Virtue as a Metaphysical Poem
It is a common practice to designate metaphysical poetry as abstruse, intricate, rather vague. How far this is admissible is a matter of doubt and conjecture. But so far as Herbert is concerned, there is nothing of abstruseness, intricacy, or ambiguity with which metaphysical poetry is often charged. His poetry is rather all simple, serene and sensuous, although it bears typically metaphysical features.
Herbert’s Virtue truly typifies what is simple, serene and sensuous in his poetry. This is rather a short poem of some sixteen lines, but it contains a deeply ethical assertion that has an immensely didactic value. At the same time, the poem has all a very plain and planned expression to clothe its quite serious contention.
Among metaphysical poets, Herbert is known as thoroughly religious and Christian. There is no tinge of secularism of love or other elements, so strongly found in Donne’s poetry. His poems ring with his absolute Christian faith and morality. This is distinctly discernible in the poem Virtue that celebrates the Christian morality of virtue.
The theme of Herbert’s poem is actually the poet’s reflection on the immortality of virtue in a world that is all transient. Nothing lasts long in this very world. All that is lovely in nature perishes ere long. The poet illustrates this glaring truth by means of several analogies. A calm, cool, bright day that seems to unite earth and sky, closes at dew fall. Sweet roses, full of colour and fragrance and dazzle, withers away within a short time. The lovely season of spring, enriched with all bright and beautiful natural elements, has a short stay. This transitoriness of all earthly beauty and glory is a deep lesson of Christian ethics.
But Herbert’s Christian didacticism comes at the concluding stanza of the poem. The poet affirms cleanly the perpetuity of the quality of virtue as a moral force to persist permanently in this mortal world. The entire world may be burnt down and reduced to ashes, but the quality of virtue, that a virtuous soul possesses, surrenders to no destructive or corrosive force, and survives. This is the unequivocal lesson of Christian morality that Herbert gives out powerfully, though plainly-
“Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.”
This inspired Christian theme, no doubt metaphysical in essence, is expressed in a technique that is plain and elegant. As already indicated, there is nothing abstruse or ambiguous in the poem. Herbert speaks out his message in a straight and simple way, with the characteristic metaphysical precision. There is neither complication in expression nor elaboration in theme. All is precise, plain and positive. There is the absolute simplicity of Herbert’s poetic diction. The words, included in the poem, all belong to common life. Not a single expression exists to confound the sense of the poem, although the last stanza is liable to have a twist in the sense of the words ‘season’d timber’ and ‘coal’.
The poem has a distinct virtue in its familiar nature imagery. Each of the first three stanzas presents an image from the world of nature-clear, vivid, though not elaborate. The day is drawn with its coolness, calmness and brightness. The expression ‘The bridall of the earth and skie’ is a highly suggestive metaphysical conceit to indicate the marriage of earth and sky. The approach of night is subtly indicated by the expression-
“The dew shall weep thy fall to night.”
The personification of the ‘dew’ (shall weep) seems to add to the poetic quality of the stanza.
The second stanza introduces the imagery, a familiar one no doubt, of the rose, beautiful, bright and brilliant. There is the poetic emphasis on its hue, angry and brave, that dazzles the eyes of a rash gazer. This is a natural image, simple but graphic and true and an ideal specimen of the figure of speech Vision.
But, perhaps, more elegantly conceived is the image of spring, comprising pleasant days and lovely roses. The analogy of the ‘box’ of assorted sweets serves to enhance the effect of the beauty of this imagery. This is also a metaphysical conceit, though not the least vague or fantastic.
Indeed, all known materials from the world of Nature are presented precisely, distinctly and completely. This is a distinguishing metaphysical mark in the poem, and serves to distinguish it as a metaphysical poem.
In this connection, the conceits of ‘seasoned timber’ and ‘coal’ in the final stanza may well be referred to. The analogy between ‘season’d timber’ and the surviving ‘virtuous soul’ or between ‘coal’ and the ‘consumption of the entire world’ is really striking and typically metaphysical, but Herbert’s approach well harmonizes each of these conceits with his theme. As a result, this imagery never looks awkward.
Herbert’s technical artistry is amply illustrated in the use of the exquisite figures of speech in this short poem. The metaphorical expression ‘The bridall of the earth and sky’ is admirable. There are highly sophisticated metaphors in the comparison of spring to the box of sweets and the virtuous soul to seasoned timber. The dew and the rose have highly suggestive personifications, too.
But more simple yet sophisticated is probably Herbert’s metrical arrangement in the poem. Metrically the poem is written in iambic feet. Each stanza has four lines. The first three lines are in iambic tertrameter, with a few variations here and there. The last stanza of each line is in iambic dimeter.
The poem, it is perhaps needless to add, is thoroughly musical. Alliteration and internal rhyme form the parts of its music, but are also used to emphasize the significance of such words as ‘bridal’, ‘gazer’, ‘compacted’, and ‘timber’. ‘Bridal’ echoes a siren, just as gazer suggests the dazzle of beauty, ‘compacted’ calls for a sense of assorted sweet elements, whereas ‘timber’ is closely associated with ‘gives’ and ‘lives’. The word ‘sweet’ is again emphasized throughout to assert the sense of transience of all that is fair and lovely. Moreover, the term is used as an adjective in the beginning of all the first three stanzas. But it is used, too, as a noun in the second line of the third stanza. This is something of a play on words, so common in Donne and metaphysical poetry. This also smacks wit, so common in the metaphysical poetic style.
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