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ON THE LIFE AND POETICAL WORKS OF
“LIFE,” it has been said, “is a Poem.” This is true, probably, of the life of the human race as a whole, if we could see its beginning and end, as well as its middle. But it is not true of all lives. It is only a life here and there, which equals the dignity and aspires to the completeness of a genuine and great Poem. Most lives are fragmentary, even when they are not foul—they disappoint, even when they do not disgust —they are volumes without a preface, an index, or a moral. It is delightful to turn from such apologies for life to the rare but real lives which God-gifted men, like Milton or Herbert, have been enabled to spend even on this dark and melancholy foot-breadth for immortal spirits, called the earth.
We class Milton and Herbert together, for this, among other reasons, that in both, the life and the poems were thoroughly correspondent and commensurate with each other. Milton lived the “Paradise Lost" and the “Paradise Regained,” as well as wrote them. Herbert was, as well as built,“ The Temple." Not only did the intellectual archetype of its structure exist in his mind, but he had been able, in a great measure, to realise it in life, before expressing it in poetry. His piety was of a more evangelical cast than Milton's—his purity was tenderer and lovelier-he had more of the Christian, and less of the Jew. Milton ranks with the austere and sin-denouncing pro
phets of ancient Israel-Herbert reminds us of that “disciple whom Jesus loved."
Before, however, proceeding to analyse his character, and criticise his Poem, we have the facts of his life to record. “ Holy George Herbert” was born in Montgomery Castle, Shropshire, on the 3d day of April 1593. This castle, afterwards levelled to the ground during the Civil War, was then the seat of an ancient, wealthy, and reputable family. His father was Richard Herbert, surnamed of Blakehall, in Montgomery, who sprang from a long line of knights. His mother was Magdalene Newport, the youngest daughter of Sir Richard Newport, of High Arkall, in the county of Salop. Like most of the mothers of men of genius, she was a remarkable person, distinguished by her wit, her “ cheerful gravity,” her godliness, her kind-heartedness, and her fond appreciation of her
She was wont to say that, as the mother of seven sons and three daughters, God had given her Job's number and Job's distribution. George was the fifth son. The eldest of
. the family is well known as Lord Herbert of Cherbury—a title which he obtained, on account of his services when ambassador in France, from Charles I. He was a gallant and chivalrous man; but is now chiefly known by his book, De Veritate prout distinguitur a Revelatione, an argument against Revealed Religion-or, properly speaking, is remembered mainly for the memorable hallucination he has recorded in his preface.
George spent his childhood under the watchful eye of his mother, in the society of two of his brothers, and under the tuition of a chaplain. When he had reached the age of four, his father died. At twelve, he was transferred to Westminster School, where, under the care of Dr Neale and Mr Ireland, according to honest Izaak Walton, “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." While at this school, he profited much in the learned languages, and especially in Greek. About the age of fifteen; he was elected out of that
school for Trinity College, Cambridge, and repaired to that university in the year 1608. His mother, knowing well what nurseries of vice universities are, and deeply anxious that a promise so morally fair as her son's should not be blasted, recommended him to the special charge of Dr Nevil, then Master of the college and Dean of Canterbury, who provided him a tutor, and acted towards him like a second father. His mother had previously to this removed to Oxforl, in order to give her eldest son Edward, and some of her younger children, the benefits of a university education. There she became acquainted with the celebrated Dr Donne, and an “amity, to use Walton's language, was begun between them, “made up of a chain of suitable inclinations and virtues, -an amity like that of St Chrysostom to his dear and virtuous Olympias.” He was at that time a poor struggling man, with a wife and family, and she supplied him with funds, besides honouring him with her friendship. This admirable woman, after continuing twelve years a widow, was married a second time, to the Earl of Danby; and Dr Donne lived long enough to shed tears at her death, and to pronounce a funeral oration
Meanwhile, George was pursuing a calm, pious, and diligent career at Cambridge. His mother's image seemed to hang up like a picture, in his still study-chamber, restraining him from vice, calming down passion, and smiling him on to labour. Even in the morning of that short day of his life," he seemed to be marked out for virtue and to become the care of Heaven." He was made Bachelor of Arts in the year 1611; Major Fellow of the college in 1615; and in the same year, when he was only twenty-two years of age, he became Master
, of Arts. It is notable, that during all his college career his principal diversion was music. This is another of the points. in which he resembles Milton. While many of his youthful contemporaries were engaged in riot, or “assembling themselves by troops in the harlots' houses,” holy George Herbert sate alone and aloft in his evening chamber, with a musical instrument in his hand, to the piercing call of which his own peaceful thoughts and the solemn stars of night appeared in
unison to arise. Thus he "relieved," he said, “ his drooping spirits, composed his distracted thoughts, and raised his weary soul so far above the earth, that it gave him an earnest of the joys of heaven before he possest them.” The power of music has been felt by brutes and by brute-like men; but how far deeper is its influence upon prepared and holy spirits, on whom it does not, as on common mortals, "pour beautiful disdain," but in whom it awakens strange yearnings—dim delightful memories—obscure and mighty joys, which they may hereafter recognise in loftier stages of their existence !
By this habitual practice of the art of music did Herbert shield his young soul, at that period when the passions are strongest and most dangerous. Companions he had fewonly Dr Nevil sometimes invaded his studious solitude, and cheered him by his company. He regretted afterwards that he kept himself so shy, and so much aloof, in deportment and in dress, from his inferiors in rank,—a regret in which we cannot share. His pride was, on the whole, a pure, and noble, and defensive pride. It taught him habits of deep self-communion, and enabled him to accumulate those materials whence he was afterwards to pile up the stately fabric of“ The Temple."
In the year 1619, he was elected orator for the university. The duties of this office were various. We quote, from one of his letters, his own description of what he had now to do. “The orator's place is the finest place in the university, though not the gainfullest; yet that will be about £30 per
But the commodiousness is beyond the revenue, for the orator writes all the university letters, makes all the orations, be it to king, prince, or whatever comes to the university. To requite these pains, he takes place next the doctors, is at all their assemblies and meetings, and sits above the proctors; is regent or non-regent at his pleasure, and such like gaynesses, which will please a young man well.” In this situation, highly honourable in itself, and especially to him on account of his youth, he spent eight years, and obtained universal credit for the taste, tact, facility, and felicity with which he discharged its duties. While acting in this capacity,
King Jamie," as he is often familiarly called, sent the uni