b Montgomery Castle (Powys, Wales), 1593, d Bemerton nr Salisbury, Wilts 1632/3. Westminster Sch, London; Trinity Coll Cambridge (BA 1613, MA 1616), of which he became a teaching Fellow in 1614. In 1619/20 he became Public Orator of the university, delivering Latin speeches on many formal occasions; he was musically skilled on the lute and viol. With his family and academic connections he seemed set fair for a career in court and government, but his life changed direction on the death of James I in 1625 when his response to royal and political upheavals ended any such plans. In 1626 he abandoned hope of promotion and (after withdrawing to Kent and encouraged by Nicholas Ferrar) began the study of divinity and was ordained to the CofE ministry. After beginnings at Leighton Bromswold, Hunts (1626–29), cut short by illness, he moved briefly to Woodford, Essex, and Dauntsey, nr Chippenham, Wilts; then in 1630 to the rectory of the villages of Fugglestone and Bemerton nr Salisbury. This pastoral charge was to last only 3 years until his death from consumption (TB) at the age of 39, but became a model of holiness of life and Anglican ministry in a rural setting. The Sunday before his death, as if conscious that it would be his last, he rose suddenly from his bed, called for one of his instruments, tuned it, and played and sang some of his own verses. On the day he died, he told a friend, ‘I am sorry I have nothing to present to my merciful God but sin and misery; but the first is pardoned, and a few hours now will put a period to the latter.’ The well-meaning friend reminded him of some of his church work and his acts of mercy, to which Herbert responded, ‘They be good works, if they be sprinkled with the blood of Christ, and not otherwise’.
A lifelong music-lover who appreciated literature and orderly worship, he wrote classic poetry and prose in The Temple and A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson. The former work was a collection of poems not published until a few months after his death; they have no exact parallel in English literature and are widely anthologised. (One of them, ‘Love bade me welcome’, came 73rd in a 1996 BBC poll to find ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’, the top 100 being published under that title; and the last 2 words of a sonnet on prayer, ‘something understood’, formed the title of a long-running Radio 4 programme of readings.) It was John Wesley who first saw their potential as hymns, using nearly 50 in this way; although he took extraordinary liberties with the text, structure and metre, he alerted later editors to the possibility of using them in congregational song. 7 of what we now know as hymns were chosen for Songs of Praise and 4 are in the 1950 A&M. Herbert’s latter book is a prose (but never prosaic) account of and advice about parish ministry, characterised by gentle humour, local detail, pastoral care, prayer, godliness and a remarkable maturity. Little of this writing was known in his lifetime, but his friend Ferrar to whom he had entrusted his mss ensured that they reached an ever-growing public after his death.
The first biography, by Isaak Walton, is itself a gentle period piece of great charm which made his subject better known and became a minor classic; brief recent studies include one by Pat Magee (Rector of Bemerton 1975–84) and a chapter in Bernard Braley’s Hymnwriters 3 (1991). Still more recently the writer and poetry performer Lance Pierson has interwoven some of Herbert’s texts, spoken or sung, into Anglican services of (e.g.) Evening Prayer, to eloquent effect; while in similar homage the hymnwriter and poet Paul Wigmore has recast some of Herbert’s lines for current use. The question remains whether Herbert’s work is marginally too personal, tender or intimate for fully congregational use; if that is ever a danger, it can hardly be the fault of the poet. Walton’s loving account concludes with a brief tribute to the poet’s ‘virtuous wife’ Jane, the favourite among her father’s 9 daughters; after saying (in reference to Melville [sic] his fierce Scottish opponent) that ‘if Andrew Melvin died before him, then George Herbert died without an enemy. I wish—if God shall so be pleased—that I may be so happy as to die like him’. No.184.