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“This world is nothing except it tend to another”: Herbert’s “Vertue” (and a parting glance at Nietzsche)

November 30, 2013
Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12: 19-20

With that sweet, charitable, Pauline sentiment, let us begin. And though I shall do my best in what follows to read George Herbert’s “Vertue” as well as I can, candour constrains me to say, at the outset, that I mean a good deal of it to be irreverent, if only for purposes of trial (in fact, I love reading Herbert). Like Al Pacino, I will play the Devil’s advocate, which in this case means the world’s advocate. And I will hold that a certain strain of ressentiment, such as sorts well with the book of Romans, runs through all of Herbert’s ascetic enterprises.

I’ve taught “Vertue” often enough to find about it, now, in the old anthologies I use in classrooms, a palimpsest of notes in pencil and in varying colours of ink. The poem takes its place, of course, in George Herbert’s The Temple, published the year he died, in 1633. Last week I happened to read the poem again, after a lapse of some years, and it struck me anew, or for the first time really, just how world-hating a thing it is—I mean, if we take it unalloyed.

By way of preface to the poem, we do well to recall Herbert’s celebrated letter to his mother, Magdalene Herbert, written while he was a student at Cambridge, and wherein he chastens his avocation as poet, as he would later his vocation as a priest. Herbert was seventeen at the time. Here is Izaak Walton‘s account of the letter, which enclosed a poem for his mother’s delectation:

And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such, that we may conclude, he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue, and a serious study of learning. And that he did so, this following letter and sonnet, which were in the first year of his going to Cambridge sent his dear mother for a new-year’s gift, may appear to be some testimony. ‘But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs, by which scholars say, the muses use to take up their habitations. However I need not their help, to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ, that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning (dear mother) is in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory; and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.’

As given in "The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert" (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652).

As given in “The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert” (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652). Click on the image to enlarge it.

The accompanying poem goes as follows:

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fewel choose
Than that, which one day worms may chance refuse?

The poetry Herbert would write, while parish priest at Bemerton and before getting there, would certainly be “consecrated to virtue,” as Walton indicates. And he would, in “Vertue,” transfigure the metaphors in the poem just quoted—having to do with martyrdom by fire, consumption by fire, burnt offerings, and so on—to speak (quite happily, I think) of a day when “the whole world turn to coal” (that is, to cinders). Two “fewels” are on offer to poet, and to men and women, wherewith they might set themselves aflame: one issues from Venus, the heat of sexual desire, the other issues from God, the purifying fire of devotion, even to the point of martyrdom, whereby poet and penitent alike may joyfully offer themselves as “burnt offerings” on the altar of the Lord. And as the scripture tells us, He loves burnt offerings. Exodus 10: 25: “And Moses said, Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.” What William Empson once called “the miraculous corpse worm” of the Elizabethan imagination, is also brought out here, of course (memento mori, as so often with Herbert). Wear the livery of Venus (a sign of enlistment in service to that pagan Goddess of Love), and you shall burn with a fire such that even a worm may not deign to consume what’s left of you.

On the other, and right, hand sits the Dove (associated with the Holy Spirit, the third person of God). “Imp” your wing on those of the Dove, not of Cupid, and you shall be redeemed, just as Herbert says in “Easter Wings” (where “imp” means graft, but has more particularly to do with falconry, as per the OED: “To engraft feathers in the wing of a bird, so as to make good losses or deficiencies, and thus restore or improve the powers of flight; hence, allusively, with reference to ‘taking higher flights’, enlarging one’s powers, and the like”). Herbert, of course, took the latter way, and was named rector of Bemerton (near Salisbury, Wiltshire) in 1630, the year after his marriage to his cousin Jane Danvers, “a loving and vertuous lady” (Walton), or “a handsome bona roba and ingeniose” (Barnabas Oley), or perhaps all three (voluptuous in physique—a bona roba—virtuous, and ingenious). The couple never bore a child. Walton gives the following account of Herbert’s induction at Bemerton:

When at his induction he was shut into Bemerton Church, being left there alone to toll the bell (as the law requires him), he staid so much longer than an ordinary time before he returned to those friends that staid expecting him at the church door, that his friend Mr. Woodnot looked in at the church-window, and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar: at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnot) he set some rules to himself, for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.

An conspicuously uncommon prostration, the sincerity of which is not in doubt. Herbert was soon fully ordained into the priesthood.

So much by way of introduction to “Vertue,” which has figuratively to do with “bridalls” (weddings, done under the livery, let’s fancifully say, of Venus); the sensual, seductive things of this world as against that other, super-sensual world; and the consummation of all in fire (“coal” means, in this poem, again as per the OED, not fuel for fires yet to begin but “the result or residue of combustion; cinders; ashes; charred remains”). Here is the poem, in its old spelling (for the most part):

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
——————–For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie 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 dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
——————–And all must die.

