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:
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’:
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