Selected Poem - 'Vertue'

This poem addresses a theme which was popular in Herbert’s time – the transience of earthly pleasures – but Herbert draws a different conclusion than, for example, his contemporary poet-priest Robert Herrick (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”). Instead, Herbert accepts that in this world good things will not last, and concludes that the only enduring satisfaction comes from moral righteousness. From elegiac beginnings, the poem ends on a strong note of affirmation.

'Vertue''

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 season’d timber, never gives;
But, though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Commentary

At first sight, the language of the poem seems simple, reinforced by the use of short everyday words and repetition – “sweet”, “die”. But, as ever, Herbert is writing on more than one level. The first three verses appeal to the senses – the brightness and coolness of the day, the scent and colour of the rose, the music with which the poet celebrates spring. Both of the first two verses evoke tearfulness. In the final verse the images are of wood and coal and there is no sensual overtone. The tone is robust, almost triumphant.

Yet this is not a complete reversal of the message of the earlier stanzas. Days and springs return, roses blossom again. In this sense there is an echo of Ecclesiastes: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose”. Herbert, then, is contrasting not so much mortality and eternity as different forms of survival: endless repetition against progression to a different state.

The imagery in the final verse is at one level technical (this was the age in which man was discovering the nature of the physical world, when the Royal Society was founded). But the references to flammable coal and durable seasoned wood also evoke the flames of the Last Judgement, vividly depicted in the 15th Century mural still to be seen in St Thomas’s Church in Salisbury.

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