George Herbert’s Contribution to Poetry: Secular Ambitions





George Herbert (1593 - 1633) is an English poet of the metaphysical school. A University of Cambridge graduate was unsuccessful in getting a play at court unemployed for eleven years (from 1619 to 1630). He devoted secular ambitions, however, and took holy orders in the Church of England in 1630. He spent the rest of his life as rector in Bemerton.

As a poet George Herbert was temperamentally and totally different from John Donne. His poems are characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favored by the metaphysical school of poets such as John Donne. However, he was in two minds – whether to take to orders or not. He had spells of introspection regarding his motive becoming a priest.

George Herbert:Image Courtesy
Wikipedia:Portrait by Robert White in 1674

(National Portrait Gallery)
In his posthumously published work, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculation we find, in Herbert, the emotional seesaw between a ‘soaring confidence in the love and approbation of God and a plunging, despairing fear that God has disowned his suitor’. Three years before his demise, Herbert became priest of the parish of Bemerton in Oxfordshire, finding contentment in service to God. His life and poetry is a reflection of the ideal that self – centeredness can be effected by a total and unqualified surrender or submission to God’s well. Herbert's poems are of a religious nature, often revealing his own spiritual struggles and the solace he found in the priesthood. His life and thought is the subject of a sympathetic biography by the English essayist Izaak Walton.

This, according to Herbert, is the only way to obliterate one’s ego. Probably Herbert had taken to heart Christ’s words ‘Except ye converted, and become as little children, Ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’. (Mark, xviii.3) Herbert points out that man is deceived by innumerable possibilities. His poetry tried to remove all distracting and irrelevant ornaments leaving behind the simple, naked truth, the picture of the untarnished God head’. Man is consecrated to heavenly love in all pomes of Herbert. Human love, in Herbert, is just an imitation, a replica of the ultimate love of the divine. But unfortunately, the copy or the replica is mistaken for the real or the original things. Sexual love is thus a wrong mania for the reflection rather than the reality, for the creature instead of the creator. Herbert tries to lose his identity and drown his egoism and swam across ocean of God’s love: Herbert always attempts to be away from personal to God’s love whereas Donne always tries to turn back from God towards his own person. God is the subject of Herbert’s poetry. His poetry is his but a poetic gift being returned as ‘God – given talent’ to the Maker who had originally gifted it.


Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert     
2. Wikipedia

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