George Herbert's Poetry

Critic: Russell Fraser
Source: "George Herbert's Poetry," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCV, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 560-85.
Criticism about: "Holy Scriptures I"; "The Pearl"; The Temple; "Paradise"; "Affliction"; "Home"; "The Collar"; "The Flower"; "Virtue"; "Providence"
Author Covered: George Herbert (1593-1633)

Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[In the essay below, Fraser provides an overview of Herbert's life and work.]

Among makers of the short poem in English Herbert's peers are Yeats, Frost, Donne and Jonson, and Shakespeare at sonnets. Keats belongs in this company but left a smaller body of permanent poetry. Donne, notorious for his difficulty, gives less trouble than Herbert. Once you get past the hermetic syntax and the recondite learning, most of it easily elucidated by footnotes, all you need is to read him with the right intonation. Yeats has his private system, obtrusive in a few poems, for example "Byzantium" and "Ego Dominus Tuus." Mostly, however, the system is absorbed in the poems, and this poet, handled with the care he merits, is plain sailing. Shakespeare, offering insistently the negative of his positive, is the poet who comes closest to Herbert. Like a fabulous beast that ate its own paws without knowing it, Renan said, assessing Shakespeare. This is Herbert too.

In his "Holy Scriptures I," for instance, where the "idea" is that Scripture is the sum of perfection. Devout readers take strength from this, and meaning to strengthen them Herbert writes his poem. A Christian poet whatever else, he isn't out to fool us. But like certain of Shakespeare's sonnets the poem includes a counterstatement, disputing its paraphrasable content. This skeptical-irreverent poem doesn't cancel the panegyric, though, and that makes Herbert one of a kind, even among poets who like to have it both ways.

Typically humdrum, hence putting us off, his title begets expectations, not fulfilled or possibly exceeded. Scripture is a vade mecum (so far, what we expect) but also too good to be true:

Precious for any grief in any part;

To clear the breast, to mollify all pain--

i.e. one size fits all. A mirror or looking glass, Scripture is agreeable to the ladies who consult it. But the ladies are vain and the looking glass fools them, "mending" their eyes. Also a well, Scripture "washes what it shows," cleansing, at the same time sprucing up the (doubtful) image in the water. In this truth-telling ledger "heaven lies flat," open to inspection. But "flat," as it is also insipid, says that Scripture's truth, not nourishing much, is jejune. Like a staff "subject to every mounter's bended knee," it helps the reader on his way to heaven. But this supporting function, suggesting abasement (the reader bending his knee), suggests complaisance too, Scripture telling the reader what he wants to hear. The poem goes on like this, exasperating point of view. Skeptics will want to look for themselves.

Some other poets, even great ones, running together negative and positive, do so ironically, and the negative voice mocks the official poem. Herbert, not an ironic poet except at his own expense, sponsors a partnership of lion and lamb. Improbably they lie down together. Another way to put it is to say that Herbert's poems, rough and troubled with contrary movement, throw back against the current like Frost's West-Running Brook. Note that this is a natural movement. Herbert has a phrase for his art that resembles nature: "My crooked winding ways" ("A Wreath"). In "Church-lock and Key" the poet's sins, "out-crying" his plea for mercy, are so many stones in the stream bed. Interrupting the current that sets toward heaven, they imperil his salvation. But like stones they make the current "much more loud to be." This boosts the chance for salvation, an eccentric reading of our lapsed condition. Most older readers of Herbert missed the eccentricity, and Frost is widely admired for his natural piety and shock of white hair.

A devotional poet dying into life, Herbert, growing in a straight line, is "Still upwards bent" ("The Flower"), always on the way to heaven and determined to get there. He sets the word against itself, however, his "bent" meaning both "determined" and "deflected," and he hopes all his dyings "may be life in death" ("Mortification"). That is inconsequent but Herbert has no option, harboring in himself two contentious persons, versions of Yeats's Hic and Ille. They go their separate ways, one touching heaven, the other holding tight to earth ("Man's Medley"). Sometimes the hand that touches heaven makes a fist.

Herbert's biography, like his best poetry, declares the inconsequent man, or you can call him many-sided, fish and flesh by turns. Izaak Walton, famous piscator, looking back in old age wrote the biography, meaning to spread on the record a "great example of holiness." Uncomplicated Herbert under his hand turns into a simple parson, a type of the Protestant saint. (Among other things he was saintly.) Walton's Herbert takes after his pious mother, who would "often say 'that ignorance of vice was the best preservation of virtue, and that the very knowledge of wickedness was as tinder to inflame and kindle sin and keep it burning.'" In unexpected ways this is true for Herbert--the second clause, not the first.

Lady Magdalen Herbert, a prodigious bluestocking, is celebrated by Donne in "The Autumnal": "In all her words, to every hearer fit, / You may at revels, or at council sit." Herbert, taking counsel, looks like an apt pupil. Writing to his mother, he says how a "late ague" in him has "dried up those springs" where the Muses live. But never mind: "I need not their help to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus." Then he breaks into poetry, jagged with questions.

The questions are rhetorical, standard for a poet who doesn't have any answers except as the answers are given. (Here he shows his connection to Jonson, both of them incorrigible--that is, unpersuaded by reason--so laying it all to faith.) The poem, a sonnet, is untitled, and God is the addressee:

Doth poetry

Wear Venus' livery? only serve her turn?

