Like John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, though not as flamboyant as the first or as metrically inventive as the second, George Herbert proved that devotional poetry can generate high intellectual excitement.
Born in Wales in 1593, Herbert distinguished himself at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was elected to Parliament twice. In 1630, a year after he married, Herbert took holy orders. He served as rector in Bemerton near Salisbury, delivering sermons and writing poems, for the rest of his short life. Before he died in 1633 he entrusted a gathering of his poems, “The Temple,” to a friend. The poems won an immediate audience.
Herbert is one of the so-called metaphysical poets, who rely on cunning wit and use elaborate, sometimes incongruous metaphors to explore complex themes. He has a poem, “The Pulley,” in which God pours all his pleasures on man except “rest.” Anyone who doubts that the lowly pun can perform sublime feats need only consider these two lines in which “rest” meaning “remainder” and “rest” meaning “repose” are entangled to their paradoxical enhancement: “Yet let him keep the rest, / But keep them with repining restlessness.”
Where Herbert is most obviously innovative is in his use of carmen figuratum—shaped or patterned poems. He has one in the shape of an altar and another, “Easter Wings,” that demands to be viewed as a pair of birds in flight. Herbert was also an inveterate compiler of proverbs. To him we owe one that has since become a durable cliché: “His bark is worse than his bite.”