George Herbert

Critic: L. C. Knights
Source: "George Herbert," in his Explorations: Essays in Criticism, Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century, Chatto & Windus, 1946, pp. 112-30.
Criticism about: "The Quip"; "Miserie"; "Divinitie"; "The Size"; "The Sonne"; "Conscience"; "The Discharge"; "The Pilgrimage"; "The Crosse"; "Employment (ii)"; "Affliction (i)"; "The Collar"; "Love Unknown"; "The Church"; "Death"; "The Flower"
Author Covered: George Herbert (1593-1633)



Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[Knights was a renowned English Shakespearean scholar and critic. In the essay below, originally published in 1944, he examines Herbert's place in the tradition of English Literature and discusses the resolution of spiritual conflict in The Temple. ]



The poetry of George Herbert is so intimately bound up with his beliefs as a Christian and his practice as a priest of the Church of England that those who enjoy the poetry without sharing the beliefs may well feel some presumption in attempting to define the human, as distinguished from the specifically Christian, value of his work. The excuse for such an attempt can only be the conviction that there is much more in Herbert's poetry for readers of all kinds than is recognized in the common estimate. That his appeal is a wide one is implicit in the accepted claim that he is a poet and not simply a writer of devotional verse; but I think I am right in saying that discussion of him tends to take for granted that admirers are likely to be drawn from a smaller circle than admirers of, say, Donne or Marvell. Even Dr. Hutchinson, whose superbly edited and annotated edition of [The Works of George Herbert] is not likely to be superseded--it would be difficult to imagine a better qualified editor and introducer--even Dr. Hutchinson remarks that, "if to-day there is a less general sympathy with Herbert's religion, the beauty and sincerity of its expression are appreciated by those who do not share it." True; but there is also much more than the "expression" that we appreciate, as I shall try to show. Herbert's poetry is an integral part of the great English tradition.

It is, however, with expression, with form and manner, that appreciation must begin, and Dr. Hutchinson directs our attention to what are unquestionably the most important features of Herbert's style. "His craftsmanship is conspicuous. Almost any poem of his has its object well defined," he says. And again:

Few English poets have been able to use the plain words of ordinary speech with a greater effect of simple dignity than Herbert. From Donne he had learnt the use of the conversational tone, which establishes an intimacy between poet and reader; and when his poems are read aloud, the emphasis falls easily on the natural order of the speaking idiom.

In other words, Herbert, like Donne, is a realist in literature. The first "Jordan" poem ("Who says that fictions only and false hair Become a verse?") is not only an expression of personal dedication, it is also, as the second poem of the same title is explicitly, a literary manifesto:


Is it no verse, except enchanted groves

And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne

lines?

Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?

Must all be vail'd, while he that reades, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:

Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime....

The "pure, manly and unaffected" diction that Coleridge noted, the rhythm that, though musical, is close to the rhythm of living speech, the construction that almost always follows the evolution of thought and feeling, even in the most intricate of the stanza forms that he used in such variety--these elements of Herbert's style show his determination to make his verse sincere and direct, to avoid even the slightest degree of the distortion that occurs when a preconceived idea of "the poetical" takes charge of the matter. And the effort of craftsmanship involved was one with the moral effort to know himself, to bring his conflicts into the daylight and, so far as possible, to resolve them. It is in the wide application of Herbert's self-discovery that the value of his poetry lies; but before approaching the substance of his verse I should like to examine some aspects of his style that have had less attention than those so far glanced at. For the "definition of the object" that Dr. Hutchinson rightly puts in the forefront of Herbert's achievement as a poet is not simply a matter of surface purity and naturalness; it has depth and solidity, and we need to become conscious of the variety of resources brought to bear in the process--simple only in appearance--that the defining is.

It is here that literary criticism necessarily joins hands with "the sociology of literature," since what we are concerned with is the personal use of a more than personal idiom with its roots in tradition and the general life. To the critic no less than to the student of English civilization in the first half of the seventeenth century it is of considerable significance that Herbert, as man and artist, is not the product of one social class alone. An aristocrat by birth, and related to some of the more prominent figures at court, the protege of James I, the friend of Donne and Bacon, he has also that ingrained sense of "common" English life which in so many representative figures of the time blends with and modifies the intellectual currents from the world of courtly refinement, learning and public affairs. His poetry has plainly an upper-class background. The Metaphysical subtlety and intellectual analysis that he learnt from Donne, the skill in music--so pleasantly attested by Walton--that one senses even in his handling of the spoken word, the easy and unostentatious references to science and learning, all imply a cultivated milieu. And although the rightness of tone that keeps even his most intimate poetry free from sentimentality or over-insistence springs from deeply personal characteristics, it is also related to the well-bred ease of manner of "the gentleman."

