Today is the feast day of George Herbert (1593-1633), one of my favorite poets. It is fitting that we remember him at the beginning of Lent, for his poems are imbued with the season’s themes of repentance and renewal. He was a student of what the Book of Common Prayer calls our “unruly wills and affections,” and could be brutally honest about his own need for divine grace.
I have posted reflections on his life and work before. In Heart Work and Heaven Work (2016), I wrote:
The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.
And in “Flie with angels, fall with dust”—Appreciating George Herbert (2019), I celebrated the way he perceived the spiritual richness of the world:
Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance.
This year let us honor “the holy Mr. Herbert” (as his parishioners called him) by examining a single poem. Perhaps we will make this an annual tradition on February 27. For today, the poem is “Virtue.”
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
The poem has been called “one of the purest lyrics in the language.” [i] The predominance of one-syllable words exemplifies its “fine poetic thrift.” [ii] The sixteen short lines, divided into four quatrains, overflow—almost miraculously—with diverse images, references and meanings. For example, “The bridal [wedding] of the earth and sky“ invokes the Easter Vigil’s Exultet: How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined. “Thy root is ever in its grave” describes the paradox of mortal life with stunning brevity: even at our liveliest, we are dying creatures. Or as we say on Ash Wednesday: Remember that you are dust.
The poem’s opening line establishes rhythmic beat of successive iambs (short-long): “Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright.” This pattern is more or less followed in the first three lines of the first three quatrains, but each fourth line slams on the brakes with its sober message of mortality, delivered in a series of strong beats like the striking of a drum or the tolling of a bell: For thou must die … And thou must die … And all must die.
Although an apocalyptic wisdom throughout the poem reminds us that days end, flowers wither, seasons pass and worlds burn (“turn to [char]coal”), the first three quatrains seem more celebratory than melancholy. The word “sweet” occurs six times. The inevitable terminations of temporal existence need not diminish whatever pleasures and joys we experience in the moment. However, as the poem’s conclusion insists, the “soul”—our innermost self or enduring identity—can partake of something deeper and more lasting, an essential and enduring stability at its core.
The governing images of the final quatrain, “season’d timber” and “turned to coal,” each call up a constellation of meanings. Timber suggests both the cedars of Lebanon and the cross. And the seasoning of wood represents the testing of the soul, which, by God’s grace, “never gives”—never gives in, never gives up. As Herbert scholar John Drury explains, “Timber is seasoned by being left to dehydrate out of doors undercover for several years, enduring, like the soul, the extremes of weather and the seasons. After that it is stable and strong.” [iii]
But wood is flammable, and the doomsday image of a world-ending fire takes us to the brink of ancient fears of annihilation. But Herbert deftly steers us instead into a place of hope and promise. Wood tested by fire can become a glowing ember, an image of liveliness. Likewise can the tested soul become “a quick [living] coal / of mortall fire,” as Herbert says in another poem, “Employment (II).” And even should the world’s last embers cool and turn to dust, the soul which belongs to God will “chiefly” live. “Chiefly” means particularly, or mostly, but it may also reference Christ, the Chief of history, in whom all are made alive.
Unlike the last line of the first three quatrains, with their percussive stresses hammering out our doom, the stresses of the very last line, reduced from four to three, seem gentler and, aided by the use of a two-syllable word, more lilting: “Then chief-ly lives.” Try reading just the fourth line of each quatrain in succession, and notice the difference in tone at the last.
As it always is with God, life has the last word.
[i] Arnold Stein, George Herbert’s Lyrics (Johns Hopkins, 1968), cited in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 81. I am indebebted to Professor Wilcox for her richly annotated collection of Herbert’s English poems, each of which also includes summaries of the best Herbert criticism over the years. Since his poetry can be difficult and many of his terms archaic, her book is indispensable.
[ii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014), 59. A must-read if you want to go deeper.
[iii] Ibid., 59.