Why are not sonnets made of Thee? and lays

Upon Thine altar burnt?

These questions have their answers, essentially Yea and Nay. Elsewhere Herbert answers circumstantially. But his answers are "antiphonal," Hic countering Ille with no intermission or conclusion in sight unless this poet decrees it. ("Decreeing" is when the poet, like Ovid in his Amores, says simply: Hoc opus exegi, "I have ended the work.") For instance in "The Pearl," where the pious refrain disputes the ways of Pleasure:

the sweet strains,

The lullings and the relishes of it;

The propositions of hot blood and brains;

What mirth and music mean; what love and wit

Have done these twenty hundred years.

Much to ponder in that last phrase, gravid when you say it over. And still the refrain has its unimpaired vigor: "Yet I love Thee."

The ways of Pleasure or "way that takes the town" are carnal and powerfully attractive. Recited, they jeopardize the goal of salvation. (If Herbert wins the goal, the carnality ratifies the achievement.) Spiritual things, stuff of religion, get his suffrage, but that is largely by fiat, and the capitulating when it comes seems ungrateful:

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,

Not simpering all mine age,

Thou often didst with academic praise

Melt and dissolve my rage,

I took Thy sweetened pill....

-"Affliction I"

In superb reversal of convention, "simpering," equated by pious poet X with profane love poems, "Venus' lays," must characterize religious devotion.

Herbert was born in a castle in 1593, very different from Shakespeare, who was busy at this time pulling himself up by his bootstraps. His siblings included Edward Herbert, Lord Cherbury, famous as a diplomat, minor poet, historian, and "atheist" philosopher. Two brothers, soldiers, died in the Low Countries. One served in the Royal Navy, another was an Oxford don, another Master of the Revels--censor of stage plays--under King James. George Herbert came fifth among the seven sons. He was a private man, whereas the others lived much in the world. There were girls in the family, and Walton musters and dismisses them. "Of the three sisters I need not say more than that they were all married to persons of worth and plentiful fortunes, and lived to be examples of virtue." None of these siblings predicts the poet, and his formal provenance--like Shakespeare's, "butcher boy of Stratford," or Keats's, somebody's by-blow--raises more questions than it answers.

Herbert at fifteen entered Cambridge, afterward becoming Public Orator there. This post was important, also a stepping-stone, and two immediate predecessors went on to be Secretaries of State. That looked like Herbert's destiny. Ambitious, he meant to compass it, so learned the modern tongues, also Latin and Greek. This is matter-of-fact but not incidental, and Herbert, playing with words, runs the gamut of their meanings. Altogether Shakespearean in his feeling for innuendo, he isn't vain of language, steering clear of big words, but his alertness to nuance is uncanny. You need a big dictionary to read him.

Bacon, some say, jealous of words on their slippery side--"vermicular," he called them--submitted his writing for Herbert's approval. King James, respectful too, was his patron. Visiting Cambridge, he took Herbert for "the jewel of that university," giving him a sinecure, a religious "cure" where the parishioners got on without the incumbent. This was unscrupulous, but Herbert spoke no regrets. Walton summed him up--well-heeled, well-connected, a touch sybaritic, something of a toady. "He enjoyed his genteel humor for clothes and court-like company, and seldom looked towards Cambridge unless the king were there, but then he never failed." So he drew his wages in a world of mirth.

Like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, "bright metal on a sullen ground," or Mad Jack Donne before his conversion, this ur-Herbert functions for his biographer as a marked setoff to the real thing. But Shakespeare's hero learns nothing he didn't know at first, the two Donnes are a fiction, and Herbert in his life and art amalgamates good and evil, opposites-by-convention--also, let us say, partly conventions themselves. He saw how the thread of life, "like other threads or skeins of silk," composed a tangled yarn "full of snarls and encumbrances." This tangle yields his unruly likeness. He was addressing his mother, in failing health and low spirits, so went on in a more cheerful vein: "Happy is he whose bottom is wound up and laid ready for work in the New Jerusalem." Before and after his conversion, happiness, a simpler man's portion, eluded him or was only partial.

Disaster, predicated of our mingled yarn, came when King James died in 1625, and Bacon, a year after, fell from power. No further advancement opened for Herbert except, as for Donne, through the church. His connections got him the offer of a humble living in Wiltshire, Bemerton parsonage, a mile outside Salisbury. Wilton, the family estate of the Herberts, in other days a rich nunnery, lies just up the road. An ancestor, "Black Will," acquired the nunnery after the dissolution of the old religious houses. Queen Mary turned him out when the Catholics came back, but at her death he resumed his own "like a tiger." Driving off the nuns, he cried: "Out, ye whores, to work, to work, ye whores, go spin." John Aubrey, seventeenth-century gossip, draws this ancestor's portrait--"strong set but bony, reddish favored, of a sharp eye, stern look." Herbert, laboring in the vineyard, is like this, not "red-dish" or choleric but a conscientious pastor strong for works.

