Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by Alfred Ainger
George Herbert (1593–1633)
 
[George Herbert (1593–1633), the fifth of seven sons of Richard Herbert, of the famous Monmouthshire family of that name, was educated at Westminster School, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1611, and became Fellow in 1615. In 1619 he was elected Public Orator for the University, in the discharge of the duties of which office he attracted the attention of King James, who appointed him to a sinecure office of £120 a year. The death of many friends, and later of the king, having weakened his position at court, and his health becoming increasingly feeble, he took Holy Orders, the profession for which his character and talents from the first pointed him out. In 1629 he married, and in 1630 was inducted to the living of Bemerton, near Salisbury, where he continued until his death three years later. During these three years, he wrote his Country Parson, which was not, however, printed until after his death.]  1
 
IN his Life of George Herbert, Izaak Walton informs us that when Herbert delivered his first sermon at Bemerton, after his induction to that living, the discourse was “after a most florid manner, both with great learning and eloquence”; but that at the close he warned his congregation that it “should not be his constant way of preaching … but that for their sakes his language and his expressions should be more plain and practical in his future sermons.” As far as I am aware, this opening sermon was never printed and given to the world, so that it is impossible to compare Herbert’s style when “eloquent” with that other style which was plain and practical; but this is certain, that the only prose work of Herbert’s of any length that we possess, his Country Parson, partakes of the latter character. In fact, when we recall the incessant effort after simile and analogy in his poems, this prose treatise is curiously simple and straightforward, and owes its effectiveness to just these qualities. The later euphuism was indeed abundantly conspicuous in Herbert’s verse, but it was the euphuism of thought and fancy, rather than of style. His similes are often as far fetched as those of Lovelace or Cowley, but they are rarely, if ever, grotesque. They are, in fact, chastened and kept in check by a genuine earnestness and religious power which are never absent. Apart from the thoughts expressed, the literary diction of Herbert’s verse is as free from ornament as Wordsworth’s. He is rarely, if ever, florid or rhetorical. The taste of the age for conceits finds its gratification in other ways—in puns and quibbles, as well as in tricks of construction, such as verses arranged in the shape of wings or altars, or in mechanical ingenuity like the following—
        What open force or hidden CHARM
Can blast my fruit or bring me HARM
While the enclosure is Thine ARM?
No trace of such misapplied cleverness is to be found in Herbert’s prose; and we cannot doubt that the same restraining force was at work, and for the same reasons, as dictates the style of his later Bemerton sermons. Not for the first or last time in our literature was it to be shown that the euphuistic tendency is killed when the writer begins to think more of his topic than of himself.
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  The style of Herbert’s simple prose treatise was no doubt further determined by the form he chose for it. Its complete title is A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson, his Character and Rule of Holy Life. The word “Character,” printed in large capitals, was perhaps meant to convey that the “Characters” of Theophrastus was in the author’s mind. He may have wished to suggest that the acts and habits of the Country Parson were as well worth record and analysis as some of the more frivolous types of the Greek philosopher. Moreover, to write “Characters,” had become a fashion. Overbury’s had appeared after his death in 1614, and Earle’s Microcosmography in 1628. For the rest, there are traces here and there of the antithesis, and the balanced sentence of Lyly and the earlier euphuists, which is only saying that the dexterous manipulation of language was still a little too evident, and that style, which means the perfection of such skill, had not yet fully learned the ars celare artem.  3
  But throughout, the style is what may be called “well-bred,” and the native sweetness and courtesy of George Herbert are reflected even in the choice and arrangement of his words and phrases.  4
 
 
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