Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
Vol. 15, pp. 373-382 of The Harvard Classics
Isaak Walton, famed patron of fishermen, appreciated other arts and hobbies. He writes of George Herbert, a preacher whose hobby was poetry.
(George Herbert died March 3, 1633.)
The Life of Mr. George Herbert
GEORGE HERBERT was born the third day of April, in the year of our redemption 1593. The place of his birth was near to the town of Montgomery, and in that castle that did then bear the name of that town and county; that castle was then a place of state and strength, and had been successively happy in the family of the Herberts, who had long possessed it; and with it, a plentiful estate, and hearts as liberal to their poor neighbours. A family that hath been blessed with men of remarkable wisdom, and a willingness to serve their country, and, indeed, to do good to all mankind; for which they are eminent: But alas! this family did in the late rebellion suffer extremely in their estates; and the heirs of that castle saw it laid level with that earth that was too good to bury those wretches that were the cause of it.
The father of our George was Richard Herbert, the son of Edward Herbert, Knight, the son of Richard Herbert, Knight, the son of the famous Sir Richard Herbert of Colebrook, in the county of Monmouth, Banneret, who was the youngest brother of that memorable William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, that lived in the reign of our King Edward the Fourth.
His mother was Magdalen Newport, the youngest daughter of Sir Richard, and sister to Sir Francis Newport of High Arkall, in the county of Salop, Knight, and grandfather of Francis Lord Newport, now Controller of his Majesty’s Household. A family that for their loyalty have suffered much in their estates, and seen the ruin of that excellent structure where their ancestors have long lived, and been memorable for their hospitality.
This mother of George Herbert—of whose person, and wisdom, and virtue, I intend to give a true account in a seasonable place—was the happy mother of seven sons and three daughters, which she would often say was Job’s number, and Job’s distribution; and as often bless God, that they were neither defective in their shapes nor in their reason; and very often reprove them that did not praise God for so great a blessing. I shall give the reader a short account of their names, and not say much of their fortunes.
Edward, the eldest, was first made Knight of the Bath, at that glorious time of our late Prince Henry’s being installed Knight of the Garter; and after many years’ useful travel, and the attainment of many languages, he was by King James sent ambassador resident to the then French king, Lewis the Thirteenth. There he continued about two years; but he could not subject himself to a compliance with the humours of the Duke de Luisens, who was then the great and powerful favourite at court: so that upon a complaint to our King, he was called back into England in some displeasure; but at his return he gave such an honourable account of his employment, and so justified his comportment to the Duke and all the court, that he was suddenly sent back upon the same embassy, from which he returned in the beginning of the reign of our good King Charles the First, who made him first Baron of Castleisland, and not long after of Cherbury in the county of Salop. He was a man of great learning and reason, as appears by his printed book De Veritate, and by his History of the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, and by several other tracts.
The second and third brothers were Richard and William, who ventured their lives to purchase honour in the wars of the Low Countries, and died officers in that employment. Charles was the fourth, and died fellow of New College in Oxford. Henry was the sixth, who became a menial servant to the crown in the days of King James, and hath continued to be so for fifty years; during all which time he hath been Master of the Revels, a place that requires a diligent wisdom, with which God hath blessed him. The seventh son was Thomas, who, being made captain of a ship in that fleet with which Sir Robert Mansell was sent against Algiers, did there show a fortunate and true English valour. Of the three sisters I need not say more than that they were all married to persons of worth and plentiful fortunes; and lived to be examples of virtue, and to do good in their generations.
I now come to give my intended account of George, who was the fifth of those seven brothers.
George Herbert spent much of his childhood in a sweet content under the eye and care of his prudent mother, and the tuition of a chaplain, or tutor to him and two of his brothers, in her own family,—for she was then a widow,—where he continued till about the age of twelve years; and being at that time well instructed in the rules of grammar, he was not long after commended to the care of Dr. Neale, who was then Dean of Westminster; and by him to the care of Mr. Ireland, who was then chief master of that school; where the beauties of his pretty behaviour and wit shined, and became so eminent and lovely in this his innocent age, that he seemed to be marked out for piety, and to become the care of heaven, and of a particular good angel to guard and guide him. And thus he continued in that school, till he came to be perfect in the learned languages, and especially in the Greek tongue, in which he after proved an excellent critic.
