Selected Poem - 'The Quip'

It would be fascinating to know at what stage in his life George Herbert wrote this poem. There can be little doubt that it is autobiographical, and to some extent it represents his response to those who felt that, in becoming a priest, "he did not manage his brave parts to his best advantage and preferment, but lost himself in an humble way" (Oley). Given Herbert's pride in his family, this was a charge that must have stung.

'The Quip'

THe merrie world did on a day
With his train-bands and mates agree
To meet together,where I lay,
And all in sport to geere at me.

First, Beautie crept into a rose,
Which when I pluckt not, Sir, said she,
Tell me, I pray, Whose hands are those?
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then Money came, and chinking still,
What tune is this, poore man? said he:
I heard in Musick you had skill.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came brave Glorie puffing by
In silks that whistled, who but he?
He scarce allow’d me half an eie.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came quick Wit and Conversation,
And he would needs a comfort be,
And, to be short, make an Oration.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Yet when the houre of thy designe
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large; say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

Commentary

It is quite likely that when George Herbert wrote this poem he was well aware of criticism by some of his friends of his decision to be ordained. He may be stretching a point to say that he was 'geered at', and it might not have been 'in sport', but no doubt there was some uncharitable chatter among those who constituted the 'merrie world' he had vowed to leave behiind. So perhaps 'The Quip' is Herbert's witty way of rebutting the criticism and emphasising the strength of his faith and his calling.

For poets, the rose has always represented womanhood and the second stanza reflects temptations of the flesh. Herbert maintained that ideally the priesthood should be celibate (although in 'The Country Parson' he does accept that a wife is needed in a rural parish). Arguably there are some echoes of John Donne's eroticism here: the poet is asked "How can you possibly resist such a tempting offer?" But Herbert aimed his thoughts, and his poetry, at higher things.

Despite his family wealth, George Herbert was always relatively poor and next he seems to mock himself for not being more acquisitive. Although he cleverly uses the metaphor of sound to convey the attraction of money ('chinking') and extends it to music, in which he most certainly did have skill, he was an intelligent and gifted man in many respects and undoubtedly could have been successful in business. Apart from a brief involvement with the Virginia Company in the early 1620s, it was a path he rejected.

 

In the fourth stanza, 'puffing by In silks that whistled' is a sublimely evocative phrase, and sums up perfectly the sight and sound of the self-important and richly dressed noblemen and courtiers of the day with whom Herbert once mixed so freely, and at one stage seemed destined to join ('who but he?'). But, as he points out, his association with this high octane world of power and influence was all too brief ('half an eye') and, either by choice or by force of circumstance, now lay beyond recall.

The final challenge comes from the accomplishments for which Herbert is perhaps most noted, his quick wit and fluency in language and rhetoric, which should have made him ideally suited ('a comfort') to employment as a Secretary of State or as a diplomat. Despite his early success at Cambridge University (he playfully makes reference to his appointment as Orator), it was not to be. It was this failure to make his mark that George Herbert probably felt most keenly.

And what of the refrain 'But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me'? As so often in Herbert's works, this phrase has its roots in scripture, in this case Psalm 38:15. And it makes plain that he does not feel obliged to offer any rebuttal or justification to his tormentors, but is content to put his faith in God to deal with them at the Day of Judgement - 'the houre of thy designe'.

Finally, the poem's title is interesting in itself. On the face of it, the dismissive reproaches (spoken or unspoken) of each of the four challengers would fall neatly into the category of a quip; what we might nowadays call a 'one-liner'. But as usual Herbert is thinking in more depth - not only is his own repeated quip-like response brief and to the point, but the short, sharp ('not at large') riposte he seeks from God in the penultimate line is the quip that caps the lot. Typically Herbertian, for him it is the perfect 'answer home' (back).

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