think just that and published them later in 1633 under the title of The Temple.

John Drury, Herbert’s new biographer, is, like Herbert, an Anglican clergyman, though from a higher branch of the church. Herbert became, three years before his death, parson of two small Wiltshire villages, Bemerton and Fugglestone, whereas Drury has been dean of two great British educational institutions, King’s College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford. His book is presented as the culmination of a lifetime’s devotion to Herbert, but it is not a wholly endearing portrait, and may upset those who are used to the Herbert of the poems.

As a family the Herberts were inordinately conscious of their noble rank and the privileges it entitled them to. George’s elder brother, Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, left behind him an autobiography that is comically boastful even by the standards of a seventeenth-century English aristocrat. In it he relates how, when he was in doubt whether to publish his philosophical treatise Of Truth, he asked for a sign from God, and the Almighty obliged with “a loud though yet gentle noise from the heavens.” Perhaps it was God laughing. George shared his brother’s self-importance. His first biographer, Izaak Walton, who usually avoids any hint of adverse criticism, acknowledges that as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert kept himself “at too great a distance” from his “inferiors,” and showed by his clothes and manners that he “put too great a value on his parts and parentage.”

In Drury’s estimate young Herbert was a prig as well as a snob. As a teenager he composed two sonnets, addressed to his mother, in which he disparages love poets and vows to dedicate his own poetic gifts to the service of God alone. Unlike Donne and…

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