About the age of fifteen—he being then a King’s scholar—he was elected out of that school for Trinity College in Cambridge, to which place he was transplanted about the year 1608; and his prudent mother, well knowing that he might easily lose or lessen that virtue and innocence which her advice and example had planted in his mind, did therefore procure the generous and liberal Dr. Nevil, who was then Dean of Canterbury, and master of that College, to take him into his particular care, and provide him a tutor; which he did most gladly undertake, for he knew the excellencies of his mother, and how to value such a friendship.
This was the method of his education, till he was settled in Cambridge; where we will leave him in his study, till I have paid my promised account of his excellent mother; and I will endeavour to make it short.
I have told her birth, her marriage, and the number of her children, and have given some short account of them. I shall next tell the reader that her husband died when our George was about the age of four years: I am next to tell, that she continued twelve years a widow; that she then married happily to a noble gentleman, the brother and heir of the Lord Danvers, Earl of Danby, who did highly value both her person and the most excellent endowments of her mind.
In this time of her widowhood, she being desirous to give Edward her eldest son, such advantages of learning, and other education, as might suit his birth and fortune, and thereby make him the more fit for the service of his country, did, at his being of a fit age, remove from Montgomery Castle with him, and some of her younger sons, to Oxford; and having entered Edward into Queen’s College, and provided him a fit tutor, she commended him to his care, yet she continued there with him, and still kept him in a moderate awe of herself, and so much under her own eye, as to see and converse with him daily: but she managed this power over him without any such rigid sourness as might make her company a torment to her child; but with such a sweetness and compliance with the recreations and pleasures of youth, as did incline him willingly to spend much of his time in the company of his dear and careful mother; which was to her great content: for she would often say, “That as our bodies take a nourishment suitable to the meat on which we feed; so our souls do as insensibly take in vice by the example or conversation with wicked company:” and would therefore as often say, “That ignorance of vice was the best preservation of virtue; and that the very knowledge of wickedness was as tinder to inflame and kindle sin and keep it burning.” For these reasons she endeared him to her own company, and continued with him in Oxford four years; in which time her great and harmless wit, her cheerful gravity, and her obliging behaviour, gained her an acquaintance and friendship with most of any eminent worth or learning that were at that time in or near that university, and particularly with Mr. John Donne, who then came accidentally to that place, in this time of her being there. It was that John Donne, who was after Dr. Donne, and Dean of St. Paul’s, London: and he, at his leaving Oxford, writ and left there, in verse, a character of the beauties of her body and mind: of the first he says,
No spring nor summer-beauty has such grace,
As I have seen in an autumnal face.
Of the latter he says,
In all her words to every hearer fit,
You may at revels, or at council sit.
The rest of her character may be read in his printed poems, in that elegy which bears the name of “The Autumnal Beauty.” For both he and she were then past the meridian of man’s life.
