Although his gravestone has disappeared (and it probably had the wrong date of death on it in any case), there is no doubt that Edward Herbert, poet, diplomat and religious thinker, lies buried in the churchyard of St Giles’.
As far as his poetry is concerned, Herbert laboured under some serious disadvantages. His younger brother George was the author of arguably the finest devotional poetry ever written in English; one of his closest friends was John Donne; Ben Jonson, after Shakespeare the leading playwright of the period, was also a good friend. But Herbert didn’t allow the fact that he was surrounded by his period’s literary giants to dampen his own aspirations. Nor is it entirely his fault if his verse was largely derivative.
Having been knighted by James I in 1603, Herbert spent his twenties and much of his thirties studying, travelling and fighting in various foreign armies. He was trying to cultivate the Renaissance ideal of the courtier at a time when it was already rather old-fashioned. But his efforts paid off: in 1619 he was appointed ambassador to Paris. Moreover, he seems to have been a reasonable success as a diplomat despite being, by all accounts, prickly and hot-headed: he had to be recalled in 1621 following a quarrel with Louis XIII’s favourite, only returning to Paris the next year after the favourite’s death. However, by 1624 it was all change on the foreign policy front, and in April of that year Herbert was recalled for good. Heavily indebted (he hadn’t been paid), he returned home to face an uncertain future. Fortunately, he had a peaceful if somewhat ruinous rural retreat in the form of Montgomery Castle, the Herbert family seat. In 1629 King Charles named him first Baron Herbert of Cherbury, which must have been immensely gratifying, even if it made no difference to his financial situation.
The story of how Herbert came to be buried at St Giles’ is quickly told. He made gestures in support of the king in 1639 and 1640 and had a brush with Parliament in 1642 which resulted in a few days’ imprisonment in the Tower. After that he went back into self-imposed exile at Montgomery. But he was fated not to be left undisturbed. In 1644 his castle, which was important strategically, was besieged by Parliamentary troops and he surrendered it, mainly, it appears, with a view to preserving his library (which he did). Financially dependent, as he now was, on Parliament, he returned to London and lived in a house in Queen Street, just over a mile from St Giles’, until his death a few years later.
But neither Herbert’s poetry nor his brief diplomatic career would have been enough to guarantee him lasting fame. He is best known as ‘the father of English deism’, a reputation which rests chiefly on his first book De Veritate (‘On the truth’), which was published, in Paris, in 1624, and received its final form in 1645. Of course, being hailed as the originator of a movement can be both a blessing and a curse. A contemporary French philosopher called him ‘England’s treasure’; a Vatican propagandist, on the other hand, dubbed him ‘one of the three arch-deceivers of mankind’ (the others being Spinoza and Hobbes). I’d like to suggest that the emphasis should be placed squarely on the positive aspects of Herbert’s thinking.
Deists have been credited with believing in a remote God who created the world and then callously left it to run itself. But, in Herbert’s case at least, that is a caricature. Even his five ‘common notions of religion’ (belief in a supreme deity; the obligation to worship this deity; the identification of worship with virtue; the obligation of repentance; and the belief that God rewards and punishes, both in this world and the next) indicate that his God was actually quite a hands-on deity. Digging deeper confirms that impression: towards the end of De Veritate, he writes that the devotees of every religion believe that the deity answers prayer. What’s more, we can deduce that there is such a thing as Providence ‘from the universal experience of divine assistance’ in times of distress. Herbert’s God is one who has humanity’s best interests at heart.
Herbert saw his ‘five articles’, as they soon came to be known, as constituting ‘the whole doctrine of the true Catholic [universal] Church’, as well as forming the basis of every other religious system. He had no time for revelation, in the traditional sense of ‘revealed doctrine’, using the word instead to mean ‘movements of conscience and prayerful impulses’. For him the source of revelation was the individual
human heart; it was not the preserve of professional theologians. Sectarianism appalled him. Naturally, there was no place in his scheme for Calvin’s teaching that God had predestined every human being to salvation or damnation before the creation of the world ‘of his mere good pleasure’, as Calvin liked to put it, which was still the dominant theological orthodoxy in James’s reign. In a letter to the statesman Sir Robert Harley, a cousin by marriage known for his Puritan (and therefore firmly Calvinistic) sympathies, Herbert expressed the belief that God has given every person the means to attain eternal happiness. Inevitably, Harley thought him misguided.
Herbert was no saint. For one thing, he was very egotistical. (When Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray stumbled across his autobiography, they screamed with laughter at his pretensions.) But he was a man of principle. He has been criticised for not nailing his colours to the mast during the Civil War. It’s hard to see, though, how he could have taken sides without betraying his vision of a universal natural religion. He was also a man of deep faith. His absolute certainty that God does not desert his people in their hour of greatest need is an inspiration in these difficult times, especially as it coexisted with an impatience with the intricacies of the theologians. He maintained to the end that God is not interested in the minutiae of what we believe but in how we attempt to live our lives—and in our happiness.
P. M. Oliver