The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pun as 'A joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings'. Nowadays we tend to greet puns with a groan, but in George Herbert's day they were regarded as being very witty.
On the face of it, this is an uncomplicated sonnet centring entirely a pun that was much in vogue in literary circles in George Herbert's day - when spoken aloud, 'sonne' can be heard as 'son' or 'sun'. He sees this as one of the attractions of the English language and clearly he values what we would now call 'a way with words'. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the cryptic crossword, in which setters make extensive use of clues built around puns, is unique to the English language .
Herbert's use of the adverb 'neatly' in line 5 is very apt. Not only do the two words sound identical but, as he demonstrates, they can also have much the same meaning in both contexts. He knew that solar light and heat were essential for nature to flourish, just as each new generation enabled families to develop and prosper - male heirs were particularly important to the nobility, as Herbert would have been well aware. And of course he has one particular Son in mind.
Herbert then presents a further analogy. Just as the sun arises in the East and sets in the West, so he traces the development of mankind from Adam in the Garden of Eden - civilisation, he submits, progresses westwards. He develops this belief more fully in 'The Church Militant', the long final poem in 'The Temple'. It was this concept (religion travelling westwards, towards the new colonies in the Americas) that almost prevented Nicholas Ferrar from getting 'The Temple' published.
Much of the power of Herbert's analogy derives from the importance to mankind of light - as the prayer says, 'Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord'. Light is good, darkness is evil. And the association of God with light was, and is still well established in the eyes of the church, viz Psalm 27: 'The Lord is my light and my salvation'. J.S Bach's motet "O Jesus Christ, my light and life" (BWV 118) is just one example of musical expression of this belief.
When nowadays we use the expression 'light of my life', we do so very glibly and without reflecting on its significance. We apply it to someone who is very dear and important to us, and of course it is often applied to a son (or a daughter). Underlying this poem is Herbert's conviction that God the Son is the light of everyone's life. In identifying Jesus Christ as the 'Sonne of Man', Herbert seeks to establish that through His humble incarnation He is as important to mankind as the sun itself, and just as glorious.
So the poem, as is frequently the case with George Herbert, is much more complicated than it appears at first. And one final thought. In titling this poem, he had to choose between the conventional spellings of the time of 'sonne' and 'sunne' (as in line 6). One ingenious critic has suggested that he settled on the former because, with the addition of a final 't' (a cross, perhaps?) it becomes 'sonnet'. Clever!
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