The Two Herberts: Philosophy, Religion, and Poetry in the Works of George and Edward Herbert

Gleason, Paul, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I compare the poetry, philosophy, and religious views of George and Edward Herbert. George Herbert’s posthumously published volume of poetry, The Temple (1633), met with rapturous approval, lauded by Church of England stalwarts and Puritans alike. On the other hand, few were as reviled as Edward Herbert. In his metaphysical treatise De Veritate (1624) and his encyclopedia of religion De Religione Gentilium (1663), he inveighed against the authority of priests and argued that all religions were based on the same “five common notions.” Both books received swift and bitter condemnations.

At first glance, then, it might seem that the brothers are quite different. In the first two chapters of my dissertation, however, I argue that both men were heavily influenced by Renaissance Christian Platonism and were responding to questions raised by the 16th-century skeptical crisis, which threw old religious knowledge into doubt: what is the relationship between God and humanity? How will I be saved? In the second half of my dissertation (chapters 3-5), I show that while they faced the same questions, they came up with diametrically opposed answers. George tries to reestablish his lost connection with God by turning the acts of reading and writing into holy rituals. Edward, on the other hand, believes he can best pursue true knowledge of God (and with it salvation) by divesting himself of traditional knowledge and relying only on his own mind. The deepest difference between the brothers, I argue, was their estimation of human power: Edward believed that he could achieve eternal life through his own feats of intellect and will, while George consistently looks for divine aid, not only for his salvation but also for everything from maintaining his fragile health to the very act of writing poetry.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to oppose pious, backward-looking George with fearless, modern Edward. But this would do no justice to the complexity of either. Despite his claims to the contrary, for instance, Edward draws heavily on Renaissance Christian Platonism and claimed to be going back to a pure, original and ancient religion. And despite George’s claims to be writing a kind of anti-poetry, in which he silences his own voice to let God speak, he was one of the greatest poetic innovators of his day. Instead, I contend that both brothers are Janus-faced: looking into the past and future at the same time. In my conclusion I consider Edward’s place in the history of the study of religion, and what poetic works like The Temple can add to intellectual histories.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
George Herbert, Edward Herbert, The Temple, religion
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