English Literature: Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wotton
- Critic: Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Source: "English Literature: Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wotton," in his The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1833-1836, Vol. 1, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, pp. 337-55.
- Criticism about: The Temple; "Affliction"
- Author Covered: George Herbert (1593-1633)
Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[Emerson was an American essayist and poet, who, as founder of the Transcendental movement, shaped a distinctly American philosophy which embraced optimism, individuality, and mysticism. His philosophy stresses the presence of ongoing creation and revelation by a god who exists in everyone, as well as the essential unity of all thoughts, persons, and things in the divine whole. In the following excerpt from a lecture originally delivered in 1835, he considers Herbert's poems as "the breathings of a devout soul reading the riddle of the world with a poet's eye but with a saint's affections."]
George Herbert [was] the author of the Temple, a little book of Divine songs and poems which ought to be on the shelf of every lover of religion and poetry. It is a book which is apt to repel the reader on his first acquaintance. It is written in the quaint epigrammatic style which was for a short time in vogue in England, a style chiefly marked by the elaborate decomposition to which every object is subjected. The writer is not content with the obvious properties of natural objects but delights in discovering abstruser relations between them and the subject of his thought. This both by Cowley and Donne is pushed to affectation. By Herbert it is used with greater temperance and to such excellent ends that it is easily forgiven if indeed it do not come to be loved.
It has been justly said of Herbert that if his thought is often recondite and far fetched yet the language is always simple and chaste. I should cite Herbert as a striking example of the power of exalted thought to melt and bend language to its fit expression. Language is an organ on which men play with unequal skill and each man with different skill at different hours. The man who stammers when he is afraid or when he is indifferent, will be fluent when he is angry, and eloquent when his intellect is active. Some writers are of that frigid temperament that their sentences always seem to be made with grammar and dictionary. To such the easy structure of prose is laborious, and metre and rhyme, and especially any difficult metre is an insurmountable bar to the expression of their meaning. Of these Byron says,
Prose poets like blank verse
Good workmen never quarrel with their tools.
Those on the contrary who were born to write, have a self-enkindling power of thought which never knows this obstruction but find words so rapidly that they seem coeval with the thought. And in general according to the elevation of the soul will be the power over language and lively thoughts will break out into spritely verse. No metre so difficult but will be tractable so that you only raise the temperature of the thought.
"For my part," says Montaigne, "I hold and Socrates is positive in it, that whoever has in his mind a lively and clear imagination, he will express it well enough in one kind or another and though he were dumb by signs."
Every reader is struck in George Herbert with the inimitable felicity of the diction. The thought has so much heat as actually to fuse the words, so that language is wholly flexible in his hands, and his rhyme never stops the progress of the sense....
What Herbert most excels in is in exciting that feeling which we call the moral sublime. The highest affections are touched by his muse. I know nothing finer than the turn with which his poem on affliction concludes. After complaining to his maker as if too much suffering had been put upon him he threatens that he will quit God's service for the world's:
Well, I will change the service and go seek
Some other master out
Ah, my dear God, though I be clean
Let me not love thee if I love thee not.
Herbert's Poems are the breathings of a devout soul reading the riddle of the world with a poet's eye but with a saint's affections. Here poetry is turned to its noblest use. The sentiments are so exalted, the thought so wise, the piety so sincere that we cannot read this book without joy that our nature is capable of such emotions and criticism is silent in the exercise of higher faculties....
Source Citation: Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "English Literature: Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wotton," in his The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1833-1836, Vol. 1, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, pp. 337-55.