When you read him, however, you feel that works don't avail. His stock lies dead, his husbandry is dull, and increase doesn't improve it ("Grace"). Unexpectedly, though, this incapacity, far from damning him, acquits him. "Antinomian" Herbert, not above slyness, is what he is by virtue of his maker. "The crop is His"--quoting from "The Discharge"--where "His" is the Lord's, and what comes up from the ground, "bent," maybe, is what the Lord has sown.

Not familiar any more, "Antinomian" needs a gloss. This doctrinal heresy, prevalent in Herbert's time, holds that faith alone insures our salvation, so absolves us from obedience to the moral law. Enfeebled by sin, we aren't much anyway, so can't raise our stature one cubit. But where others grudge at this, Herbert, playful and provident, makes it count for him, a version of the Fortunate Fall. Accepting his "discharge," he isn't a rakehell--never that. Only if he slips, this doesn't put him out. How should he know any better? He hears tell that at Judgment some mean to plead good works, saying that their lives excel in merit. He means to thrust a testament in the hands of the Judge:

Let that be scanned.

There thou shalt find my faults are thine.


This is impudent but winning, and other metaphors from other poems suggest that Herbert, having found a handle, is turning it for what it is worth. His God is a tapster, and this delinquent at the bar can't pay what he owes. Insouciant, he isn't cast down, though:

But all my scores were by another paid,

Who took the debt upon him.

-"Love Unknown"

Or he is an indentured servant, not to be shuffled off, God being constrained by laws of His own devising ("Artillery"). God's blood, a purge or "physic," washes him clean (his faith understood as all in all enabling), and guilt, a sour prattler, is left without a word ("Conscience"). So Herbert is lucky.

The great house at Wilton, a moral fable in stone, tells of loot and expensive clutter in a world changing for the worse. In remarkable contrast is the church at Bemerton--"a pitiful little chapel of ease," Aubrey called it--where Herbert, parish priest, served the locals. He wasn't in a hurry to serve, and this contrast, as with others, is more vivid than illuminating. Like Donne he hemmed and hawed, bemused by great expectations, then finally in 1630 accepted his vocation. But tuberculosis overtook him, and three years later he died, short of his fortieth birthday. He was like Keats, worn out by the fierce dispute between "damnation and impassioned clay." Or "He had too thoughtful a wit"--this is his self-portrait--"a wit like a penknife in too narrow a sheaf, too sharp for his body."

Walton gives the portrait, Herbert being his source for the quotation--he says so, anyway. Modern biographers, scrutinizing the record (meager, when all is said), call Walton in question, saying how his bias led him to take the wish for the deed. I don't want to quarrel with this friendly hagiographer. He meant his old friend well and meant to do him justice. Better to say that Walton's ear was imperfect. Like most of Herbert's readers, riffling pages in The Temple, he heard what he wanted to hear.

Herbert left behind that one manuscript book, "Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations," a hundred and sixty poems, mostly short, all religious, and published by a pious friend soon after his death. The Temple is a Christian church complete with its furniture, physical and spiritual. Describing this furniture, the poems are marked, says my old Oxford Companion, "by quaint and ingenious imagery rather than exaltation, and occasionally marred by extravagant conceits and bathos." Possibly Herbert concurred in this estimate. The friend to whom he left his poetry, Nicholas Ferrar (resurrected by Eliot in the Four Quartets), was asked to make it public if he thought it might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul." Otherwise, said Herbert, let him burn the poetry, "for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies." But the poems solaced many, and soon after Herbert's death The Temple became a best seller. Admiring readers took from it what they brought to it.

On that day in 1630 when Herbert was inducted into the priesthood, he looked at the court where his heart was laid up "with an impartial eye." He said he could see plainly how it was all fraud and titles and flattery, "and many other such empty, imaginary, painted pleasures." Against this, God and His service offered "a fullness of all joy and pleasure, and no satiety." That is what he said, bidding ambition goodbye, but the poetry he wrote, by intention instrumental, argues passionately for the glories that swell the heart. He wasn't a hypocrite but was like a "coat of many colors," one of his analogies; and the passion, not calling the piety in question, kindles and inflames it. This is transfiguring, faith raised to the nth power, so made available to the rest of us, mostly nonbelievers who don't share in Herbert's communion.

His first sermon at Bemerton, a florid exhibition piece, established his credentials. This out of the way, he looked askance at what he had made. God didn't intend "to lead men to heaven by hard questions" or "fill their heads with unnecessary notions," and Herbert for future sermons vowed to keep them "plain and practical." Complicated diction was out--so were metaphor and multiple meanings. In the poetry too: he wanted shepherds for his auditors, "simple people," and claimed nothing for his art. A peremptory poet, he favored the imperative mode: "Invention rest, / Comparisons go play, wit use thy will," etc. ("The Posy"). So art was gratuitous, and all you had to do was open your shirt front. This is beguiling, though, like the sprinkling of rhetorical questions, meant for sardonic but coming home as something else:

Is it no verse except enchanted groves

And sudden arbors shadow coarse-spun lines?

Must purling streams refresh a lover's loves?

Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

-"Jordan I"

The little poem that puts these questions takes its stand against the senses, the intellect too. But the weight is on the side of sense and intellectual address. Who will quarrel with "a lover's loves," all liquidity and easy susurration?