Turn, however, to that poem with the characteristic title, "The Quip," and a different aspect of Herbert's genius, implying a different source of strength, is at once apparent.


The merrie world did on a day

With his train-bands and mates agree

To meet together, where I lay,

And all in sport to geere at me.

First, Beautie crept into a rose,

Which when I pluckt not, Sir, said she,

Tell me, I pray, Whose hands are those?

But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then Money came, and chinking still,

What tune is this, poore man? said he:

I heard in Musick you had skill.

But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came brave Glorie puffing by

In silks that whistled, who but he?

He scarce allow'd me half an eie.

But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me....

The personifications here have nothing in common either with Spenser's allegorical figures or with the capitalized abstractions of the eighteenth century: "Brave Glorie puffing by In silks that whistled" might have come straight from The Pilgrim's Progress. And Bunyan, as Dr. G. R. Owst has shown [in Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England], had behind him not only the rich folk-culture that produced the ballads, but also a long line of preachers in the vernacular. Again and again Herbert reminds us of the popular preacher addressing his audience--without a shade of condescension in doing so--in the homely manner that they themselves use. There is humour, mimicry and sarcasm, seen most clearly when the verses are read aloud with the inflexions they demand.


He doth not like this vertue, no;

Give him his dirt to wallow in all night:

These Preachers make

His head to shoot and ake.

("Miserie)


Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and

pray. Do as ye would be done unto.

O dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day!

Who can these Gordian knots undo?

("Divinitie")


To be in both worlds full

Is more then God was, who was hungrie here.

Wouldst thou his laws of fasting disanull?

Enact good cheer?

Lay out thy joy, yet hope to save it?

Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?

("The Size")

Herbert, we know, made a collection of "Outlandish (sc. foreign) Proverbs" for the community at Little Gidding, and although he does not often, as in the last quotation, incorporate a popular saying, many of his terse sentences have a proverbial ring.

Herbert's "popular" manner is, however, far more deeply grounded--and serves a more important purpose in his poetry--than these last examples might suggest.


Let forrain nations of their language boast,

What fine varietie each tongue affords:

I like our language, as our men and coast:

Who cannot dresse it well, want wit, not words.

This, from "The Sonne," is explicit,--"I like our language": and one way of enforcing the judgment that he is in the great English tradition is to point out how surely he uses the native idiom to give the effect of something immediately present, something going on under one's eyes. In the colloquial expostulation of "Conscience" an over-active scrupulousness comes to life as it is rebuked:


Peace pratler, do not lowre:

Not a fair look, but thou dost call it foul:

Not a sweet dish, but thou dost call it sowre:

Musick to thee doth howl.

By listning to thy chatting fears

I have both lost mine eyes and eares.

The opening of "The Discharge" has a similar, almost dramatic, effect:


Busie enquiring heart, what wouldst thou know?

Why dost thou prie,

And turn, and leer, and with a licorous eye

Look high and low:

And in thy looking stretch and grow?

Even his simplest poems have a muscular force, an almost physical impact, as in the description of "the honest man" (in "Constancie"):


Whom neither force nor fawning can

Unpinne, or wrench from giving all their due.

He uses alliteration and assonance in the native Elizabethan way, not, that is, as a poetic or musical device, but as a means of controlling emphasis and movement so as to obtain the maximum immediacy. To the examples already given may be added these lines from "The Flower":


Many a spring I shoot up fair,

Offring at heav'n, growing and groning thither,

where the effect is, in Shakespearean fashion, to assimilate the participles to each other, so that the groans seem an intrinsic part of the growing. It is the artist's feeling for all the resources of "our language" that gives to the greater poems of spiritual conflict their disturbing immediacy.

