He was born in Folgueroles, a town on the Plain of Vic, in the comarca of Osona (Province of Barcelona) to a modest family who valued learning. His father, Josep Verdaguer i Ordeix (Tavèrnoles, 1817 – Folgueroles, 1876), was a brickmason and farmer. His mother, Josepa Santaló i Planes (Folgueroles, 1819–1871), a housewife and farmer, was to exercise great influence over young Jacint, as she conveyed to him a love of literature, especially poetry, and was a deeply religious woman. He was the third of eight children, only three of whom survived. In 1855, at the age of 10, he entered the Seminary of Vic, as was expected for a child who was not the first-born under the system of primogeniture and had to make his livelihood without relying on an inheritance. Until then, he had lived like the other children in his town. The anecdotes told about him show that he stood out from his peers for his intelligence, astuteness and courage, as well as his athletic constitution. He displayed a balanced attitude without any apparent religious inclinations.
In 1863, when he was 18, he started to work as a tutor for a family at the Can Tona masia (where he also helped out on the farm), while he continued to study. Can Tona is in the municipal district of Sant Martí de Riudeperes, today Calldetenes (Osona). In 1865, he participated in Barcelona's Jocs Florals—or "Floral Games"—poetry contest and won four prizes. The next year he won two prizes in the same Jocs Florals.
On September 24, 1870, he was ordained a priest by the bishop Lluís Jordà in Vic, and in October that same year, he said his first Mass, in the Sant Jordi hermitage. The next day he said his second Mass in the Sant Francesc hermitage near Vic. In 1871, his mother died (January 17) at the age of 52. On September 1 he was appointed bishop coadjutor of the small town of Vinyoles d'Orís and three days later he took up his charge.
In 1873, he published the cant (ode or song) "Passió de Nostre Senyor Jesucrist" (Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ). He left Vinyoles d'Orís for health reasons and moved to Vic. He went on a trip to Roussillon and saw the mountain, El Canigó, possibly for the first time. In December, he joined the Companyia Transatlàntica trans-Atlantic steamship company as a chaplain because he was prescribed sea air for his health; he embarked in Cádiz bound for Havana.
On September 8, 1876, his father died at the age of 65. On board the "Ciudad Condal", on the return voyage from Cuba, Jacint Verdaguer finished his epic poem L'Atlàntida. In November he entered the palace of the Marquis of Comillas as an alms chaplain.
In 1877, when he was 32, and having returned from his journey, the jury of the Jocs Florals awarded him the special prize of the Diputation of Barcelona for L'Atlàntida. Now he had earned his reputation as a poet.
In 1878, he traveled to Rome, where he was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII. They discussed Verdaguer's poem L'Atlàntida. In 1880, as the winner of three prizes in the Jocs Florals, he was proclaimed "Master of the Gay Sciences" (Mestre en Gai Saber). That same year he published his book of poetry,
Montserrat, which included "Llegenda de Montserrat", a legend (or two) in the form of a poem with 13 cantos.
In 1883, the Barcelona City Council published a print-run of a hundred thousand copies of his "Oda a Barcelona" (Ode to Barcelona), a 46-stanza poem. Such a print-run was quite a remarkable given that the population of Barcelona at the time was 350,000, which would have amounted to about a copy per household. At the age of 39, Verdaguer traveled to Paris, Switzerland, Germany and Russia. On March 21, 1886, when he was 41 years old, Bishop Morgades crowned him 'Poet of Catalonia' in the monastery of Ripoll. He published the epic poem Canigó and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In 1893, following controversy about aspects of his work as a priest, he left the post of alms chaplain at the Marqués de Comillas' palace. The publication of the trilogy Jesús Infant was completed, and he was assigned to the sanctuary of La Gleva. For a period, he was stripped of his office as priest, although this was eventually restored. In 1894, the books Roser de tot l'any and Veus del bon pastor were published. On March 31 he left the sanctuary of La Gleva.
On May 17, 1902, on his 57th birthday, he moved from his home at Carrer Aragó 235 in Barcelona to the country house known as Vil·la Joana, in Vallvidrera (Barcelona), where he hoped to convalesce. On June 10, he died in Vil·la Joana, which is now one of the Barcelona City History Museum (MUHBA) heritage sites.
Verdaguer was buried in Montjuïc Cemetery in Barcelona.