Herbert, even when racking his brains, isn't an intellectual poet, however; and his Antinomian bias, freeing him from responsibility, circumscribes him too. "Follow not truth too near the heels," he tells them in his Outlandish Proverbs, "lest it dash out thy teeth." Acute, even niggling when it comes to words and nice distinctions, he isn't adept at putting them together, and the truth of his poetry is mostly declared. He goes in for adjuring rather than persuading, the imperative mode being useful as it throws dust in our eyes. (Donne on his rhetorical side is practiced in this mode, as in his hectoring satire "Of Religion.") Necessarily Herbert's is rhyming poetry. You don't imagine him writing blank verse, properly discursive. He doesn't work out answers to a question posed, and the investigatory manner functions largely as a blind. (This makes him resemble Jonson, for instance in his "Pindarics" for Cary and Morison or in the histrionic "Ode to Himself.") Nervous, self-catechizing, pointed with question marks, Herbert's famous poem "The Collar" looks like antipoetry bitten by intellect, not made up but "real." The questions beg themselves, though; and in the answers, not detected but affirmed, consecutive thinking doesn't much participate. The poet on his intellectual side is incurious or, being proleptic, like the God of "Redemption," doesn't need to take thought.

"Redemption" is unique, and Herbert at sonnets, declining to investigate, pretty much disuses the form. Progress is merely linear, the poetry of enumeration. Many of his poems are like this--e.g. "Prayer," "Joseph's Coat," "The Answer," "Avarice," "Sin I," "Dotage" (only the last not a sonnet). One poem is called "A Dialogue," but Herbert doesn't give us the strife of Sic and Non, and resolution is wanting unless he puts his hand on the scales. Riddles fatigue him. Not untying them or powerless to do this, he settles for cutting the knot ("Home," "Divinity"). Mockers vex him with their questions, implicative too, but Herbert, abject or proud, answers with an ipse dixit ("The Quip"). Declarative statement can't keep going for long, though, and most of the poems are short. There are exceptions, like "The Church Militant," one of his rare failures. A longish poem, running to 279 lines, it wants to be discursive, but a-rational Herbert can't carry this off.

In the extreme case his asseverating poetry goes to imposed form, an overlay like bills slapped on a hoarding. Herbert's typographical poems, "The Altar" and "Easter Wings," illustrate this imposition. Dryden, Hobbes too, sneered at Herbert's figure poetry. They said it lived in "acrostic land" where the poet tortured words or obstructed his way, seeking glory from difficulties of his own making. That misses the point, though, and it isn't glory but structure this poet is after--a way to give shape to the void.

Innocence of organic form characterizes much older poetry in English, and braving shot and shell I would point to Spenser, desperate for guidons, often factitious. Herbert, different from Spenser and the "superstitious" minor poets who precede him, isn't innocent but profoundly skeptical. Intellect not divulging the shape beneath the skin, he wills its presence, applying this from outside. His syntactic strategies, boiling down to repetition, conjure the reader, taking hold of him by the lapels. This Herbert is an Ancient Mariner. Words and phrases, mesmeric on his tongue, make a litany, unifying the poem. Or rather they confer the favor of unity, "favor" meaning the face of things. Radical examples are "Heaven," an echo poem; "The Call"; "A Wreath"; "Clasping of Hands"; and "Coloss. 3.3," where the motto, italicized, is seen to bend obliquely across the poem. Often rhymes are double or medial, or the same rhyme keeps cropping up, giving the effect of a sestina ("Aaron")--most magical, i.e. least rational, of verse forms. Or the poet plays with words on their sonantal or superficial side. In Herbert's "Paradise," for instance:

I bless Thee, Lord, because I GROW

Among the trees, which in a ROW

To Thee both fruit and order OW.

And so on for five stanzas. Observe his perversity or crookedness, however: the common term in this word game isn't growing but diminishing.

Finding reality intransigent, poets in Herbert's time and a little before manipulated ciphers, making poems shaped like lozenges, spheres, spires, and rhomboids. The art that goes into this is cunning but not thoughtful, and most likely defensive, a way of screwing things down. Here Herbert shows his difference. Reflecting the time, he isn't of it, and his declarative poetry, even the figure verse, precluding answers, is sufficiently lively. But that is understatement. At its highest pitch the poetry involves us in doubt, posing further questions the intellect can't cope with.

Coleridge, a sympathetic reader of Herbert's, is useful on this point, a hard one. In a famous passage he says that the poet, employing the synthesizing and magical power of imagination, achieves "the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities." Herbert doesn't achieve this balance, perhaps lacking the magic. His opposites confront each other, bristling with energy. Audible enough, his discords don't effect a reconciliation--only an amalgam, still dissonant. But Herbert's failure at resolution, if that is what it is, is also creative. Disabled and knowing this, he lands us up in the dark, illumined only fitfully. Half lights, it turns out, are best to see by, though, and ambiguity is his poetry's saving grace.

Mirror of our equivocal condition, ambiguity doesn't mean confusion but a more nearly comprehensive mode of coming to terms with experience. All poetry that works is clear--at least as well written as prose, Pound said it ought to be--but the clarity isn't limpid, like a shallow stream. In major poetry a myriad of things reticulates to things, making a composed scene, sufficiently ordered. The composition is always aggrandizing, though, as "hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise." This constant opening out, darkening perception warrants its integrity.

