Selected Poem - 'Constancie'

Here is a poem to start the New Year, particularly if you use this time and the subsequent build-up to Lent to reflect upon your life and the values you hold dear. Also, it seems that the virtues which George Herbert espouses – constancy, honesty, goodness – are needed more than ever by those in public life.


Even back in 1979, US President Jimmy Carter said in his famous ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, “The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.” Much closer to Herbert’s time, in fact just fifty years afterwards, John Bunyan’s character Mr. Valiant-for-Truth echoed similar thoughts:

"Who would true valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.”

Constancy – the poem’s title - is the quality of being resolute, steadfast, unwavering in a chosen path or commitment, despite the trials and tribulations of life that might threaten to undermine it.

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.

In Herbert’s mind it must have been closely intertwined with honesty, as the question 'Who is the honest man?' in the first line is answered very clearly and with numerous examples in the seven verses which follow. The honest man pursues good, faces great trials calmly, abhors deceit and is not deflected from his purpose by the ways of the world or by flattery.

Most tellingly (verse 5), the honest man maintains his constancy even when unseen – in the dark, or perhaps out of public view: 'His goodnesse sets not, but in dark can runne.'

So here is George Herbert’s ‘Constancie’:


Who is the honest man?
He that doth still and strongly good pursue,
To God, his neighbour, and himself most true:
Whom neither force nor fawning can
Unpinne, or wrench from giving all their due.

Whose honestie is not
So loose or easie, that a ruffling winde
Can blow away, or glittering look it blinde:
Who rides his sure and even trot,
While the world now rides by, now lags behinde.

Who, when great trials come,
Nor seeks, nor shunnes them, but doth calmly stay,
Till he the thing and the example weigh:
All being brought into a summe,
What place or person calls for, he doth pay.

Whom none can work or wooe
To use in any thing a trick or sleight;
For above all things he abhorres deceit:
His words and works and fashion too
All of a piece, and all are clear and straight.

Who never melts or thaws?
At close tentations: when the day is done,
His goodnesse sets not, but in dark can runne:
The sunne to others writeth laws,
And is their vertue; Vertue is his Sunne.

Who, when he is to treat
With sick folks, women, those whom passions sway,
Allows for that, and keeps his constant way:
Whom others faults do not defeat;
But though men fail him, yet his path doth play.

Whom nothing can procure,
When the wide world runnes bias, from his will
To writhe his limbes, and share, not mend the ill.
This is the Mark-man, safe and sure,
Who still is right, and prayes to be so still.

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