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

“Sweet” chiefly works here by bringing to mind its negation. OED sense 3.a for “sweet”: “not corrupt, putrid, sour, or stale.” The idea in “Vertue” is that nothing “sweet” possesses any real integrity or property of enduring value; “sweetness” is apparent, not real. All things sweet (to the senses) are best understood as imperfect stays against corruption, or else as corruption incipient: touch them not. We mustn’t—no, not by any means—savour the sweetness of the day, or of the rose, or of the spring—as will soon become clear, rash gazers upon this weblog.

“Bridall” means “wedding” (the event proper, that is): the marriage of “the earth and skie,” on this very day (“so cool, so calm, so bright”). What follows the night after a wedding we know (at least in 17th century literary contexts unaffiliated with Rochester): not merely the consummation of the marriage, but the loss of chastity. “Vertue” puts us in such a frame of mind as to regret this should happen, in fact in such a frame of mind as to “weep” for it, as does the day itself when it (inevitably) “falls” to “dew” (a thing organically, naturally, generated by the “marriage” of earth and sky, as any close observer of the weather knows: Herbert avails himself of a natural fact to make a spiritual one, about which more below). Here, night-fall is given a slightly lapsarian air; what followed on Eden follows here (mortality and sin, and, moreover, sin communicated via sexual consummation, whether under “bridall” auspices or other ones). The poem exists to chasten us out of worldly consummations. It’s attitude toward “bridalls” of all kinds (I venture to say) is deeply ambivalent.

I certainly won’t rule out the possibility, in fact the likelihood, that “die,” in that first mortifying injunction (“For thou must die”), means, in addition to “come to an irrevocable end,” what it often meant in the late 16th and early 17th centuries: sexual climax (another sort of dying fall). A fine example occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak of Benedick (3.ii):

Don Pedro. Indeed that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude, he is in love.
Claudio. Nay, but I know who loves him.
Don Pedro. That would I know too, I warrant one that knows him not.
Claudio. Yes, and his ill conditions, and in despite of all, dies for him.
Don Pedro. She shall be buried with her face upwards.

The double meaning, if it works in line four of “Vertue,” would enforce a point: to wit, that sexuality, death and sin are affiliated, as of course they are, both theologically and scripturally (and elsewhere in The Temple).

I will work this further still, though it lead me to adhere more to the vehicle of the metaphor (a “bridall,” a wedding, and what follows on it by night) than to its tenor (a “sweet day,” and what follows on it by night). I dwell on it all the more the better to understand Herbert’s remarks on marriage in The Priest to the Temple (quoted below, as a kind of postscript). I wish also to consider the widest possible context for Herbert’s metaphor, so that we may rightly catch its implications: namely, that “bridalls,” and what they entail, are to be treated with uncommon wariness, even to the point of mortification (“For thou must die”).

What, then, of “bridalls” in (say) the New Testament of which Herbert was so fine an expositor? “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” says Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:

Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband… But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were [celibate] even as I myself… I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn… But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away. But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction. But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

This appears to be a confused bit of advice. Should one marry or should one not? But it is not at all confused. Marriage exists for those that “cannot contain,” for those who would otherwise “burn,” for those who cannot not “fornicate,” and so on; it is a last resort, which, even if resorted to, we must remain aloof from (“they that have wives be as though they had none“). Even as a final redoubt for the incontinent, Paul treats marriage with his ten foot pole, and enjoins us to do the same: to be married is to “careth for the things that are of the world,” as against for things that belong to the Lord. You cannot care for both; you must choose. And this is, I would say, exactly the burden of “Vertue.” Care not for the things of this world: “bridalls” (of whatever kind), sweet roses, and the sweet spring days that are, and include, both. Care not “that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction,” such distraction as the “rash gazer” mentioned in stanza two of “Vertue” falls prey to.

For the fashion of this world passeth away: here is the scriptural/theological peg on which Herbert hangs his hat. “Fashion,” as Paul is made to use it in King James English, refers more to things made by human hands, and touchable by them, than to this or that style of things made by human hands. And the idea introduced in stanzas one to three of “Vertue” is simple: turn away; consummate nothing; do not look on beautiful things (which issue from the grave to which they’ll return); rejoice not in the world, with its sweet days, sweet roses, and sweet springs. Let the whole world turn to coal.