Herbert's style, then, is "popular" as well as courtly and Metaphysical, and his leaning towards the manner of common Elizabethan speech is further emphasized by his well-known liking for homely illustrations, analogies and metaphors. His poems contain plenty of learned allusions (especially, as was natural in that age, to astronomy), but he certainly "goes less far afield for his analogies than Donne and finds most that will serve his purpose from common life,"--from carpentry, gardening and everyday domestic activity: Redemption "spreads the plaister equal to the crime," after the refreshment of sleep, day will "give new wheels to our disorder'd clocks", and so on. But although this feature of Herbert's style is so commonly recognized that further illustration is unnecessary, its function is sometimes misinterpreted, as though Herbert's experience were somehow limited by his interest in the commonplace. Even Professor Grierson, after listing some of Herbert's comparisons, remarks [in Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century]:

These are the "mean" similes which in Dr.Johnson's view were fatal to poetic effect even in Shakespeare. We have learned not to be so fastidious, yet when they are not purified by the passionate heat of the poet's dramatic imagination the effect is a little stuffy, for the analogies and symbols are more fanciful or traditional than natural and imaginative.

The last sentence, it is true, contains a qualifying clause, "when they are not purified by ... imagination"; but since Professor Grierson goes on to describe Herbert as a "sincere and sensitive" rather than a "reatly imaginative" poet, some undue emphasis remains on the phrase "a little stuffy".

The significance of Herbert's "homely" imagery--pointing as it does to some of the central preoccupations of his poetry--is something that we need to get clear. But before taking up this question--or, rather, as a way of taking it up--I should like to bring into focus another aspect of his imagery. As well as metaphor and simile Herbert uses symbols and allegory. Now whereas metaphor conveys its meaning directly from common experience, in symbolism there is usually an element of the arbitrary. "The Churchfloore" is an obvious example:


Mark you the floore? that square & speckled

stone,

Which looks so firm and strong,

Is Patience.

But this arbitrary use of symbols is not characteristic of Herbert. Much more often his verse (like Bunyan's prose) gives life to his symbolic figures and allegorical situations, so that they appear as something immediately experienced, and carry their meaning with them. Even the highly emblematic poem, "Love Unknown", has a matter-of-fact quality that makes it something more than a monument to a bygone taste. In "The Pilgrimage" the allegory is completely realized in terms of the actual.


I travell'd on, seeing the hill, where lay

My expectation.

A long it was and weary way.

The gloomy cave of Desperation

I left on th' one, and on the other side

The rock of Pride.

And so I came to Fancies medow strow'd

With many a flower:

Fain would I here have made abode,

But I was quicken'd by my houre.

So to Cares cops I came, and there got through

With much ado.

That led me to the wilde of Passion, which

Some call the wold;

A wasted place, but sometimes rich.

Here I was robb'd of all my gold,

Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti'd

Close to my side.

Mr. Empson, analysing the rich meaning of the third verse, remarks [in his Seven Types of Ambiguity] that Herbert's manner is that of a traveller, "long afterwards, mentioning where he has been and what happened to him, as if only to pass the time". But the air of verisimilitude, the impression of a difficult journey actually undertaken, is not only an effect of the sober tone; it springs also from the sensitive and subtle movement. In reading the second verse we feel that we ourselves have been in "Cares cops" and scrambled out


--got through

With much ado--

as best we might. The fourth verse, making skilful use of the varied lengths of line and of the slight end-of-line pauses, reproduces the sensations of the traveller, as expectation--rather out of breath, but eager and confident--gives way abruptly to flat disappointment:


At length I got unto the gladsome hill,

Where lay my hope,

Where lay my heart; and climbing still,

When I had gain'd the brow and top,

A lake of brackish waters on the ground

Was all I found.

The allegorical form is of course a reminder that what we are concerned with is a graph of more than one kind of experience, but at no point in the poem are we simply interpreting an allegory; the bitter poignancy of the conclusion springs from deeply personal feelings that we have been made to share.


With that abash'd and struck with many a sting

Of swarming fears,

I fell, and cry'd, Alas my King!

Can both the way and end be tears?

Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv'd

I was deceiv'd:

My hill was further: so I flung away,

Yet heard a crie

Just as I went, None goes that way

And lives: If that be all, said I,

After so foul a journey death is fair,

And but a chair.

