George Herbert: His Religion and Art

By Joseph H. Summers | Go to book overview
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spite of the names and dates, Walton's image of Herbert seems to move through a pastoral Edenremote from the realities of early seventeenth-century England. There are, it is true, temptations, but the time when the apple was taken seems still in the future, and the final triumph of 'holiness" seems a triumph of innocence over experience rather than of reality over illusion, or the regenerated over the 'old' man. In a sense which Wordsworthhardly intended, Herbert's name becomes one of those

Satellites burning in a lucid ring Around meek Walton's heavenly memory.

For too many readers Walton's Lifehas conveyed the impression that Herbertwas a lovable but almost totally naïve man--an impression which a close reading of the poetry contradicts. Even apart from the poetry, however, it would scarcely be safe to conjecture that George Herbert was an innocent. The first half of the seventeenth century in England made both simple ignorance and simple-minded innocence rare among educated men. Herbert's associations with his family, patrons, and friends were such as to make him aware of the various currents and countercurrents in literature, religion, and politics. The fact that The Templeshows extraordinarily few borrowings from earlier writers was the result of Herbert's conscious choice rather than of his limited knowledge.2 Herbertknew most of the groups and factions which made up his complex age, and he did not give fanatical allegiance to any one of them.

The fifth son of Richardand Magdalene Herbert, George Herbertwas born on April 3rd, 1593, in Montgomery.3 The Herbertshad been for over two centuries one of the most distinguished families in England and Wales. With the death of Richard Herbertin 1596, the care of his large family (seven sons and three daughters--'Iob's number and Iob'sdistribution') was left to the mother, the celebrated friend of John Donne, and she took them to live first with her mother, Lady Newport, at Eyton, then to Oxfordand London. Magdalene Herbert's sons were reared in a witty as well as pious household; their training in the two great


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