In a musical age Herbert, more than most, was master of music, and his poems are like music--polyphonic, however, old-fashioned. Different voices make a medley, but everything is foreground and all the voices get honored, not just the "cantus." Walton, praising "Affliction I," reads this poem as "a pious reflection of God's providence," and so it is. But "Affliction," poem and category, offers something more ample, not monophonic. This musician laments, harshly, his life-denying commitment:

Consuming agues dwell in every vein,

And tune my breath to groans.

Sorrow was all my soul.

Sorrow, reprehended, has another face, however. Denying itself, pain, a cacophony, works out to music. This isn't a happy ending exactly, and the negative and positive coexist all the way through.

Herbert is among lyricists our great ambivalent poet: at any time more than one value occupies or besets him. His soul, equivocal, loves the Lord--that is the melody or cantus--"yet it loves delay" ("Justice I"). Sins shrivel the heart but fecundate too ("The Flower"). Eros, reproved by this priest, is vindicated by him, in "Church-Music," for example, where "heaven's door" opens on the house of spirit, also, confounding us, on the "house of pleasure." Salvation is the end, but flesh in its stubbornness, not caring to rise at Judgment, reads a lesson to the grave, "possession." The possession is everlasting, anyway in hope, the body liking well enough its imperfect garment ("Doomsday"). Invoking the Lord, flesh prays for salvation. The verse invokes Him too, saying ever "Come." But this imperative, a false rhyme, jars on the ear, making a "broken consort," itself a contradiction in terms.

Come, dearest Lord, pass not this holy season,

My flesh and bones and joints do pray;

And even my verse, when by the rhyme and


The word is Stay, says ever, Come.


This is inconsequent Herbert to the life, affirming against both rhyme and reason.

Rhyme, giving the effect of cinching, comes in handy to poets at a loss to end their poems. Not inept but open-ended, Herbert often skews his rhymes. Unlike Marvell, a great minor poet with an uncertain ear, he does this deliberately and is best served by being read aloud. In "The Collar," for instance, where the stance is all bravado for thirty lines or so. Then this truculent poet, wanting to bring the poem to an ending, caves in:

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

At every word,

Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:

And I replied, My Lord.

The last rhyming pair is imperfect, however, perhaps like the submission. So this poem is elliptical and, "word" and "Lord" not quite squaring, sound qualifies sense.

In Herbert's lower-case world, rugged particulars clamor for attention, and general statements get qualified out of existence. Honoring his particulars, Herbert, and Shakespeare too, deepens understanding, so leaves us on the horns of our dilemma. Where we want the gist or point or want to enforce it, each asks us to pay attention to gratuities that are logically off the point. In Shakespeare's sonnet 73, this poet is old or says so but offers more than simple statement:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the


Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds


Already in his first quatrain he puts us in possession of more facts than we require. The age of the yellow leaves is asserted by their color: must they also be "none" or "few"? Would it matter to reverse the order: "few, or none"? Why not omit this sidelong glance altogether? Does the appositive phrase that ends the quatrain move things along or impede or complicate forward progress? This plenitude or possibly surfeit of detail inclines us to ask what Shakespeare is up to. I don't know that we ever get an adequate answer.

Herbert looks at this problem in "The Windows," where the glass in the church windows figures the medium of discourse. God anneals the brittle glass--that is, He heats it, and then cools it slowly, reducing its brittleness. His windows, not "grisaille" but pestered with imagery, filter the message through a carnal envelope. This means a loss of transparency, and the light--pure naked thinking--comes across as refracted. Oddly that doesn't perturb Him. Unfiltered light, Herbert thinks, lacking texture, confers a specious clarity, "watrish, bleak, and thin."

To render clarity--i.e. truth in its complicatedness--Herbert wills us to suppose a somber moiety of shade. So his way to truth isn't purification but akin to corruption, remembering small beer or declining to lower-case things. His poems make a tangled skein, composition undoing itself, or else an emulsion where nothing precipitates out. ("Nothing" means nothing definitive, as when we look round for the moral.) The second of the "Employment" poems shows him swapping back and forth:

Man is no star, but a quick coal

Of mortal fire:

Who blows it not, nor doth control

A faint desire,

Lets his own ashes choke his soul.

Here we are asked to damp our passions, controlling faint desire, also and at the same time to stoke them, controlling our desire to faint. Failing to blow the quick coal of our being, we turn to ashes, not carnal any more, but dead. An unexpected observation coming from a preacher, it denotes this comprehensive poet, scandalously catholic if you read him all the way down.

Lively with carnal life, Herbert's poems give hostages to the world and flesh Occulted sexual energy flickers on their perimeter or exists there interstitially, enlivening the space between the lines. Always "between" them: Herbert isn't Yeats, a wild wicked old man whose body wants a hearing and isn't backward in demanding this, and his sexuality, abundantly present, is never polemical. Preferring Agape to Eros, the priest diminishes the man. This comes through "tropically," however:

My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife

Was of more use than I.

-"Affliction I"

Ophelia and Hamlet give the occulted sense:

You are keen, my lord, you are keen.

It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.