In Jacula Prudentum, or, Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, Etc., Herbert records—maybe with a certain sly dubiety, given the mischievous character of the Jacula—the following: “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” Its contemporary deployment as a motivational proverb notwithstanding, this outlandish sentence must certainly have been, for Herbert, equivocal. I prefer, if only on a whim, to think he took some satisfaction in its ambiguity, which arises from our not knowing whether to deploy the aphorism in secular or theological contexts. Set adrift in Herbert’s poetry and prose, the saying counters what we now may take it to mean. In Herbert’s day, to “quit” (transitive) often meant: “To free or rid of something undesirable or troublesome.” Or: “To abandon, relinquish, or renounce.” Renouncing worldly desires is, of course, the great desideratum in The Temple. Our happy motivationalists at “” may suppose Herbert encourages us to engage our desires, the better to live fully. But surely this is wrong, or partly wrong, or anyway impertinent. Nor did Herbert look on death as anything to stave off. “Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,” he writes:

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
——————–Into thy face,
——–Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

So, yes: “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” And the sooner the better! The idea is familiar. Andrew Marvell plants it in his garden. After quitting all worldly enterprise—fame, preferment, the “lesser pleasures” of the flesh, and, of course, woman—he writes:

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Life is preparation for death, an end much in request, much sought for as a good. Why? Because, as Herbert indicates in “Vertue,” and as Marvell tells us here, only with the death of the body, and the “annihilation of all that’s made” (Marvell’s phrase), can the soul chiefly live.

But to return to “Vertue.” Next we read this:

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
——————–And thou must die.

“Angry”: “having the colour of an angry face, redrare,” for which sense the OED cites (and no other source): “Vertue.” And yet not only “red,” but red, of course, as with anger. At what? At the fact that the rose, here accorded both sense and sensibility, is no “sweeter” than the day, having, as it does, its root “ever in its grave”? Here, as with “die” taken in its double sense (mortality and sexual consummation), the ideas of birth and death, conception and end, are combined. “Brave”: the word means not merely courageous (which denotation it still bears), but splendid, fine, handsome (senses largely lost since the 17th century). “Rash” meant to Herbert what it now means: impetuous, undue, hasty, thoughtless, reckless. “Gazer” had, at the time, at least in many contexts, a sense slightly damning, as here, in the Book of Common Prayer that Herbert knew and used:

Now, if you wyll in no wise thus doe, consider with your selves, how great iniury you doe vnto God, and howe sore punishment hangeth ouer your heads for the same. And whereas you offend God so sore in refusing this holy banket [i.e., the communion banquet], I admonish, exhort, and beseech you, that vnto this vnkindnesse yee will not adde any more. Which thing yee shall doe if yee stand by as gazers and lookers of them that do communicate, and be no partakers of the same your selves. For what thing can this be accounted else, then a further contempt and unkindenesse unto God?

Or as here, in a poem by Robert Greene, which appeared in his 1590 novel Never Too Late:

Adon was not thought more faire:
Curled locks of amber haire;
Locks, where Love did sit and ‘twine
Nets, to snare the gazers eyne . . .

The idea is that “gazers” are distracted, delinquent, or, in the case of Greene’s lines, diverted (and ensnared) by physical beauty—as is of course the case in “Vertue” with that rose. What are we to conclude? That in looking upon the rose, in its sanguine beauty, we assume, or are infected by, what is here attributed to it—pride of a sinful kind (angry and brave), forgetful that our roots, too, lie in the grave (dust to dust, etc.)—and that we ought therefore mortify ourselves. That the rose “bids” us to gaze upon it means (in effect) that it tempts us to do so (the word once carried more force than it now does: to entreat, or to “beg,” someone to do a thing); and if we do gaze rashly on a rose, we stand (to borrow the phrasing of the Book of Common Prayer) in contempt of God and do Him an unkindness.

Title page of the 1649 edition of Eikonoklastes.

Title page of the 1649 edition of Eikonoklastes.

“Brave/grave”: the rhyme is conjunctive; the former term is affiliated with the latter by more than sound alone. “Rash,” then, to stand aside, by the wayside of virtue, taking in mortal beauty, mortal pleasures, things of this world. The rose in all its colour bids the rash gazer wipe his eye: we weep partly owing to the beauty, partly owing to its being so ephemeral, and partly for shame, I should think, at our own rashness. Surely, here, we find the dyslogistic sense of “gazer,” as we find it also in John Milton‘s Εικονοκλαστης in answer to a book intitl’d Εικων βασιλικη, the portrature of his Sacred Majesty in his solitudes and sufferings (1649), to which the OED directs us. Milton speaks derisively of “the conceited portraiture before his Book set there to catch fools and silly gazers.”

The icon of Charles I in question.

The icon of Charles I in question.

The poet here refers to a portrait of Charles I placed at the head of a collection of the late king’s “meditations,” published after the regicide, and meant, as Milton makes out, to confuse readers (or anyone who looks on it) into sympathy for the tyrant from whom they’d been delivered (and meant also to liken his suffering and execution to the passion and crucifixion of Christ). All the better that Milton associates this with the iconophilic tendencies of what he calls “popery.” The Greek title, by the way, is “Eikonoklastes”: “Iconoclast,” which is what Milton is, here, in rebuking a royalist pamphlet called (in English) “Icon of the King.” Let one thing be clear, though: Herbert was certainly not of Milton’s party—not that he lived long enough to refuse the chance. Herbert was Anglican altogether, and had intimate family ties to the Stuart court. I fetch Milton in for the gazing only to understand the 17th century language of virtue and of “Vertue.”

