A Poetry Lesson: George Herbert’s ‘Vertue’

As you may know from reading my other posts, I am an English teacher and absolutely LOVE my job.

One of the things I particularly delight in is helping a class go through a poem to appreciate how beautifully it is constructed. It’s wonderful to see a group of young people starting to recognise how carefully words are chosen and, ultimately, recognise how poetry, like music, has its own rules and rhythms which, in the hands of an expert can make language sing.

I have a real passion for the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, with a particular place in my heart for George Herbert.

They are a gift to teach, the metaphysical poets, because of their wit, complexity and passion. Their poems can be like crossword puzzles and pupils enjoy the challenge of working them out. They can also be very rude: John Donne talks about erections much more often than you would expect.

So why do I love George Herbert so much? Sure, he doesn’t have the vivacity and sexiness of Donne, but every time I teach Herbert I am struck afresh my his humility, his quiet passion and the simplicity of his faith.

I am not at all religious, so it would seem strange that I enjoy a poet whose subject matter is exclusively his relationship with God. Unlike the other metaphysicals, Herbert never uses his poetry to woo sexy ladies

Born in 1593, Herbert was bright enough to go to Cambridge at a very young age and impressed everyone so much he seemed all set for a successful and flourishing career in the King’s court. But he turned his back on all of this and was an ordained deacon by the age of 31. This was not without heartache, he was fiercely ambitious, but the calling of God was stronger than any social and political success.

Herbert became a pastor for the little village of Lower Bemerton, Salisbury. He was beloved by his parish who called him ‘Holy Mr Herbert.’ He spent the last three years of his life there before dying of the tuberculosis from which he had suffered for years. Wikipedia has a good biography of him if you want to find out more.

He is a very clever poet. ‘Vertue’ seems so simple and yet is beautifully controlled with masterful manipulation of rhythm. I use it to explain meter to pupils as Herbert does it so well.

Here is the poem in full…

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Vertue

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
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 basic theme is pretty obvious: Earthy things are transient but your soul will live for ever if you follow God. The language is simple – certainly nothing like as complex as Donne’s poetry. So far so Anglican christian. But let’s look a little closer.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.

Let’s look at this first verse. To begin with, the rhythm is simple and straightforward: it is written in iambic tetrameter with the last line changing to iambic dimeter.

It’s at this point my pupils look at me going, ‘Iambic what now?’

OK so let me explain – skip this if you already know… If a poem is regular then it is made up of a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Here the stress is falling on the second syllable ‘Sweet day‘. The best way to show this to a class is to make them clap along to it. So here they would clap on ‘day’ ‘cool’ ‘calm’ and ‘bright’.

Here is the line with syllables italicised to indicate stress or a beat.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The line is eight syllables altogether and there are four beats. (This is when I  say to my pupils – ‘with me so far?’). So we talk about this line as having four metrical feet each one containing two syllables, one of which is stressed. Here is the line with the feet indicated.

[Sweet day], [so cool], [so calm], [so bright],

So there are four feet in the line. We call that tetrameter. If it was one foot we’d say monometer, two would be dimeter, three would be trimeter. Five feet in a line would be called pentameter.

In these feet the stress falls on the second syllable ‘Sweet day‘. This is called an iamb or iambic foot. The rhythm is dah DUM, dah DUM, dah DUM, dah DUM. Hope that makes sense. It is one of the most common rhythms in English literature and I like to think it’s because it’s the first rhythm all humans know – the rhythm of a heart beat.

So we have established that first line is written in iambic tetrameter. Four iambs in a row. The regularity of these iambs gives the line an ordered, calm feel. The slow pace is reinforced by the use of caesuras (the break in the line indicated by a punctuation mark – here a comma).

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.

What a stunning opening line. It’s the sort of line you say out loud to yourself on crisp Autumn mornings when the air is clear and the sky arches above you. The iambic rhythm continues in the second line with the beautiful image of the unbroken union or ‘bridal’ of the earth and sky.

The third line introduces a note of unease ‘The dew shall weep thy fall tonight’ and the steady forward movement of the iambs now sound rather remorseless and frightening as they pace out the inevitability of ‘thy fall’ concluding in the terrifying ‘For thou must die.’