This amity, begun at this time and place, was not an amity that polluted their souls; but an amity made up of a chain of suitable inclinations and virtues; an amity like that of St. Chrysostom’s to his dear and virtuous Olympias; whom, in his letters, he calls his saint: or an amity, indeed, more like that of St. Hierome to his Paula; whose affection to her was such, that he turned poet in his old age, and then made her epitaph; wishing all his body were turned into tongues that he might declare her just praises to posterity. And this amity betwixt her and Mr. Donne was begun in a happy time for him, he being then near to the fortieth year of his age,—which was some years before he entered into sacred orders;—a time when his necessities needed a daily supply for the support of his wife, seven children, and a family. And in this time she proved one of his most bountiful benefactors; and he as grateful an acknowledger of it. You may take one testimony for what I have said of these two worthy persons, from this following letter and sonnet:—
To the Lady Magdalen Herbert:
Her of your name, whose fair inheritance
“Your favours to me are everywhere: I use them and have them. I enjoy them at London, and leave them there; and yet find them at Mitcham. Such riddles as these become things inexpressible; and such is your goodness. I was almost sorry to find your servant here this day, because I was loth to have any witness of my not coming home last night, and indeed of my coming this morning. But my not coming was excusable, because earnest business detained me; and my coming this day is by the example of your St. Mary Magdalen, who rose early upon Sunday to seek that which she loved most; and so did I. And, from her and myself, I return such thanks as are due to one to whom we owe all the good opinion that they, whom we need most, have of us. By this messenger, and on this good day, I commit the enclosed holy hymns and sonnets—which for the matter, not the workmanship, have yet escaped the fire—to your judgment, and to your protection too, if you think them worthy of it; and I have appointed this enclosed sonnet to usher them to your happy hand.
Your unworthiest servant,
Unless your accepting him to be so
have mended him,
MITCHAM, JO. DONNE.”
July 11, 1607.
Of St. Mary Magdalen
Bethina was, and jointure Magdalo,
An active faith so highly did advance,
That she once knew more than the Church did know,
The Resurrection! so much good there is
Delivered of her, that some Fathers be
Loth to believe one woman could do this,
But think these Magdalens were two or three.
Increase their number, Lady, and their fame:
To their devotion add your innocence:
Take so much of th’ example, as of the name;
The latter half; and in some recompense
That they did harbour Christ himself, a guest,
Harbour these Hymns, to his dear name addrest.
These hymns are now lost to us; but doubtless they were such as they two now sing in heaven.
There might be more demonstrations of the friendship, and the many sacred endearments betwixt these two excellent persons,—for I have many of their letters in my hand,—and much more might be said of her great prudence and piety; but my design was not to write hers, but the life of her son; and therefore I shall only tell my reader, that about that very day twenty years that this letter was dated and sent her, I saw and heard this Mr. John Donne—who was then Dean of St. Paul’s—weep, and preach her funeral sermon, in the Parish Church of Chelsea, near London, where she now rests in her quiet grave: and where we must now leave her, and return to her son George, whom we left in his study in Cambridge.
And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such, that we may conclude he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue, and a serious study of learning. And that he did so, this following letter and sonnet, which were, in the first year of his going to Cambridge, sent his dear mother for a New Year’s gift, may appear to be some testimony:—
“…But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs by which scholars say the Muses use to take up their habitations. However, I need not their help to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning—dear mother—is, in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory: and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.”
My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus’ livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Outstrip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, worms may chance refuse?
Sure, Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of ink; for as the Deluge did
Cover the Earth, so doth thy Majesty;
Each cloud distils thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and lilies speak Thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them, is thy abuse.
Why should I women’s eyes for crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth; when Lord, in Thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.
This was his resolution at the sending this letter to his dear mother, about which time he was in the seventeenth year of his age; and as he grew older, so he grew in learning, and more and more in favour both with God and man: insomuch that, in this morning of that short day of his life, he seemed to be marked out for virtue, and to become the care of Heaven; for God still kept his soul in so holy a frame, that he may, and ought to be a pattern of virtue to all posterity, and especially to his brethren of the clergy, of which the reader may expect a more exact account in what will follow.
I need not declare that he was a strict student, because, that he was so, there will be many testimonies in the future part of his life. I shall therefore only tell, that he was made Minor Fellow in the year 1609, Bachelor of Arts in the year 1611; Major Fellow of the College, March 15th, 1615: and that in that year he was also made Master of Arts, he being then in the twenty-second year of his age; during all which time, all, or the greatest diversion from his study, was the practice of music, in which he became a great master; and of which he would say, “That it did relieve his drooping spirits, compose his distracted thoughts, and raised his weary soul so far above earth, that it gave him an earnest of the joys of heaven, before he possessed them.” And it may be noted, that from his first entrance into the college, the generous Dr. Nevil was a cherisher of his studies, and such a lover of his person, his behaviour, and the excellent endowments of his mind, that he took him often into his own company; by which he confirmed his native gentleness: and if during his time he expressed any error, it was that he kept himself too much retired, and at too great a distance with all his inferiors; and his clothes seemed to prove that he put too great a value on his parts and parentage.