Enough, then, to sort out the meaning of “gazers” in “Vertue.” It hasn’t to do merely with looking, but with looking idly done; and idle eyes, and idolatry, are the Devil’s workshop. To gaze is to be diverted from the main chance (and into sensuality and the love of icons), and therefore also to be, and to deserve to be, admonished, chastened. To be rash is bad, to gaze is dubious, and rashly to gaze is worse than both.

We next read:

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
——————–And all must die.

Having moved from the day (a “bridall” that must fall and die, come darkness) to a rose that shone beneath it brave and in anger, we turn now to the distillation (in a “box”) of the season that contained, and brought forth, both, and which was, in fact, “full” of them: sweet spring. The reason for “compacting” flowers, and keeping them in a box, is to preserve their fragrances, to take them out of Time (rash sniffer). There is sin in that, the sin of attachment to worldly affairs, sensual affairs, and it as quickly finds its rebuke: “My musick shows ye have your closes.” The “musick” is most immediately that of the lyric poem itself, “Vertue.” But we should bear in mind also that Herbert was devoted to liturgical music, took part in practicing and performing it twice weekly at Bemerton, is believed to have set some of his own poems to music, and was said to have “a very good hand on the lute” (Walton). The point being, the music Herbert made in poetry, on the lute, and in choir, was all of a piece, bent in one direction, and he intimately knew its terms of art. “Closes” is, of course, a term from music: the close of a phrase, a cadence—as in “all must die,” as with the last line of each stanza, a cutting off of the tetrameter motive (in lines 1-3) by half into a dimeter stub. Two instances from the OED:

The Voices alter from an Unison, in Order to make two Closes.
A Cadence or Close, signifies the last two chords of any passage.

“Roses/closes”: the rhyme works (conceptually) as does “brave/grave,” wherein the second term chastens the first by echoing it. Utter the one, and you’ll hear the second. (“Bravery” was an attribute of the “rose” anyway, a part for its whole.) Here is a case where the “music” of the lyric, the rhyming, really does effect what Herbert says it will. It shows the rose its closes, and lays the brave in the grave.

But after all these injunctions to die, what consolation? The usual one, of course.

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

“Sweet” nears another of its senses here: pure. Only the soul never “gives” (yields, deteriorates; or, of timber, shrinks, and therefore fails, from dryness). The body, like the rose, the sweet spring, the sweet day (“bridall of the earth and skie”), always gives in these senses. Do not rest in it. It is unseasoned and unseasonable, where “to season” means: “To bring to maturity, ripen”; or “to fortify (a person) by habit against conditions that might otherwise be deleterious”; or, and here is sounded our note of asceticism, “to discipline.” How may one season his soul, making it sweet and vertuous? Partly by reading such poetry as this, or by reading The Temple as a whole. But mostly by yielding to what The Temple enjoins us all to yield to, rash gazers that we are: the discipline of the church of which The Temple is a kind of bibliographical mirror.

Note that the soul does not, cannot, fully or “chiefly” live, until all things physical, bodily, sensual, have been not merely chastened, but chastened with a vengeance. The soul’s highest vitality somehow depends upon the whole world turning to coal, which is to say, to cinders. We are not told that “though the whole world turn to coal the soul still lives,” which we might well have been (the idea there being simply that the soul survives the body). No, just as we are invited to find agreeable and just the dying fall of the day’s “bridall”; just as we are told how the rose must be admonished (because its rooted origin and its corruption are the same, as with sexuality); just as we are invited to find a satisfying resolution in the “closes” of which stanza three speaks;—just so we are asked, here, to look upon the annihilation of all that’s made as the highest aim (even as, again, in Marvell’s life-denying, world-hating masterpiece, “The Garden”).

Yes, of course: even so short a poem as “Vertue” marshals matter enough to dabble in eschatology. The end of a day, the end of a rose, the end of a season, the end of the world: the first three are types of, and daily, yearly anticipations of, that last and greatest of life-denying consummations. The body must die for the soul to live, yes; but the world must die for it chiefly to live—utterly free from what once imprisoned it, from what once made it take delight in sweet “bridalls” (with their petit morts by night), from what once coupled it with, made of it, a “rash gazer” on angry beauty, and so on.

Now, officer, I’ll step back a bit, away from the car.