This is when I ask my pupils – what’s changed? the last line… Can you see? Have a look.

Yes, a foot has dropped off. Instead of being eight syllables long the line is now four syllables long, only two feet. Herbert chops the line in half. When you read it aloud it makes you sound like you’ve missed a step.

This abrupt change is startling and reinforces the speaker’s stern warning not to get too chilled about the earth’s beauty because it isn’t going to last and you’re going to die. Truncating the line adds to the sense of the inevitability of death.

Now look at the second verse.

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.

It makes me think of images like this (I know they are tulips, not roses, but you get the idea!)

img_6031

‘Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,’

The first two lines of this verse are really interesting rhythmically…

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,

‘Sweet rose‘ is iambic. And so is this: ‘whose hue’. But then something happens. You can’t say ‘angry‘ with the stress on the second syllable – it doesn’t work. You have to stress the first half: ‘ANgry’.

??!! The line has been disrupted. Herbert suddenly chucks in a trochee. A foot with two syllables but this time the stress is on the first syllable. So the line goes Iamb, Iamb, Trochee and then back to an Iamb: ‘and brave.’

So if we write the line out with the changed stresses it looks like this..

Sweet rose, whose hueangry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,

WOOAHHH! What’s happened there!?

That smooth dah DUM dah DUM has been altered. So instead we get dah DUM dah DUM DUM dah dah DUM. Followed by DUM dah dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM.

(I hope this makes sense, it is so much easier to explain this in class!)

So the words ‘Angry’ and ‘Bids the’ are trochees with the beat falling on the first half of the syllable pair (or foot).

The question is why? Well, let’s have a look. Here, Herbert describes a rose so vivid and powerful in its colour it has the strength to burst out of the poem at you. The colour pops. Think of a pink, pink rose against a bright blue sky. It grabs your attention.

Herbert descibes the rose as ‘brave’ – it is so powerful it ‘BIDS’ you  – or orders you to look at it and wipe a tear away so moved are you by its power and beauty. That’s a hell of a bold flower. See how that trochee ‘BIDS the’ reinforces the sense of the command, the imperative of the word ‘bid.’

The rose has such a strong presence it can tug at and disrupt the steady iambic rhytm Herbert has established so far. It sounds like the rose is winning. It’s triumphant in its vivid portrayal of life and beauty here on earth. It seems invincible.

But then we have the last half of the verse.

Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sorry, Rose. You’re screwed. See the iambs have come back. The voice reminds us that the beauty of the flower of the rose has its roots in its grave. And we are back to the truncated line form: ‘And thou must die.’ Shiver. Relentless… Those powerful marching iambs allow for no discussion, pleading or debate.

chocolate-truffle-heart-box_2

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,

Having dismissed the beauties of a clear, bright day and a stunning rose, Herbert turns to the joys of spring in his penultimate verse. Spring has a lot going on, and look closely at these first two lines to see how Herbert conveys the joy, energy and vibrancy of this season.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,

I love how Herbert uses the image of a delicious box with sweets ‘compacted’ together, the use of this word conveying the box is stuffed full of wonderful little sweet things. I always get my kids to shout out everything they can think of to associate with spring: ‘lambs!’ ‘Easter!’ ‘Daffodils!’ they would shout out and I would show how those are the sweets Herbert is describing.

Look at the line again – doesn’t it feel like its bursting at the seams a little? As if the energy of spring is pushing at the lines of the poem in the same way the rose did. If you look closely you can see for the first time Herbert deviates from the 8 syllable line structure. The first line of this verse has 9 syllables. Also the iambic rhythm is disrupted again. In fact it’s really difficult to work out what is happening rhythmically.

‘Spring’ is definitely stressed so the line begins with the iamb. But then I can’t make it work saying ‘Full of sweet days and roses.’ the pause generated by the comma after ‘spring’ forces you to stress ‘full’ and then not stressing ‘of’ and ‘sweet’ until the stress falls on ‘days’ and then ‘roses’. Thus:

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

Can you see how this gives a tripping, bursting quality to the line? Spring is exploding all over the place: days and roses firing out at the viewer.The rhythm is rocked – it pirouettes the line into a spin.

