The Works of George Herbert

Poetry, Prose and Proverbs

Although it is for his English devotional poetry that George Herbert is best known, his works extend rather more widely. Very few of his writings were formally published until after his death, but then he became widely known and read after his friend Nicholas Ferrar succeeded in having 'The Temple' published by Cambridge University in 1633. Unfortunately many of Herbert's personal papers were almost certainly lost as a result of the English Civil War..

Poetry Collection - 'The Temple'

Herbert wrote poetry from an early age. After he died, a collection of over 160 of his poems was published, and given the title 'The Temple'. It is impossible to determine at what stage of his life each of these poems was written, but we do know that some were revised at Bemerton and others were composed here. 'The Temple' was so popular in the 17th century that no less than 13 editions were published between 1633 and 1709.

1633 Edition of'The Temple'

First Edition of the'The Temple' 1633

The collection begins with a series of verses containing pithy comments on human behaviour, sub-titled 'The Church-porch'. For example, on the subject of debt he writes:

By no means runne in debt: take thine own measure.
Who cannot live on twentie pound a yeare,
Cannot on fourtie: he's a man of pleasure,
A kinde of thing that's for it self too deere.
   The curious unthrift makes his clothes too wide,
   And spares himself, but would his taylor chide.

 

The main body of poems carries the sub-title 'The Church', and this section includes all of Herbert's best known poems. One of the most notable features is the wide variey of metrical forms employed by Herbert. .

The collection concludes with a single long verse entitled 'The Church Militant'.

A Priest to the Temple

Herbert wrote this treatise during his time at Bemerton. Sub-titled 'The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life', in the preface he writes: "I have resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastour, that I may have a Mark to aim at". While it was written to clear his own mind, it was also aimed at all those who ministered to similar parishes. In particular, he addresses the practical difficulties of bringing the word of God to poorly educated folk and the need for the clergy to set an example for others to follow. First published in 1652, it remains influential to this day.

Outlandish Proverbs

George Herbert's pleasure in brevity fed his interest in proverbs, which he collected over the years, and also possibly wrote some himself. The collection of over 1000 proverbs was first published in 1640, and again with additions in 1651 under the title 'Jacula Prudentum'. Some of these sayings, such as 'Who is so deaf that will not hear' and 'Good words are worth much, and cost little', are still used in modern form today.

Other Writings

Several of Herbert's letters were eventually published, and also the orations he wrote during his time at Cambridge. He was classically educated, and in accordance with the custom these were in Latin and Greek, as were many of his other poems; of particular note is 'Memoriae Matris Sacrum', the sequence of memorial poems he wrote after the death of his mother Magdalen in 1627. All these writings are available in modern published collections, and can also be found on various websites.

Selected Work

We have selected a poem or extract from the works of George Herbert, with a small commentary (this selection is changed several times a year - see our archives for previous selections)..

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