The curious thing about reading Herbert, at least for a rash gazer like me, is how oddly the play and the wit; the often endearingly homely diction, and homely conceits (pulleys, collars, and all that); the sense of explanatory intimacy, as if we are being addressed by a familiar friend and counsellor; the rich variety of formal investigations (Herbert has few, if any, rivals in this); the investment in all the pleasures poetry can afford;—as I say, the curiosity, for me, lies in how these features of Herbert’s poetry oddly sort with the ascetic, world-denying ethic, and theology, that the poetry (quite sincerely) advances.

From a 1709 reprint of the 1633 edition of the "Book of Sports."

From a 1709 reprint of the 1633 edition of the “Book of Sports.”

For all I know this is less a paradox than an outcome afforded by the deliberate vagueness of Anglican doctrine—its refusal to lean either too far toward Calvinism on the one hand, and, on the other, its refusal altogether to break from a certain stained-glass Catholic sensibility. That this compromise was untenable in the short-term is obvious enough from developments under the Stuart monarchs, who saw fit to provoke (indeed taunt) reformers on the Puritan side as much as to tolerate them. As when reformist clergy were compelled to read, in their pulpits, from the Book of Sports. With what results we know. America among them (I say only half in jest). But in the long term—well, tenable indeed.

As I say, I would never go so far as to suppose Herbert insincere in such a world-denying poem as “Vertue,” as if he were giving place to doctrines he did not endorse. But there is enough of the rash gazer in him, the man who took satisfaction in music and many another endeavour so pleasing to the senses, as (perhaps) to impart an instability to his particular enterprise as a devotional (and world-denying) poet.

Another way to put this is to say that the (obvious) delight Herbert took in getting up the poems that make The Temple—with all their witty self-reflection, their meta-poetical graces, their inexhaustible resourcefulness—might lead a more cynical reader than me to suggest that the theological matter is as much the occasion for, as the burden of, the poetry. Herbert’s ingenuity is  so manifestly on display in The Temple as to seem, at times, the point of the book. Perhaps only distance and atheism make me say as much. But for my part, if I attend to what the poems say more than to the beguiling manner in which they say it, the book, as whole, has behind it always the ressentiment so wonderfully caught in the text from Romans with which I began: “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” O, what motives! I certainly don’t mean to single Herbert out, here, for the charitable way he goes about his world-hating business. The ressentiment is not his; it is his religion’s.

One more point before I close. Above, I promised a return to that epigram from Jacula Prudentum: “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” I have just registered the many satisfactions Herbert took in music, in poetry, in the play that poetry allowed him, etc. Lest these pleasures seem to “attach” him to the world, and fulfil his desires thereby, be it remembered that the desirable things of the world (a lute, say), and the world itself, as made available to the senses, struck him as they would later strike Ralph Waldo Emerson: as signs of spiritual facts that supervene upon them (neither Herbert nor Emerson ever stood in danger of getting his hands dirty). This view of the world is in keeping with Herbert’s practices as a poet, wherein the homeliest of things (a pulley, a plough, a harness) are not so much practical or real as symbolic. Herbert always sees through them in the poetry, as one expects he did in life. This habit of thought might (for all I know) have allowed him to get round Saint Paul’s strict admonitions as to marriage, too: “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” If I am right in taking Herbert as a Christian symbolist, then the right uses of all things in this world (marriage, too) are the uses of devotion; properly seen, the things of this world are types (as may be marriage: you may engage in it not for what it sensually is but for what it super-sensually represents). Paul has forced on us a choice we needn’t make, at least within the dispensation allowed for by Herbertian Anglicanism and by Transcendentalist styles of thought. Here is Herbert in The Priest to the Temple:

And this is an admirable way of teaching, wherein the catechized will at length find delight, and by which the catechizer, if he once get the skill of it, will draw out of ignorant and silly souls, even the dark and deep points of religion. Socrates did thus in philosophy, who held that the seeds of all truths lay in every body, and accordingly, by questions well ordered, he found philosophy in silly tradesmen. That position will not hold in Christianity, because it contains things above nature: but after that the catechism is once learned, that which nature is towards philosophy, the catechism is towards divinity. To this purpose, some dialogues in Plato were worth the reading, where the singular dexterity of Socrates in this kind may be observed, and imitated. Yet the skill consists but in these three points: first, an aim and mark of the whole discourse, whither to drive the answerer, which the questionist must have in his mind before any question be propounded, upon which and to which the questions are to be chained. Secondly, a most plain and easy framing the question, even containing in virtue the answer also, especially to the more ignorant. Thirdly, when the answerer sticks, an illustrating the thing by something else, which he knows, making what he knows to serve him in that which he knows not: as, when the parson once demanded, after other questions about man’s misery; since man is so miserable, what is to be done? And the answerer could not tell; he asked him again, what he would do if he were in a ditch? This familiar illustration made the answer so plain, that he was even ashamed of his ignorance; for he could not but say, he would haste out of it as fast as he could. Then he proceeded to ask, whether he could get out of the ditch alone, or whether he needed a helper, and who was that helper. This is the skill, and doubtless the Holy Scripture intends thus much, when it condescends to the naming of a plough, a hatchet, a bushel, leaven, boys piping and dancing; shewing that things of ordinary use are not only to serve in the way of drudgery, but to be washed and cleansed, and serve for lights even of heavenly truths.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This doctrine is precisely what drew Emerson to Herbert, whom he praises (and quotes at length) in his first book, Nature (1836). For in no way does Herbert’s practice, as pastor and poet, diverge from the principles laid down in the chapter of Nature devoted to “Language“:

