Of the half dozen or so poems in ‘The Temple’ in which Herbert refers to his own verse, 'Jordan' (I) is perhaps the best known and most widely studied. But in this little poem he sets out to justify his efforts as a poet.
Quiddity is not a word much used today, and when it is it usually has the meaning of skirting round the point or ducking the issue. It is in this context that Shakespeare uses the word in Henry IV Part 1, as does WS Gilbert in Patience three hundred years later. But its original meaning, derived from Latin, is the core or essence of something, answering the question "What exactly is....?".
It is in this sense that Herbert uses it as his title. In the earlier manuscript of ‘The Temple’ the poem is called simply ‘Poetry’, but Herbert obviously felt that he needed a stronger indication of his intention to distil the essence of his verse. In this he might well have been influenced by Philip Sidney’s essay ‘In Defense of Poesy’, first published in 1595. Perhaps this is Herbert’s own version; a justification of his work as a poet.
‘The Quidditie’ is a list poem, a format always popular with poets over the centuries and still much in use today. But this is a list poem with a difference. Whereas ‘Prayer (I)’, Herbert’s best known verse in this format, is a list of what he believes prayer is, here Herbert takes the opposite approach, and sets out a list of negatives - in other words, what verse is not.
The poem starts by drawing a contrast with the sort of personal qualities and attributes that were much valued by high society at that time. for example courage and honour. Herbert refers pretty directly to the court life with which he was quite familiar, and courtly activities such as falconry and music making. His verse cannot compete with all this, nor does it seek to do so. In passing, notice the nice (and typical Herbertian) pun on the word ‘suit’, which could refer either to fine court clothes or courtly ambition.
The second stanza carries on the list of courtly activities - horsemanship (‘vault’), dancing and masques (‘play’). Herbert’s reference to France and Spain here is a reflection of the way courtiers sought to emulate foreign manners and customs as a sign of their sophistication and worldliness. The possession of a large estate (‘demain’) and the ability to offer lavish entertainment were certain to secure favour at court.
It is interesting to speculate whether, in this second stanza, George Herbert was also seeking to compare himself subtly with his brothers Edward and Henry. Both were more successful in terms of worldly achievement, and both had spent time in France (Edward was an ambassador there). Henry became Master of the King’s Revels. He himself 'never was in France or Spain' and, as he makes clear in his poem 'Jordan (I)', he is no great fan of secular masques and plays. Could Herbert be claiming here that the writing of devotional verse represents the greater achievement?
The third stanza makes a clear reference to the worlds of finance and commerce, exemplified by ventures such as The Virginia Company with which he and his friend Nicholas Ferrar became associated. Here Herbert is making the point that his verse has a value that far exceeds the mere monetary acquisitions of a successful businessman.
In the penultimate line, Herbert finally turns positive and declares that his verse surpasses all these things. not least because it is dedicated to God. The meaning of the last words of the poem ‘most take all’ has long been argued over by academics. The general consensus appears to be that he is referring to Primero, a card game popular in his day in which the winner takes all. So Herbert believes that his devotional verse, in essence, trumps all secular values and scoops the pool.
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