The edge, not dulled or lost, makes metaphor for Herbert, a way to discern him. Of course the discerning is only piecemeal, and what we apprehend is as through a glass darkly. Provincial, not categorical, his figures modify what he tells us. So recension or paraphrase is no good for him, and his "sentence" can't be filleted out.

Is he a hedonist, leading us surreptitiously up the garden path? Sometimes his poems incline you to think so. This poet's soul, personified, stirs with erotic longing. God, the object of its ardor, comes like a female lover "in the midst of youth and night" ("The Glance"). Hardly inevitable, the adverbial phrase, evoking visions of crimson joy, seems important. Sometimes the lover, male and disingenuous, argues the ingenuous poet "into hopes":

Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy


-"Affliction I"

His stars in their spheres are whores in a brothel, the elements too, inspected by "the subtle chemic," a prospective customer, sexually on the qui vive ("Vanity I"). You have to look twice to see this, "catching the sense at two removes." Looking for this second sense in Herbert's poetry is not supersubtle but demanded by his art, not devious, didactic either, only an imitation of life.

Absolute Herbert, "The Flower" derives its vitality partly from the occulted or residual thing. Acceptance is the poem's burden, anyway on one side, as it builds or "glides" to its conclusion. Some, like this poet in one of his guises, not accepting are reproved:

Who would be more,

Swelling through store,

Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

The swelling is puffing up, befitting the prideful man, also tumescence; and "pride," residually, is lust, this man being in heat or in rut. Shakespeare's supposed lovers in Othello, "salt as wolves in pride," gloss this meaning. But his sonnet 151, where soul sanctions the body's lust, comes closer to Herbert and his "multiplex intelligentia," being all at once comic, sober, lubricious, and moral:

flesh stays no farther reason,

But rising at thy name doth point out thee

As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,

He is contented thy poor drudge to be,

To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

Energizing The Temple, erotic content, pervasive, is only there ipso facto. Herbert isn't nudging us but means to apprise us. His stuff is flesh, not brass. Recurring like leitmotifs, his "sweet strains" or "relishes" speak to each other, also to the burden or cantus. This creates an altercation for important stakes. The altercation is covert, dubious or doubtful too. Winners are losers and the other way round.

Notably tactful, Herbert differs from Donne, who has his epater-le-bourgeois side. For example Holy Sonnets XIV, where God is a rapist, man a deflowered virgin:

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Sometimes, reading Donne, you wish he would tone it down. Reading Herbert, many readers, unsurprised and unarrested, genuflect and keep going. That is, they close the book. However, his poems make a large portmanteau, and not to estimate this is privation.

Fortifying general statement, a little practical criticism seems in order. I choose for my exemplum Herbert's "Virtue." An anthology piece and short enough to get by heart, this poem will be familiar to any reader who knows Herbert at all.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The bridal of the earth and sky:

The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;

For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue, angry and brave,

Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:

Thy root is ever in its grave,

And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

A box where sweets compacted lie;

My music shows ye have your closes,

And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,

Like seasoned timber, never gives;

But though the whole world turns to coal,

Then chiefly lives.

"Virtue" reads like a homily, progressing in obvious ways to its point. Sic transit gloria mundi, etc., and this poet puts his trust in the world over yonder. That is a first reading and always tenable, however many times you go back to the poem. But other readings, opposed or complementary, ask for a hearing. If you miss them, you empty the portmanteau. Eighteenth-century readers do this, chopping and changing Herbert's poems to fit the common meter of evangelical hymns. John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism, are conspicuous offenders, and the two of them, revising "Virtue," opt for a monophonic Herbert. They suppose that language is only the dress of thought.

Syntactic order in "Virtue" is patented Herbert, repetition with variation to enforce the idea. Here the scheme is anaphora, a like arrangement in three stanzas, intermitted in the fourth. The formal likeness asserts essential sameness, a dismal community, thrall to death, and the departure from it augurs our hope. Four terms are deployed--day, rose, spring, and soul. The first three are ephemeral, the poet reserving his enthusiasm for the last. Incremental and minatory, the refrain builds in power until the conclusion oversets it: "For thou. And thou. And all." As stanza four opens, the oversetting is signalled by a reversed foot: "On-ly." Mostly, though, this meter-making argument, chary of departures, goes its even way. Not-so-subtle rhythms describe the poem prosodically. Diction, pedestrian, offers few surprises. This predicts the homily, substantially there but not the whole story. (There are no tricks in Herbert, and one mustn't call this a false clue.)

For countercurrents wrinkle the poem's placid surface. Soon to go down to night, the day, refreshing, equable, and shining, seems affectively good. Syntax, compelling, requires us to look twice at the modifying words. Against the day and not so good is the conflagration of the Last Day, the business of stanza four, when the world turns to clinker. Sound infiltrates sense. End rhymes in the last stanza strike the ear as closed or clenched. In the first three stanzas, long vowels compose the rhyme words, telling of duration. Death is uppermost in line 11, but feminine endings, a pair of them in this third stanza, contend against it, and "shows" and "closes" slow the line like a musical retard. (Reading, we don't say this to ourselves but we "hear" it.)

