In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section George Herbert

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Editions
  • Concordance
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Country Parson

Renaissance and Reformation George Herbert
Cristina Malcolmson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0305


For George Herbert (b. 1593–d. 1633), the Renaissance and Reformation coincided in his career, but they were frequently in conflict in his poetry. Herbert received a humanist education that emphasized classical Greek and Latin and training in rhetoric. He also studied the Bible intensely, a concern fundamental to both the humanist Erasmus and the reformer Martin Luther. At Cambridge, Herbert became a reader (or lecturer) in rhetoric and eventually university orator. Despite the technical brilliance of his poetry, however, his verse also emphasized the inability of language, learning, and human capacity of any kind to satisfy the spiritual requirements of Christianity. For Herbert, as for Spenser and Milton, the classical model and Christianity were mutually exclusive in crucial ways. The term “early modern” is to some extent preferable to “Renaissance” in Herbert studies because “early modern” emphasizes not a claim to the rebirth of an earlier civilization, but rather the social and economic changes moving England toward modernity, a process that influenced Herbert directly: the development of urban centers, population growth, social mobility, and the increasing extent to which status was achieved rather than ascribed. Because of Herbert’s position as a younger son of a gentry family, some form of labor was required for his future prosperity, but such labor was not yet fully authorized by upper-class ideology. This is one reason why Herbert embraced the Protestant ethic, or doctrine of vocation, which he espouses in The Temple and The Country Parson. Mirroring the contentiousness of historians of the period (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article, England, 1485–1642), Herbert scholars often starkly disagree on the most basic issues. In the 1950s Rosemond Tuve and William Empson debated whether historical research or close reading was the best method of approaching Herbert’s poetry. Another dispute that continues into the 21st century is the precise nature of Herbert’s spirituality and attitude toward church liturgy. Was Herbert a high-church Anglo-Catholic or a low-church Reformation Protestant? Fundamental aspects of his biography remain in dispute, especially given his early death. His promising position as university orator at Cambridge in 1620 is difficult to reconcile with his acceptance of the rural post of Wiltshire country parson in 1630. Was he turning away from worldly ambition or accepting the best offer available, given his difficulties with patronage? Did he consider himself to be ending any attempt at prestige or proceeding with what was still a potentially successful career?


Walton 1670 created a royalist image of Herbert as a high-church Anglican recluse, but this has been countered by Charles 1977, Novarr 1958, Novarr 1978, and, finally, by Doerksen 1994, who identifies Herbert as part of a Jacobean Calvinist consensus. Lein 2010 contends that Walton should not be dismissed, and Drury 2013 follows Walton’s lead. Charles 1977 is still the most complete biography; however, Charles’s view that Herbert always intended to enter the clergy is questioned by Novarr 1978 and Page 1993. Benet 1986, Powers-Beck 1998, and Malcolmson 2004 provide crucial details about particular events in Herbert’s life as well as his relationship to his nuclear and extended family. For other important biographical arguments, see Summers 1954, cited under Historical Approaches; Patrick 1973 and Doerksen 1979, cited under Publication and Editing; Doerksen 1991 and Cooley 2004, cited under Country Parson; Powers-Beck 1993, cited under Orations; and Miller-Blaise 2006 cited under Psychological and Psychoanalytic Readings.

  • Benet, Diana. “Herbert’s Experience of Politics and Patronage in 1624.” George Herbert Journal 10.1–2 (Fall 1986): 33–45.

    Argues that the 1624 Parliament may have led Herbert to give up court promotion for practical rather than religious reasons. Explores the revelation in Charles 1977 that Herbert applied for a rushed ordination as a deacon in the church in November 1624.

  • Charles, Amy M. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

    Includes first-rate research. Refutes the royalist claim of Walton 1670 that King Charles and Archbishop Laud were significantly involved in the promotion of Herbert to the position at Bemerton. Attests that Herbert sought a clerical position from the outset.

  • Doerksen, Daniel W. “The Laudian Interpretation of George Herbert.” Literature and History 3.2 (Fall 1994): 36–54.

    Doerksen’s essays are crucial for their thorough research. This demonstrates that Walton 1670 and others recast Herbert’s poetry and spirituality as Laudian (see under Anglo-Catholic). Argues for the veracity of Walton’s account of Herbert’s speech at the end of his life to Duncon about the publication of his poetry.

  • Drury, John. Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    Effective in its plan to make Herbert familiar to the modern reader. Follows Walton 1670 in the assumption that the pre–civil war period was a time of Anglican moderation. Ignores the problems of Arminianism (see Theology and Liturgy) and Herbert’s commitment to international Protestantism (see “To the Lady Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia” and “L’Envoy”).

  • Lein, Clayton. “At the Porch to the Temple: Herbert’s Progress to Bemerton.” In George Herbert’s Pastoral: New Essays on the Poet and Priest of Bemerton. Edited by Christopher Hodgkins, 134–157. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010.

    Argues that Walton 1670 remains credible. Claims that Herbert retreated from a secular career, and that Walton was correct to attribute Herbert’s lack of clerical promotion to the death of patrons and hesitation about becoming a minister. Demonstrates that William Herbert and the king did not name Herbert to available positions before Bemerton and argues that Philip Herbert rather than William named George to his post.

  • Malcolmson, Cristina. George Herbert: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    Questions the image of Herbert as a recluse in retreat from the world (see Walton 1670), and puts Herbert’s works in the context of contemporary history, particularly Protestant activism. Includes a chronology of Herbert’s life in relation to historical events.

  • Novarr, David. The Making of Walton’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958.

    Novarr demonstrates that Walton 1670 distorts historical accuracy in order to encourage men of status and accomplishment to join the clergy.

  • Novarr, David. “Review: A Life of George Herbert by Amy Charles.” George Herbert Journal 1.2 (Spring 1978): 49–62.

    Novarr identifies the new information given in Charles 1977 and articulates a number of unanswered questions. He also renews his warnings about Walton 1670 and disagrees with some of Charles’s conclusions, particularly that Herbert intended to join the clergy from the beginning of his career.

  • Page, Nick. George Herbert: A Portrait. Tunbridge Wells, UK: Monarch, 1993.

    Quite a readable biography, arguing against Charles 1977 that Herbert intended to join the clergy from the outset. Presents London life, geography, and 17th-century customs. Explains the significance of contemporary events and the influence of members of the Herbert family. Perfect as an introduction to the field.

  • Powers-Beck, Jeffrey. Writing the Flesh: The Herbert Family Dialogue. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1998.

    This useful book explores Herbert’s works in the context of the influence and writings of his nuclear family: his mother Magdalen, his brothers Edward, Henry, Thomas, and his stepfather John Danvers.

  • Walton, Izaak. The Life of Mr. George Herbert. London: n.p., 1670.

    Available in many editions, including Herbert 2004, cited under Editions. The hagiographic, royalist image of Herbert as a high-church Anglican who pursued a secular career and then withdrew from the world has been refuted by several critics, particularly Charles 1977, Novarr 1958, Novarr 1978, and Doerksen 1994.

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