This use of vivid allegory--tied down, as it were, to the actual and immediate--represents one aspect of Herbert's method. In poems such as "Vertue" and "Life" ("I made a posie, while the day ran by") we have the opposite and complementary process, where natural objects, without ceasing to be natural, have a rich symbolic meaning. In the lovely lines of "Vertue" the rose is no less a real rose, "angrie and brave", for being at the same time a symbol of life rooted in death. It is here that we see something of the significance of Herbert's consistent use of homely and familiar imagery. We may recall Coleridge's account of the genesis of the Lyrical Ballads: "Mr. Wordsworth was to propose to himself as his object to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonder of the world before us." It is "the things of every day" that Herbert's poetry keeps consistently before us; but instead of invoking a rather adventitious "charm of novelty" or exciting "a feeling analogous to the supernatural" (one thinks of Peter Bell), he sees them in direct relation to a supernatural order in which he firmly believes. Thus in his poetry, just as the supernatural is apprehended in terms of the familiar, so common things--whilst remaining common things, clearly observed, and deeply felt--have a supernatural significance, and the familiar is perpetually new. "This is the skill, and doubtless the Holy Scripture intends thus much", he says [in A Priest to the Temple or, The Country Parson], "when it condescends to the naming of a plough, a hatchett, a bushell, leaven, boyes piping and dancing; shewing that things of ordinary use are not only to serve in the way of drudgery, but to be washed and cleansed, and serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths." Once more we are reminded of Bunyan, in whose blend of Biblical language and native idiom the august events of the Bible seem to be transacted in a familiar world, and the humble doings of every day are placed in a context that reveals how momentous they are.

Herbert's message to Nicholas Ferrar when, a few weeks before his death, he sent him the manuscript of The Temple, is well known.

Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it: and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.

Herbert's poetry was for him very largely a way of working out his conflicts. But it does not, like some religious poetry, simply express conflict; it is consciously and steadily directed towards resolution and integration. Dr. Hutchinson rightly describes the poems as "colloquies of the soul with God or self-communings which seek to bring order into that complex personality of his which he analyses so unsparingly".

This general account of conflict and resolution as the stuff of Herbert's poetry is, I believe, commonly accepted. But the conflict that gets most--indeed almost exclusive--attention is the struggle between the ambitious man of the world and the priest. Dr. Hutchinson rightly insists that Herbert's conflict of mind was not simply about the priesthood, that his spiritual struggle "was over the more general issue of his submission to the Divine will"; but he elsewhere [in his essay in Seventeenth-Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson] records the opinion that "his principal temptation, the "one cunning bosome-sin" which is apt to break through all his fences, is ambition". Now it would certainly be unwise to underestimate Herbert's worldly ambitions, or the severity of the struggle that took place in one "not exempt from passion and choler", who liked fine clothes and good company, before he could renounce his hopes of courtly preferment and, finally, become a country parson. But it seems to me that if we focus all our attention there, seeing the struggle simply as one between "ambition" and "renunciation", we ignore some even more fundamental aspects of Herbert's self-division and at the same time obscure the more general relevance of his experience. Most criticism of the poet tends to suggest that we are simply watching someone else's conflict--sympathetic, no doubt, but not intimately involved ourselves.

Behind the more obvious temptation of "success" was one more deeply rooted--a dejection of spirit that tended to make him regard his own life, the life he was actually leading, as worthless and unprofitable. Part of the cause was undoubtedly persistent ill-health. "For my self," he said, "I alwaies fear"d sickness more than death, because sickness hath made me unable to perform those Offices for which I came into the world, and must yet be kept in it"; and this sense of the frustration of his best purposes through illness is expressed in "The Crosse" and other poems:


And then when after much delay,

Much wrastling, many a combate, this deare

end,

So much desir'd, is giv'n, to take away

My power to serve thee; to unbend

All my abilities, my designes confound,

And lay my threatnings bleeding on the ground

It is, however, difficult to resist the impression that his argues and consumption only intensified a more ingrained self-distrust. Commenting on some lines from "The Temper (i)",


--O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,

O let me roost and nestle there--

Dr. Hutchinson remarks that "Herbert often shows a fear of unlimited space and loves the shelter of an enclosure"; and his shrinking from the kind of experience that was possible for him shows itself now in the frequently recorded moods of despondency, now in the desire for a simpler and apparently more desirable form of existence:


My stock lies dead, and no increase

Doth my dull husbandrie improve.

("Grace")


All things are busie; onely I

Neither bring hony with the bees,

Nor flowres to make that, nor the husbandrie

To water these.

I am no link of thy great chain,

But all my companie is a weed....

("Employment (i)")


Oh that I were an Orenge-tree,

That busie plant!

Then should I ever laden be,

And never want

Some fruit for him that dressed me.