Where the Creator in Genesis I separates earth and sky, the day yokes them together. But first of all this bridle is a bridal or marriage, more poignant for being so brief. Standing in for the rest of us, the dew, personified, bewails the "fall" or setting sun. But "fall" must evoke sinning too, as in the Fall of Man, also slackening, as when things "give" or yield. Music is part of this congeries of meaning. A musical note being lowered, we hear a dying cadence or dying fall (like Orsino's in Twelfth Night, 1.1.4). All these meanings speak of loss.

The sweet rose of stanza two, humanized like the day, is ireful but splendid, and vaunting in the face of death--"braving" him when he takes us hence. Blood, disputing our mortality, mantles the cheeks or petals. The poet participates in this protest, and his image of the rose, fragile and sensuous, makes a balancing point for the poem. An inductive logician (this is the posture), he moves from particulars to his general statement. But see how he entoils himself, incidentally his readers. Menacing general statement, he puts his vivid particular in the middle of things. In his ordering of words and images, it isn't a grammatical ending, and as paraphrase governs it isn't the instrumental ending toward which he is leading us, up, up to the skies. The poem falls away on either side, however. What is it we remember when the whole world turns to coal?

Reason for weeping, root and grave make a nexus, life in fee to death. Cognizant of this, the anguished beholder recalls the dew of stanza one. Looking on beauty, he is like Actaeon looking on Diana naked, or like Keats's venturesome poet in his Ode to Melancholy who sees how the veiled goddess has her shrine "in the very temple of delight." Passing sentence on himself, this beholder is "rash." Only the qualitied man sees so far, however. Like the thing he contemplates, of great price, he gets our attention.

In Herbert's triad of doomed things, the rose attracts us most but the order of terms is ascending. Day, the shortest term, begets the flower, longer lived, and the spring, living longest, makes room for both. "Full" is the word for spring, like brimming water, an unfailing source, spring or fountain. This is attractive. But spring is also a "box," simultaneously a perfume box, the "sweet coffers" made of alabaster or precious metal where Herbert's people kept rose perfume; a music box, whence this poet's music sounds; a coffin where sweets lie in death. Other poems enforce and enrich these meanings--The Temple, not a miscellany, being an integer or coherence. "This verse marks that, and both do make a motion/Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie" ("The H. Scriptures II"). In "Sighs and Groans" Herbert's God, judgmental, puts His hand in "the bitter box," packed with corrosives. Dusted with perfume, swaddling clothes are laid away in a box. But this "chest of sweets" smells of mortality, and the clouts are "Little winding sheets" or grave cloths ("Mortification"). In sleep, an ebony box (this wood supposed to drain poison from liquids), God encloses us to our amending ("Evensong"). Our alluring flesh is a box, stuffed by God with delights and made in His image and likeness. "All Thy sweets," says Herbert, perhaps admonishing the Creator, "are packed up" in this box ("Ungratefulness").

"Virtue's" "compacted" is better, the great word that says the poem, sweets not huddled up at random but ordered or composed, also thick or solid, compendious too, much riches in a little room. Herbert enlists "My music," his poem or his poetry, in their context. Likened to sweet things, this music isn't like the virtuous soul. Perhaps it has no "virtue"? Dying, it makes a harmony, though.

Herbert's linguistic gamut declares this. His "closes" are endings but cadences too, a union or junction, a composition between parties, as when I close with you or agree. Like the conclusion or "fall" of a musical phrase, this closing is felicitous, "sweetest last" (we remember Shakespeare's Richard II, 2.1.12-13). So music dies, sweets also, and the root is in its grave. This figure, quickening in context, says different things--among others that dying verifies living, expensive and worth the cost.

A teaching poet, Herbert isn't done with us yet. Erotic intimation suffuses his poem, comprehensive like the life it betokens. Readers of "Virtue," not prudish--only seeing what their conditioning lets them look for--will likely gird at this. Cultural conditioning has sponsored a wheyfaced Herbert, and only Shakespeare's most recent editors are alive to his range of meanings. The Oxford Dictionary, outsize version, useful for reading Shakespeare, illuminates Herbert too.

In its range of meanings, his "fall" includes detumescence, and "die," three times repeated, has its sexual sense, endlessly available to seventeenth-century readers. Herbert's sweets, "compacted," engage in plots and cherish secrets. Hid from the light, they "lie" together, suggesting sexual play: "Lie with her! Lie on her!" That is fulsome, Othello thinks (4.1.35), Herbert begging to differ. His coffer of sweets, a box, is also a pudend: "also," not "is," no one meaning in his thesaurus suppressing the others. "To the wars, my boy," Shakespeare's comic villain tells a homekeeping hero. "He wears his honor in a box unseen/That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,/Spending his manly marrow in her arms" (All's Well That Ends Well, 2.3.295-8). "Virtue's" rose, a flower and palpably itself, suggests pudent too, root suggesting penis. He who finds Rosalind, "sweetest rose" or pudend, "Must find love's prick," says Shakespeare's Clown in As You Like It (3.2.117-18). Merging root and penis, a "herb woman" in his Pericles is the madam of the whorehouse, setting seeds and roots of shame (4.6.89-93). Shakespeare's chaste heroine knows them for shameful, and Herbert's virtuous soul takes color and substance from the carnal things it might be like and isn't.