1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

A plough, a hatchet, a bushel, leaven, boys piping and dancing: natural facts, which become, in Herbert’s poetry (and ministry) signs of spiritual facts, to such a degree that the only proper uses of natural facts, and of the natural world of which they are a part, is that all should be, must be, subsumed into super-natural facts: the world of Spirit. Everything else is rash gazing.

But again, lest I seem to commend this habit of thought, and these practices, as anything other than a way to understand the uses of metaphor in Herbert, or typological thinking, or to gloss certain tenets of Emersonian Transcendentalism, or to explain why Emerson would fetch Herbert into NatureI place the parson now in the happy company of the third essay (section 11) of Nietzsche‘s On the Genealogy of Morality (in Walter Kaufmann’s translation). Why? Because the Christian assumption of the world as known to the senses into a world unknowable by them, by whatever means; and the Christian subordination (and mortification) of the former world to (and before) the latter, are certainly things I cannot condone. Turning away from the world, as Saint Paul and Herbert alike would have us ascetically do, involves, and that necessarily, a certain ressentiment—which, I should add, I do not associate with Emersonian Transcendentalism, in large part because Emerson so thoroughly dispensed with Calvin. Anyhow, here is Nietzsche:

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900). Photo from Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900). Photo from Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The ascetic treats life as a wrong path that he has to walk along backwards till he reaches the point where he starts; or, like a mistake which can only be set right by action – ought to be set right: he demands that we should accompany him, and when he can, he imposes his valuation of existence. What does this mean? Such a monstrous method of valuation is not inscribed in the records of human history as an exception and curiosity: it is one of the most wide-spread and long-lived facts there are. Read from a distant planet, the majuscule script of our earthly existence would perhaps seduce the reader to the conclusion that the earth was the ascetic planet par excellence, an outpost of discontented, arrogant and nasty creatures who harboured a deep disgust for themselves, for the world, for all life and hurt themselves as much as possible out of pleasure in hurting: – probably their only pleasure. Let us consider how regularly and universally the ascetic priest makes his appearance in almost any age; he does not belong to any race in particular; he thrives everywhere; he comes from every social class. Not that he breeds and propagates his method of valuation through heredity: the opposite is the case, – a deep instinct forbids him to procreate, broadly speaking. It must be a necessity of the first rank which makes this species continually grow and prosper when it is hostile to life, – life itself must have an interest in preserving such a self-contradictory type. For an ascetic life is a self-contradiction: here an unparalleled ressentiment rules, that of an unfulfilled instinct and power-will that wants to be master, not over something in life, but over life itself and its deepest, strongest, most profound conditions; here, an attempt is made to use power to block the sources of the power; here, the green eye of spite turns on physiological growth itself, in particular the manifestation of this in beauty and joy; while satisfaction is looked for and found in failure, decay, pain, misfortune, ugliness, voluntary deprivation, destruction of selfhood, self-flagellation and self-sacrifice. This is all paradoxical in the extreme: we are faced with a conflict that wills itself to be conflicting, which relishes itself in this affliction and becomes more self-assured and triumphant to the same degree as its own condition, the physiological capacity to live, decreases. ‘Triumph precisely in the final agony’: the ascetic ideal has always fought under this exaggerated motto; in this seductive riddle, this symbol of delight and anguish, it recognized its brightest light, its salvation, its ultimate victory.

Read again the last stanza of “Vertue”:

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

But though the whole world turn to coal: in “Vertue” there is a veritable wish that this should transpire. Out of annihilation, the life of the soul, which “then chiefly lives,” having spent three score worldly years and ten making do on a ventilator in the ICU.

“Do well, and right, and let the world sinke,” says Herbert in A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson. For Herbert the world sunk on 1 March 1633, when he died of consumption. But as we know, he’d long regarded death as “fair and full of grace,” as “much sought for as a good.” The phrases are, again, from his poem “Death,” which also gives us this:

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
———————As at Doomsday;
—-When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Herbert commends death, to persons, and in the doomsday-happy “Vertue,” to the whole world.