("Employment (ii)")

Now this feeling of uselessness and self-distrust has two further consequences: one is a preoccupation with time and death,


--So we freeze on,

Until the grave increase our cold;

("Employment (ii)")

the other is a sense that life, real life, is going on elsewhere, where he happens not to be himself. It was his weakness, as well as his more positive qualities of "birth and spirit", that made a career at court seem so intensely desirable: "the town" was where other people lived active and successful lives. Certainly, then, it was not a small achievement to "behold the court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud, and titles, and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary, painted pleasures; pleasures that are so empty, as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed". But it was an even greater achievement to rid himself of the torturing sense of frustration and impotence and to accept the validity of his own experience. His poems come home to us because they give new meanings to "acceptance".

The first condition of development was that the disturbing elements in experience should be honestly recognized; and here we see the significance of Herbert's technical achievement, of his realism, of his ability to make his feelings immediately present. In the masterly verse of "Affliction (i)" we have one of the most remarkable records in the language of the achievement of maturity and of the inevitable pains of the process. In the opening stanzas movement and imagery combine to evoke the enchanted world of early manhood, when to follow the immediate dictates of the soul seems both duty and pleasure.


When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,

I thought the service brave:

So many joyes I writ down for my part,

Besides what I might have

Out of my stock of naturall delights,

Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,

And made it fine to me:

Thy glorious houshold-stuffe did me entwine,

And 'tice me unto thee.

Such starres I counted mine: both heav'n and earth

Payd me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served,

Where joyes my fellows were?

Thus argu'd into hopes, my thoughts reserved

No place for grief or fear.

Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav'st me milk and sweetnesses;

I had my wish and way:

My dayes were straw'd with flow'rs and happinesse;

There was no moneth but May.

But implicit in the description--as we see from "entice" and "entwine" and the phrase, "argu"d into hopes"--is the admission that there is enchantment, an element of illusion in the "naturall delights", and we are not surprised when the triumphant fourth verse ends with the sudden bleak recognition of ills previously unperceived but inherent in the processes of life:


But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow,

And made a partie unawares for wo.

The three central verses not merely describe the "woes"--sickness, the death of friends, disappointed hopes--they evoke with painful immediacy the feelings of the sufferer


Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce beleeved,

Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

With characteristic honesty Herbert admits the palliative of "Academick praise"--something that temporarily "dissolves" the mounting "rage"; but the current of feeling is now flowing in a direction completely opposite to that of the opening.


Whereas my birth and spirit rather took

The way that takes the town;

Thou didst betray me to a lingring book,

And wrap me in a gown.

I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

"Betray" and "entangle" make explicit a sense already present but not openly acknowledged in "entice" and "entwine"; and instead of direct spontaneity--"I had my wish and way"--there is division and uncertainty:


I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

In the eighth stanza the potentialities of emphasis latent in the spoken language are used to evoke the full sense of frustration and conflict:


Yet lest perchance I should too happie be

In my unhappinesse,

Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me

Into more sicknesses.

Thus doth thy power crosse-bias me, not making

Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking.

Stanza nine is quieter in tone, bringing into prominence an element in the whole complex attitude of the poet previously expressed only in the quiet control of the verse in which such turbulent feelings have been presented:


Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me

None of my books will show:

I reade, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;

For sure then I should grow

To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

The opening lines of the last stanza can be read in two ways according as we bring into prominence the resigned or the rebellious tone:


Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weaknesse must be stout ...

But resignation and rebellion are alike half-measures, and it is here, where the feelings are so subtly poised, that the need for an absolute decision make itself felt. Return for a moment to the eighth stanza. There the last line, with its strong alliterative emphasis, makes plain that the problem of the will ("my wayes") is the central theme of the poem. What we call happiness ("no moneth but May") is the result of events meeting our desires,--"I had my wish and way"; but the universe is not constructed on our plan, and when the will cannot bring itself to accept the crossbias of existence frustration is inevitable. This commonplace is something that everyone admits in a general way; to accept it fully, in terms of our own personal experience, is another matter. It is because Herbert has faced the issues so honestly and completely that the first alternative that presents itself in the moment of decision has only to be brought into focus to be seen as no real solution at all; and it is because its rejection has behind it the whole weight of the poem that the sudden reversal of feeling is so unforced, the undivided acceptance of the ending so inevitable.


Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weaknesse must be stout.

Well, I will change the service, and go seek

Some other master out.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

In "The Collar" the same problem is approached from a slightly different angle.


I struck the board, and cry'd, No more.