Sweet like these things, the soul is unlike them as modification changes. Two descriptive terms are put before us now, and their conjunction is decisive. The poet salutes this but moves his chair to a distance. Up front and humanized, day, rose, and spring are in the eye of the beholder, where the soul, not apostrophized, not humanized either, is seen from afar. A figure says how this soul is matured, dried, hardened, even (OED 1638) embalmed. But the figure has its auspicious side, evoking the rood tree, emblem of salvation. So the to and fro continues, not irresolute, only inclusive.

Like timber the virtuous soul never gives: bends or yields or shrinks (OED 1627, activating the "fall" of line 3). But "gives" has another sense, and readers who read the poem as a homily, no more, will ignore it. (The ear ought to cue us here, "gives" rhyming with "lives.") "Gives" in this other sense is "tenders" or "bequeaths," as when flowers and perfumes, giving freely of themselves, "subdue" the smell of sin" ("The Banquet"). Jealous of itself, not magnanimous, the virtuous soul doesn't do this.

Green timber warps; seasoned, it becomes supple. So after all it bends or "gives." Not the seasoned soul, however. This soul alone, though dry and quick to kindle, survives the flames of Judgment when "the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also, and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (Second General Epistle of Peter, verse 10). But how can it do this, as the poet is faithful to his analogy? The conjunction "sweet and virtuous" provides us with the answer. The conjunction is vital, also concessive. God, Who might choose to withhold His sweet savor, chooses instead to impart it. (He does this in "The Banquet," "The Odour," "Ungratefulness," "Sighs and Groans.") Behind the scenes or on top of the heavens, He intervenes in "Virtue," and His intervention makes the difference. The soul survives or wins because it is "virtuous," good no doubt and sexually chaste, but also and crucially as it possesses miraculous power, what we can't bid for, something conferred. This victory, in last things, is no thanks to the soul.

Innate or endemic in us, virtue on its technical side comes up often in Herbert--e.g. in "Providence": "Who hath the virtue to express the rare/And curious virtues both of herbs and stones?" Their virtue is like that unction Laertes daubs on his sword. Only let the sword's point scratch a man's skin, and

no cataplasm [poultice] so rare,

Collected from all simples that have virtue

Under the moon, can save the thing from death.

--Hamlet, 4.7.144-6

But life, not death, is in the cards here, and Herbert's "virtue" is a life-dealing tincture, quintessential like the philosopher's stone ("The Elixir"): "A secret virtue bringing peace and mirth." There was a good man in Salem who lived "sweetly" but foes dogged him to death. Possessing this virtue, he would have escaped them ("Peace"). Sweet and good he was; not "virtuous," though.

So the soul, neither calm nor angry and not quick but inert, lives "chiefly" or most of all when ephemeral things, lacking "virtue," are gone. The "whole world" (heard as spondaic: something to pause on) turns to coal at the end. This burning coal is charcoal, living matter "compacted," and the living is in the burning, unseasoned and sweet.

Yeats, absorbing Herbert's poem in a little poem on the illness of Lady Gregory in 1909, catches its residual feeling:

Why should I be dismayed

Though flame had burned the whole

World, as it were a coal,

Now I have seen it weighed

Against a soul?

--"A Friend's Illness"

Yeat's soul, a substantial presence like Herbert's day, rose, and spring, isn't wraithlike but incarnate. We won't see its like again.

Against the mutable particular is everything the priest, his eye on heaven, calls important. But in this scale of sickness, which says how quick bright things come to confusion, the immoment thing, dying, asserts its enormous claim. Ross Lee Finney, the composer, hearing me read Herbert's "Virtue," hears the sequence: "Sweet. sweet. sweet. Only a sweet." This is one response to the poem.

Does it mean that the warmth of everyday, so taking, persuades us more than the world over yonder? Perhaps Herbert after all is out to fool us? Some great poets are ambiguous in the pejorative sense, turbid in spite of themselves. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," surely great poetry, is contaminated involuntarily by egotism and want of assurance. This poet protests too much. Some poets put us off in meditated ways--Donne, for instance, in his "Canonization." Sexual love is puerile: that is our expectation, deliberately contrived. As the poem moves, however, expectation is baffled. Donne, enforcing his single design, seeks our overthrow with great cunning.

Only a few poets can assimilate, while controlling, different points of view, even antithetical, in a single poem. Keats is one, and his "Grecian Urn," profoundly ambiguous, embodies this unlikely coexistence. Life is short, art long, and who doesn't know it? Marble "brede," not "breed" but sculpture, the folk on the urn are superior to flesh and blood: "all breathing human passion far above." But this radiant positive, meaning to encompass truth, suggests its own gainsaying, and Keats's doomed men and women, all breathing human passion, are far above the frozen figures on the urn.

Unambiguous Herbert, type of the Protestant saint, despises "honor, riches, or fair eyes." "Dust," he calls them, but that is caricature, offensive to this stickler for nice discriminations. Coming closer, he sees the dust for "dear earth":

Full of glory and gay weeds,

Brave language, braver deeds.


The perception is burdensome and most of us slough the burden, turning apostate or sinking the man in the priest. More comprehensive than most, Herbert entertains his antithetical truths. He isn't equable about this, sometimes kicking up a storm. But he carries his baggage with him to eternity....

Source Citation: Fraser, Russell, "George Herbert's Poetry," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCV, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 560-85.