I’ve already entertained one aphorism from Jacula Prudentum, with a view toward hearing it (as we now would not) as, perhaps, a recommendation: “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” A few other aphorisms gathered in the Jacula   bear repeating here, for what light Nietzsche may cast on them. “I wept when I was born, and every day shews why.” Or: “Praise day at night, and life at the end” (praise neither while in progress). And here is the summa, the acme of ressentiment: “This world is nothing except it tend to another.” Or: “Dally not with money or women” (greed and lust are put in equation). Or: “Building and marrying of children are great wasters.” Or: “Advise none to marry or go to war,” because “a fair wife and a frontier castle breed quarrels.” Or, worst of all, when you think through all its shivers: “God sends cold according to clothes.” Is this a solecism? No one with his eye on the world as it is, even if he hated that world, could say such a thing. Would that God send instead clothes according to cold. Yes, Herbert may offer us, here, a variation on that hoariest and manifestly false of proverbs: “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” But something outlandish is afoot.

So I’ll end on another note. I spoke of the breadth of Anglicanism. Rash gazers? No, no, no, good Parson. Robert Herrick, that Son of Ben, and vicar of Dean Prior (except while the Puritans turned him out), makes the better case: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

≈   ≈   ≈

By way of post-script, I append here what Herbert has to say about marriage—that it is to say, about “bridalls,” and what follows from them for country parsons—in his A PRIEST TO THE TEMPLE, OR, THE COUNTRY PARSON, HIS CHARACTER. I bid the rash gazer have a look (particularly at the text highlighted in a “hue angrie and brave”). The chastity, the misogyny, the world-denying & death-embracing dispositions—all are on full display.

CHAP. IX. The Parsons state of Life.

The Country Parson considering that virginity is a higher state then Matrimony, and that the Ministry requires the best and highest things, is rather unmarryed, then marryed. But yet as the temper of his body may be, or as thee temper of his Parish may be, where he may have occasion to converse with women, and that among suspicious men, and other like circumstances considered, he is rather married then unmarried. Let him communicate the thing often by prayer unto God, and as his grace shall direct him, so let him proceed. If he be unmarried, and keepe house, he hath not a woman in his house, but findes opportunities of having his meat dress’d and other services done by men-servants at home, and his linnen washed abroad. If he be unmarryed, and sojourne, he never talkes with any woman alone, but in the audience of others, and that seldom, and then also in a serious manner, never jestingly or sportfully. He is very circumspect in all companyes, both of his behaviour, speech, and very looks, knowing himself to be both suspected, and envyed. If he stand steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart, that he will keep himself a virgin, he spends his dayes in fasting and prayer, and blesseth God for the gift of continency, knowing that it can no way be preserved, but only by those means, by which at first it was obtained. He therefore thinkes it not enough for him to observe the fasting dayes of the Church, and the dayly prayers enjoyned him by auctority, which he observeth out of humble conformity, and obedience, but adds to them, out of choyce and devotion, some other dayes for fasting, and hours for prayers; and by these hee keeps his body tame, serviceable, and health-full; and his soul fervent, active, young, and lusty as an eagle.

Soul and body live at the expense of one another, and we must choose the first. As does Paul, Herbert commends virginity, though he restricts himself, here, to parsons. As also with Paul, when Herbert does accede to marriage, it is more for what marriage forestalls than for what it makes possible: gossip, suspicion, envy. And always the injunction to mortify the flesh, well beyond what the church might be supposed to require. The parson must outdo the church, ostentatiously so (as with Herbert’s unusual prostration on taking up his post at Bemerton).

He often readeth the Lives of the Primitive Monks, Hermits, and Virgins, and wondreth not so much at their patient suffering, and cheerfull dying under persecuting Emperours, (though that indeed be very admirable) as at their daily temperance, abstinence, watchings, and constant prayers, and mortifications in the times of peace and prosperity.

Cheerfully die under persecution. Yes, all very admirable; never resist. Again: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Even in times of peace, and of no persecution, yet again mortify yourself. The killing goes on and on. We can hardly have enough of it.

He keepeth his watch and ward, night and day against the proper and peculiar temptations of his state of Life, which are principally these two, Spirituall pride, and Impurity of heart: against these ghostly enemies he girdeth up his loynes, keepes the imagination from roving, puts on the whole Armour of God, and by the vertue of the shield of faith, he is not afraid of the pestilence that walketh in darkenesse, [carnall impurity] nor of the sicknesse that destroyeth at noone day, [Ghostly pride and self-conceite.]

Always the “carnal impurity” that “walketh in darkness,” after the sweet “bridall” of the day has met its closes.

Other temptations he hath, which, like mortall enemies, may sometimes disquiet him likewise; for the humane soule being bounded, and kept in, in her sensitive faculty, will runne out more or lesse in her intellectuall.

To be embodied, is to be imprisoned, bounded, by the “sensitive faculty,” by which is meant the senses, which bid us rashly gaze at a rose, or, what the heck, commit ourselves to a May Day “bridall” and await the night with pleasure, not with tears.