I will abroad.

What? shall I ever sigh and pine?

My lines and life are free; free as the rode,

Loose as the winde, as large as store....

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde

At every word,

Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!

And I reply'd, My Lord.

At one time I felt that in this well-known ending--a similar sudden "return" to that of "Affliction (i)"--Herbert was evading the issue by simply throwing up the conflict and relapsing into naive simplicity of childhood. But of course I was wrong. The really childish behaviour is the storm of rage in which the tempestuous desires--superbly evoked in the free movement of the verse--are directed towards an undefined "freedom". What the poem enforces is that to be "loose as the wind" is to be as incoherent and purposeless; that freedom is to be found not in some undefined "abroad", but, in Ben Jonson"s phrase, "here in my bosom, and at home".

The mature "acceptance" that one finds in Herbert"s poetry has little in common with a mere disillusioned resignation. The effort towards it is positive in direction. Just as Herbert shows no fear of any imposed punishment for sin--of Hell--but only of the inevitable consequences of sin's "venome", so the recurring stress of his poetry is on life. That "nothing performs the task of life" is the complaint of "Affliction (iv)";


O give me quicknesse, that I may with mirth

Praise thee brim-full,

is his prayer when "drooping and dull" ("Dulnesse"). And one reason why his religion appears so humane, in a century tending more and more to associate religion with fear and gloom, is that his God is a God of the living.


Wherefore be cheer'd, and praise him to the full

Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,

Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick.

("Love Unknown")

It is because he actually did learn from experience to find life "at hand", life realized in the commonplace details of every day, that so many of his "homely" metaphors have such freshness and are the opposite of "stuffy". But acceptance has a further, final meaning. It involves the recognition not only of one"s limited sphere but (the paradox is only apparent) of one's own value. It is this that gives such wide significance to the poem, "Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back", placed deliberately at the end of the poems in "The Church":


You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my

meat:

So I did sit and eat.

The achieved attitude--"accepted and accepting"--marks the final release from anxiety.

With this release not only is significance restored to the present ("Onely the present is thy part and fee ... "["The Discharge"]), but death is robbed of its more extreme terrors. The ending of the poem "Death" (which begins, "Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing") is entirely unforced:


Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust

Half that we have

Unto an honest faithfull grave;

Making our pillows either down, or dust.

The integration of attitude thus achieved lies behind the poetry of "Life" ("I made a posie while the day ran by"), and of the well known "Vertue"--a poem that shows in a quite personal way the characteristically Metaphysical "reconciliation of opposites": the day has lost none of its freshness because its end is freely recognized as implicit in its beginning. But it is in "The Flower" that the sense of new life springing from the resolution of conflict is most beautifully expressed.


How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring;

To which, besides their own demean,

The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.

Grief melts away

Like snow in May,

As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel'd heart

Could have recover'd greenesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

He still feels the need for security, for a guaranteed permanence:


O that I once past changing were,

Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither.

But in the poem as a whole even the fact that the good hours do not last, that they are bound to alternate with "frosts" and depression, is accepted without bitterness:


These are thy wonders, Lord of power,

Killing and quickning....

As a result the renewed vitality, waited for without fret or fuss, has something of the naturalness and inevitability of the mounting sap. The sixth stanza takes up the spring imagery:


And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing: O my onely light,

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom thy tempests fell all night.

The sense of refreshment, conveyed in imagery of extraordinary sensuous delicacy, is as completely realized as the suffering expressed in the poems of conflict. And like the flower it comes from "under ground", from the deeper levels of the personality.

The account I have given of the positive direction of Herbert's poetry is not meant to imply that anything like a continuous development can be traced in the poems, few of which can be dated with any precision. In any case, development--when it is of the whole man, not simply of a line of thought--rarely shows the smooth curve that biographers like to imagine. We do know, however, that his life at Bemerton was one of uncommon sweetness and serenity, expressing what Dr. Hutchinson calls "an achieved character of humility, tenderness, moral sensitiveness, and personal consecration, which he was very far from having attained or even envisaged when he was dazzled by the attractions of the great world". The poems in which the fluctuating stages of this progress are recorded are important human documents because they handle with honesty and insight questions that, in one form or another, we all have to meet if we wish to come to terms with life....



Source Citation: Knights, L. C., "George Herbert," in his Explorations: Essays in Criticism, Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century, Chatto & Windus, 1946, pp. 112-30.



   
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