This may be some account of his disposition, and of the employment of his time till he was Master of Arts, which was anno 1615, and in the year 1619 he was chosen Orator for the University. His two precedent Orators were Sir Robert Naunton and Sir Francis Nethersole. The first was not long after made Secretary of State, and Sir Francis, not very long after his being Orator, was made secretary to the Lady Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. In this place of Orator our George Herbert continued eight years; and managed it with as becoming and grave a gaiety as any had ever before or since his time. For “he had acquired great learning, and was blessed with a high fancy, a civil and sharp wit; and with a natural elegance, both in his behaviour, his tongue, and his pen.” Of all which there might be very many particular evidences; but I will limit myself to the mention of but three.
And the first notable occasion of showing his fitness for this employment of Orator was manifested in a letter to King James, upon the occasion of his sending that university his book called Basilicon Doron; and their Orator was to acknowledge this great honour, and return their gratitude to his Majesty for such a condescension; at the close of which letter he writ,
Quid Vaticanam Bodleianamque objicis, hospes!
Unicus est nobis Bibliotheca Liber.
This letter was writ in such excellent Latin, was so full of conceits, and all the expressions so suited to the genius of the King, that he inquired the Orator’s name, and then asked William, Earl of Pembroke, if he knew him? whose answer was, “That he knew him very well, and that he was his kinsman; but he loved him more for his learning and virtue than for that he was of his name and family.” At which answer the King smiled, and asked the Earl leave that he might love him too, for he took him to be the jewel of that university.
The next occasion he had and took to show his great abilities was, with them, to show also his great affection to that Church in which he received his baptism, and of which he professed himself a member; and the occasion was this: There was one Andrew Melvin, a minister of the Scotch Church, and Rector of St. Andrew’s; who, by a long and constant converse with a discontented part of that clergy which opposed episcopacy, became at last to be a chief leader of that faction; and had proudly appeared to be so to King James, when he was but King of that nation, who, the second year after his coronation in England, convened a part of the bishops, and other learned divines of his Church, to attend him at Hampton Court, in order to a friendly conference with some dissenting brethren, both of this and the Church of Scotland: of which Scotch party Andrew Melvin was one; and he being a man of learning, and inclined to satirical poetry, had scattered many malicious, bitter verses against our Liturgy, our ceremonies, and our Church government; which were by some of that party so magnified for the wit, that they were therefore brought into Westminster School, where Mr. George Herbert, then, and often after, made such answers to them, and such reflections on him and his Kirk, as might unbeguile any man that was not too deeply pre-engaged in such a quarrel. But to return to Mr. Melvin at Hampton Court conference: he there appeared to be a man of an unruly wit, of a strange confidence, of so furious a zeal, and of so ungoverned passions, that his insolence to the King, and others at this conference, lost him both his Rectorship of St. Andrew’s and his liberty too; for his former verses, and his present reproaches there used against the Church and State, caused him to be committed prisoner to the Tower of London; where he remained very angry for three years. At which time of his commitment he found the Lady Arabella an innocent prisoner there; and he pleased himself much in sending, the next day after his commitment, these two verses to the good lady; which I will underwrite, because they may give the reader a taste of his others, which were like these:
Casua tibi mecum est communis, carceris, Ara-
Bella, tibi causa est, Araque sacra mihi.
I shall not trouble my reader with an account of his enlargement from that prison, or his death; but tell him Mr. Herbert’s verses were thought so worthy to be preserved, that Dr. Duport, the learned Dean of Peterborough, hath lately collected and caused many of them to be printed, as an honourable memorial of his friend Mr. George Herbert, and the cause he undertook.