Originall concupisence is such an active thing, by reason of continuall inward, or outward temptations, that it is ever attempting, or doing one mischief or other.

Here is the rub: original concupiscence, by which is meant original sin. This is of course communicated, sexually, down the generations, damning the sons of the father’s father’s father, the daughters of the mother’s mother’s mother, whether in or outside a “bridall,” the latter sacrament being inadequately redemptive (it was never meant to redeem; it was meant to stave off fornication, and, for a parson, gossip, suspicion, and envy). For what, indeed, can redeem sexuality? “O wretched man that I am!” writes Saint Paul in Romans 7:24, and we well believe him: “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Hate the body; hate the being alive.

Ambition, or untimely desire of promotion to an higher state, or place, under colour of accommodation, or necessary provision, is a common temptation to men of any eminency, especially being single men. Curiosity in prying into high speculative and unprofitable questions, is another great stumbling block to the holinesse of Scholars. These and many other spirituall wickednesses in high places doth the Parson fear, or experiment, or both; and that much more being single, then if he were marryed; for then commonly the stream of temptations is turned another way, into Covetousnesse, Love of pleasure, or ease, or the like.

“He begins to die, that quits his desires,” whether for preferment or for woman, and, when dying, begins chiefly to live. So to confound life and death lies at the very heart of ressentiment.

If the Parson be unmarryed, and means to continue so, he doth at least, as much as hath been said. If he be marryed, the choyce of his wife was made rather by his eare, then by his eye; his judgement, not his affection, found out a fit wife for him, whose humble, and liberall disposition he preferred before beauty, riches, or honour. He knew that (the good instrument of God to bring women to heaven) a wise and loving husband could out of humility, produce any speciall grace of faith, patience, meeknesse, love, obedience, &c. and out of liberality, make her fruitfull in all good works.

Woman being the Devil’s doorway, as Tertullian said, she needs a good instrument to bring her before God: a man, a husband. However, should a man generously undertake the duty, the devil of that lies in what a peril woman forever is to the purity and integrity of his immortal soul. What a bind. So, by all means: “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” And death is the birth and happy vitality of the soul.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. annehimmelfarb permalink
    December 1, 2013 7:43 AM

    Years ago, when I read Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin, I was distressed to discover that (at least as presented by Motion) the biographical Larkin was very close to the envious, self-loathing, and arguably misogynistic persona of some of the poems. Suddenly poems like “High Windows” and “Annus Mirabilis” lost some of their complexity and irony and offered themselves as more “sincere” expressions of Larkin’s views: hurray for contraception and the sexual revolution, boo hoo that I missed it. Any reservations about “this paradise” were mere sour grapes.

    My reaction to your extremely interesting and learned reading of Herbert’s “Vertue” is similar. I’ve always heard sorrow and regret in the first three stanzas—not the Pauline distrust of or disgust with bodies and appetite. The day, the rose, the spring—all things of the world—are beautiful and lovable, and they all die. The last stanza is meant to comfort and inspire—there is one thing that doesn’t die, and that’s a soul. Your reading, and in particular your selection from Herbert’s guide for country parsons, was like the Motion biography for me. No more Herbert the lover of beauty (and shouldn’t poets love beauty?) trying to reconcile that love with his Christian beliefs. Now we get the “sincere” Herbert who basically hates and fears bodies and the physical world as enemies of the spirit. I know you said you were playing devil’s advocate, but I wish your reading had been a little less persuasive. I liked the old Herbert better.

    • December 1, 2013 8:24 AM

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m in the middle of Motions’s book on Larkin myself. Or, I was reading it right along until other things interrupted me. Soon I’ll return. I love Larkin, but, yes, he held some abhorrent views.

      If it helps (it helps me), associate the world-denying sentiments in Herbert (such as they are) not so much with him particularly as with the religion he so brilliantly espoused. Then it becomes less “personal.”

      But as do you, I find certain of the things said in The Country Parson simply unbearable. And I tend away, w/ Darwin, Nietzsche, and the pragmatists in all their several ways, from speaking of “souls” or anything else otherworldly. It is plenty enough to love the world we’re in, and have, suffering notwithstanding. For my part, I think we do the world we’re in, and have, an injustice by saying, with Herbert (or anyone else), that “This world is nothing except it tend to another.” This world is not nothing. I say of it with Miranda: O brave new world that have such people in it.


  2. annehimmelfarb permalink
    December 1, 2013 9:36 AM

    Or you could say of it with Carlyle that we’d better accept it.

    • December 1, 2013 9:47 AM

      Yes. Anyhow, I certainly don’t know where things are likely to go better (as RF says), or worse.

  3. December 3, 2013 11:59 PM

    Rash gazer, yer not.

    • December 4, 2013 12:32 AM

      Well, I’m not wiping my eye.



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