George Herbert

Biographical Information

George Herbert (1593-1633) When Herbert was three, his father died and left Lady Herbert with ten children, the oldest being Edward Herbert, who was also a poet. George and Edward are two entirely different poets: ambitious Edward preferring the court life and traveling abroad while contemplative George hung in the shadows, preferring to stay close and write about what he had. Since George was a younger child, he received no land or title and thus was required to make a living to gain social independence; he did this by writing metaphysical poetry since his last name carried a reputation that was not to be tainted. In regards to schooling, he attended Westminster School and later Trinity College, Cambridge. Eventually he became the Public Orator, which helped to bring in more money for the expensive books he sought. In 1630, he took holy orders and became a rector in Bemerton. At Bemerton he was well received by the parishioners who came to call him, “Holy Mr. Herbert”. Herbert married Jane Danvers in 1629 and died of consumption when he was only forty. After he died, his volume of poetry, The Temple was published.

Literary Works

Because of Herbert's religious background, many of his poems contain Biblical references and discuss ways to find and keep God. Human souls are imperfect and humans need to find God so He can help them. Herbert also likes picture poems to emphasize his message such as "The Altar" or "Easterwings."

"The Alter ": One of Herbert's picture poems and the first poem in The Temple, the central motif of the poem is its hard work to be devoted. The altar form emphasizes the mental communion man has with God. Devotion is the only thing that matters because it makes salvation possible.

"Easterwings": Another picture poem; this one says humans are able to rise again on God's wings. The lines create wings by longer lines at the beginning and the end and as you read into the poem, the lines become shorter. Not only does this show how things diminish but then get better, it also creates an oscillation and movement to the poem (a common feature in poems of another metaphysical poet, John Donne).

"The World": This poem is an allegory. Love (or God) built a "stately house" (1), Fortune added the decor but Wisdom then swept the decor away. Once Pleasure entered the picture, it added onto the house, which would weaken it, and therefore, Law removed the excess. In the third stanza, Sin enters the poem and plants trees which Grace pruned (an idea which resurfaces in "Paradise"). But then Sin joined up with Death and they destroyed the house. All is not lost though because Love, Grace, and Glory team up to build an even better house. This poem shows our world is not structurally stable. Humans can be destroyed by sin and death, but will rise to Heaven (the better-built house) with help from Love, Grace, and Glory.

"Sin's Round": This is a procedural poem showing the entrapment of sin. The word "fire" comes up a lot in this poem to show that fire and Herbert's thoughts are uncontrollable, never still, and dangerous. The poem starts and ends with the same line: "Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am" (1 & 18) which only further emphasizes the poem's title and the main idea of the poem.

"Paradise": In the 1633 version, the last word of every line is capitalized. This poem uses an allegorical enclosed garden and how God is circling “trees” (aka good Christians) and doing the necessary pruning required to keep them good. The pruning symbolizes not only keeping Christians in line but making them more productive because they have room to grow: "…Pare/Even fruitful trees more fruitful Are" (11-12). Herbert would rather have God treat him roughy so Herbert can move towards what God wants than God never to touch Herbert at all.

"The Pilgrimage": A poem about a journey to a hill, though what hill there is much debate: it might be Sion or heaven or Mount Sinai. Throughout the first part of the poem the speaker is traveling to this hill but upon reaching it he finds he has been deceived: “My Hill was further…” (31). The speaker sets off to find the true hill only to discover that all who go there do not come back. Finally the poem ends with: “…death is fair/And but a chair” (35-36), the chair referring to either a place to sit and relax after life’s journey or a way of carrying a pilgrim, such as the speaker, to heaven.

"The Collar": Although the word collar is not used in the actual poem itself, critics believe the collar refers to “the iron collar of punishment or enslavement” (Wilcox 527). The rhyme scheme is all over the place until God's voice is heard in line 35. The poem is considered to have a doubleness since words such as harvest, corn, and wine can be considered natural elements as well as part of the Eucharist. Another interesting aspect is how the speaker switches to past tense at the end of the poem: “I struck the board…” (1) vs. “But as I raved…” (33).

"The Pulley": Herbert’s general conceit was the pulley, slowly and unceasingly pulling man closer to God. There is also a parallel with Pandora’s box: God poured strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure onto man leaving only “rest” in the glass. This is similar to Pandora’s story because hope was the object that remained in her box. God holds out on giving man “this jewel” (12) because he believes if he does, man will adore God’s gift and not God himself. The pulley idea comes in again at the end of the poem: if God withholds rest from man then man will forever be drawn towards God in a pulley sort of way.

"Bittersweet": What some critics consider a poem that “encapsulates the mood of the The Temple as a whole, with its ‘intense fluctuating emotions…” (Wilcox 587). It gets back to the idea of original sin that forced God to “…love yet strike” (2) humankind. How this poem differs from other poems on the same topic is that man loves God in spite of the pain God is causing man, not because of the pain; shown by the opposites in lines 5-8.

"Heaven": According to Jay D Weaver:

"The poem "Heaven" is a satirical piece intended to teach a lesson to his pupils. Echo responds automatically to the questions without thinking. However, Echo is not mortal and exists only because of physics. Hence he is of God. The implication being that only God can answer all questions without thinking. Hence, each of us has the responsibility to think about the answers before giving them."

In The English Poems of George Herbert, the interpretation of "Heaven" is: “[Heaven] serves as a metaphor for communication with God and for the way man may perceive truth” (656).

"Love III": Thought to be the “quintessential H. poem” (Wilcox 658) Love III discusses God’s love towards man. This poem is similar to "The World" with Love playing into the allegory. Over the years critics have either viewed this poem as a poem talking about Christians coming to heaven or a Communion poem (with emphasis on God being the host to man). Also critics see this poem as representing both immediate and eternal feast; yes the meal is right in front of man who eats in the last line but also an eternal feast in heaven once man arrives there. Herbert is trying to show the reader that they are worthy and their charitable God does love them. The last two lines of the poem are especially strong because God is serving the human: "'You must sit down," said Love, "and taste my meat"/So I did sit and eat" (17-18). "Love III" is the last poem of The Church and many view this poem as summary of The Temple.

“[The Temple is] a series of careful balancings…until it comes to rest in the last line emphatically on the side of God’s love” (Wilcox 660).

“[The last line: “So I did sit and eat” is] one of the most powerful understated climaxes in English poetry” (Wilcox 660).


1. Eliot , T.S. George Herbert. Longmans, Green & Co., 1962. Print.
2. "George Herbert & The Temple Links." Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
3. "Jay D Weaver's Thought for the Week - Heaven - George Herbert." Jay D Weaver's Genealogy, Hymns, Computer Lessons, and Writings.
4. Jokinen , Anniina. "George Herbert ." Luminarium. 2006. Web. <>.
5. Malcolmson, Cristina. George Herbert: A Literary Life. Palgrave Macmillan. 2004.
6. Oxford Dictionary. 2010. Web. <>.
7. Wilcox, Helen, editor. The English Poems of George Herbert. Cambridge University Press. 2007.
8. Poems from: <>. The Poetry Foundation. <>. <>.

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