The Review of English Studies,
August 1996 v47 n187 p386(4)
George Herbert and Lady Mary Wroth: a root for 'The Flower?'
Abstract: The works of poets George Herbert and Lady Mary Wroth focus on change and emotional instability and the resurgence of spirits after a winter or night of despair, contrasting past and present. Both of the poets' works have the contrast of psychological winter with the flowers in spring and the separation from the source of light and warmth. Herbert's 'The Flower' is considered as a poem that goes beyond the coincidences of convention to produce a finer poetic flower.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 Oxford University Press
Lady Mary Wroth (?1586-?1653), niece of Sir Philip Sidney, was a notable figure at the court of King James, before becoming notorious, first for her affair with her cousin William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (a kinsman of George Herbert, who was of the cadet branch of the family), and then for her publication in 1621 of her prose romance, The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania. This volume caused a considerable scandal, partly because of the coded revelations of contemporary court life, so that it had to be withdrawn; in the circumstances, it is inconceivable that the Herberts (especially those with close court connections) did not read it, if only looking for passages relating to their family (they seem to have been well enough disposed towards her - Lord Herbert of Cherbury, George's brother, wrote her a charming little poem on the birth of one of her children by William Herbert). George Herbert, who, according to the DNB, was 'constantly at court' at this time, may well have looked with particular interest at the Petrarchist sonnet-sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the first published by an English woman, that concluded the volume. It is the purpose of this paper to suggest that two poems from very early in the sequence, the fourth sonnet and the first song (only a couple of pages further on), caught his attention sufficiently to provide significant features of one of his best-known poems, 'The Flower' (which would be very much in accordance with his practice of transforming the material of secular love-poetry for religious verse).
Readers will be familiar with Herbert's poem, so I quote as reminders only the passages relevant to my argument.(1) The poem begins:
How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring; To which, beside 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.
In the second verse, the speaker's 'shrivelled heart' is
gone Quite under ground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root . . . Dead to the world . . .
In the third verse, he observes:
These are thy wonders, Lord of power, Killing and quick'ning . . .
and in the fourth, he wishes that he 'past changing were', while
Off'ring at heav'n, growing and groaning thither: Nor doth my flower Want a spring-shower, My sins and I joining together.
In the fourth and fifth verses he says that God's pleasure is his 'only light' and source of heat, while God's displeasure is felt as extreme, more than natural cold (reversing normal experience, so that cold seems hot). After his career of spiritual ups and downs, the sixth verse, continuing the poem's plant metaphor, is celebratory.
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. Oh, my only light, It cannot be That I am he On whom try tempests fell all night.
The text of Wroth's sonnet and song are given as they appear in Josephine Roberts's edition,(2) though I have italicized certain phrases.
Forbeare darke night, my joyes now budd againe, Lately growne dead, while cold aspects, did chill The roote at heart, and my chiefe hope quite kill, And thunders strooke me in my pleasures waine.
Then I alas with bitter sobs, and paine, Privately groan'd, my Fortunes present ill; All light of comfort dimb'd, woes in pride fill, With strange encrease of griefe, I griev'd in vaine,
And most, when as a memory to good Molested me, which still as witnes stood, Of those best dayes, in former times I knew:
Late gone as wonders past, like the great Snow, Melted and wasted, with what, change must know: Now backe the life comes where as once it grew.
Both Herbert's lyric and Wroth's sonnet deal with change and emotional instability, and the resurgence of spirits after a winter or night of despair, contrasting past and present. Some parallels are almost exact ('I bud again' / 'my joyes now budd againe'), some provide equivalents (God's 'tempests' replacing 'thunders', themselves traditional signs of divine displeasure). The combination of such very similar phrasing and conceits in the two poems is remarkable, though Herbert has developed the idea more, and adapted it to his particular religious purposes.
Three poems later appears the first song, ostensibly by a shepherdess abandoned by her beloved (rather as Herbert feels separated from God). The first verses, in rather conventional pastoral fashion, contrast the resurgence of life and warmth in spring with the wintry cold and dark of the despairing and abandoned lover:
The spring now come at last To trees, fields, to flowers, And medowes makes to tast His pride, while sad showers Which from mine eyes do flow Makes knowne with cruell paines Cold winter yet remaines No signe of spring we know.
The Sunn which to the Earth Gives heate, light, and pleasure, Joyes in spring, hateth dearth, Plenty makes his treasure. His heat to me is colde, His light all darknes is Since I am bar'd of bliss I heate nor light behold.
The contrast of psychological winter with the flowers in spring, and the separation from the source of light and warmth, operate in both the Wroth and the Herbert; in Wroth's song they are much more conventionally expressed, but the song follows closely upon the sonnet, and, so to speak, overlaps with it, as, together, they both do with Herbert's poem.
It is unlikely that 'The Flower' was written very soon after the appearance of Wroth's volume - its ups-and-downs theme does not fit with the considerable worldly success he was enjoying at the time, while the religious struggles come somewhat later. Nevertheless, as suggested earlier, it is practically certain that he would have seen these poems, which, at some time, together, provided a clustering of phrases, images, and ideas whose similarity to 'The Flower' goes beyond the coincidences of convention, just as his poem itself goes beyond convention, grafting his wit on to theirs, to produce a finer poetic flower.
R. E. PRITCHARD
1 George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, ed. L. L. Martz (Oxford, 1986), 150-1.
2 The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, ed. J. A. Roberts (Baton Rouge, La. and London, 1983), 87-9.