A box where sweets compacted lie,

The next line settles the firework show as the elements of spring settle snugly into their box, the dah DUM is in force – here offering solidity and reassurance. But, as we have come to expect, the last two lines offset the joy of the previous two.

My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Herbert refers to his poem ‘my music’ which shows even spring has its ‘closes’ and the final line of this verse is the darkest of all: ‘And all  must die.’ No pirouetting rhythms here.

Also there is another little trick in this verse. The ‘My music’ line has nine syllables but the rhythm is steadily iambic. As we have come to expect from the bummer second half of these verses.

The effect of this is that the last syllable of ‘closes’ in unstressed. It’s called a feminine ending because it doesn’t end on a beat (eyeroll at the sexism found even in poetry criticism).

The effect of this is to untether the end of the line so it floats and adds a pause making the next line all the more deadening. Thus:

My music shows ye have your closes…
And all must die.

Can you see how the last word being ‘Closes’ makes you pause? Unlike ‘must die‘ ending with a big masculine BOOM of a beat, or stress.

After rejecting the ephemeral beauties offered by earth, Herbert ends the poem reminding his reader that the one eternal true beauty is the one found in heaven.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But, though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

The lines are powerfully conveyed. The trochee of ‘Only’ draws our attention to the speaker’s utter certitude that he is correct. Forget pretty days, spring and roses, the true beauty to be found in this world is in having a ‘sweet and virtuous soul.’

The use of the trochees ‘Only’, ‘But’ and ‘Then’ show complete confidence. Note the logical progression of these words. The use of this kind of argument and logic is typical of the metaphysical poet, and brooks no room for debate. The last line is difficult to read without stressing every syllable, making it strong and powerful.

I also like the use of the virtuous soul being like ‘seasoned timber’. The idea of the soul being weathered and rendered solid and immutable by being ‘seasoned’ is a powerful one. Herbert means that when the roses and sweets of spring die or are turned into coal by the conflagration of judgement day, the soul will survive to live in joyous eternity.

I hope you enjoyed reading this! I would love to hear the names of some of your favourite poems.

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13 thoughts on “A Poetry Lesson: George Herbert’s ‘Vertue’

  1. The Lockwood Echo

    *scrapes chair back and nervously stands;
    ‘Hello, I am the editor at The Lockwood Echo and I know nothing about poetry’. There, I’ve said it. I’m not completely ignorant; I studied English at ‘A’ Level. Dropped it. But I loved studying themes and underlying meanings. And seeing it through the eyes of our own experience. (We all have songs that speak to us, not necessarily with the writer’s original meaning). I never really studied poetry and some of it goes over my head so really enjoyed reading this, learning the technical tricks alongside the artistry. I love pattern, rhythm, balance and pace in writing, so thankfully understand enough to ‘get’ the construction. A couple of bloggers I follow here are utterly stunning with their poems and poetic style. Immersive stuff! I’m not very well-read, least of all poetry, but one I really love for its sheer power is Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. Again, I love the patter, the beat of it. Looking forward to the next lesson 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Juliet

    OK, I now officially love you forever – I wish I’d had an english teacher like you, I now have to scuttle off and investigate Holy Mr Herbert – he had me at the description of a sweet rose with an angry hue – the rose/angry thing was so unexpected that I am needing to read more of his poetry (might even clap along in places 🙂 ). I used to really love a couple of NZ poets when I lived back home – Ruth Dallas and Kevin Ireland were my favourites, and I nearly failed all my first year uni as I spent so much time wandering about in a poetic fug rather than apply myself to biology courses (I was so stupid to choose biology – so not where I was meant to be). Hmmm might go and have a re-read of our Ruthie and her Milking before dawn while I’m at it..

    Have a grand weekend missus

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ceri

    Thank you! I love this. I think I must have forgotten all the poetry studies I did in A level English many years ago so such a clear lesson is wonderful. Please do some more when you have time. RS Thomas is a poet who springs to mind whose work I’ve enjoyed.
    I also enjoyed the make up advice. Love the subject mixture of your blog which I’ve just found.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ceri

    I think I saw a comment you had left on another blog which looked interesting and so I looked to see what else you did.
    Am now wracking my mind to think what was the other blog….!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: A Winter/Spring? Sunshine Morning in the Garden – Middle-Aged Warrior

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