Posts filed under ‘George Herbert’

Virtue

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.

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

The Pearl

George Herbert

Listen

I know the ways of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the press, and make it run;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of itself, like a good huswife, spun
In laws and policy; what the stars conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forced by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries, and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and history:
All these stand open, or I have the keys:
Yet I love thee.

I know the ways of Honour, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesy and wit:
In vies of favours whether party gains,
When glory swells the heart, and moldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,
And bear the bundle, wheresoe’er it goes:
How many drams of spirit there must be
To sell my life unto my friends or foes:
Yet I love thee.

I know 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, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.

I know all these, and have them in my hand:
Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes
I fly to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale, and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love;
With all the circumstances that may move:
Yet through these labyrinths, not my grovelling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.

Yet another love poem to God. This one, simpler and less urgent than Donne’s impassioned sonnet, a marvel of quiet fidelity. True faith, like true love, Herbert says, comes not from ignorance or oppression, not from a suspension of the mind or the senses, but rather from a careful weighing of both the scientific and the sensual against the spiritual, representing not a negation, but a carefully struck bargain [1]. And it’s that sense of balance that the poem itself swells with, with its ababccdede rhyme scheme and its carefully measured sound. This is poetry because it embodies the richness that the language is capable of, the full, glorious sound of the educated tongue.

[falstaff]

[1] The reference to ‘The Pearl’ comes from Matthew 13.45:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; who, when he had found one, sold all that he hand and bought it.”

June 4, 2006 at 5:47 pm Leave a comment


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