Virtue

October 25, 2006 at 10:00 pm Leave a comment

George Herbert

Listen (to Dan Chiasson read)

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!
The bridal of the earth and sky—
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
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 season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Chiasson’s commentary,

The second Gulf War was a spring war, coinciding nearly perfectly with the solstice, and the poem that has been running through my head is a spring poem. The 17th-century English poet George Herbert’s “Virtue” isn’t a “war” poem in any meaningful sense of the term, but it is a poem that offers the only kind of consolation possible in bleak times—hesitant, qualified, quiet.

Just as spring has been parodied by this war, so has dawn. Watching the dawn spread over Baghdad every night, during American prime time, was one of the most unsettling moral events of this war: the tremendous tenderness and privacy of dawn—of strangers’ dawn—televised around the world; dawn light revealing bombed-out apartments and overturned buses.

This is not a poem about war, but it has been conjured before in relation to the trauma of war. In Ford Madox Ford’s novel of the First World War Parade’s End, the hero, Tietjens, sees the sun rise on the carnage of the trenches. At that moment, the first line of Herbert’s poem comes rushing into his mind. As Peter Sacks showed in a brilliant essay on the poem, these syllables stand for the lost pastoral English ideal, the lost English countryside now scored by trenches. With its suggestion of both methodical breathing and a beating heart, the monosyllabic first line also returns Ford’s soldier to his own body—the only safe dwelling place in this suddenly frenetic world. But how safe is the body? Even as the poem calms the soldier, it speeds forward to the stark refrain: “thou must die.”

“How willingly with proper words the soldier dies/ Or lives on the bread of faithful speech,” Wallace Stevens wrote. I wonder, What did soldiers in this war say to steady or console themselves?

This again from slate.com, ‘Six writers and editors on poems of war’.

* in its original form, from bartleby.com’s section on metaphysical lyrics and poems.

VERTUE.

SWEET day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie :
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night ;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie 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 dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives ;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

– Herbert J.C. Grierson, ed. (1886–1960). Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th C. 1921.

Entry filed under: Black Mamba, English, George Herbert. Tags: .

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