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George Herbert's Double Sonnet

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

George Herbert

George Herbert

Introduction and Text of "A Sonnet"

George Herbert was born April 3, 1593, in Wales. In 1610, Herbert sent two sonnets to his mother as a gift for the New Year's celebration. About those sonnets he explained, "They declare my resolution to be, that my poor Abilities in Poetry shall be all, and ever consecrated to God's glory." And he added, "I beg you to receive this as one testimony."

Remarkably, Herbert wrote these sonnets when he was in his mid-teens. And his explanation to his mother attests to an early calling to pursue of the divine realization of the Creator or God, and he suggests that a large part of that calling would include the writing of poetry. Such an attitude at such an early age is always remarkable and is usually accompanied by a special skill despite the period of history in which that proclivity occurs.

Both parts of George Herbert’s "A Sonnet" feature a variation on the English sonnet; instead of the traditional rime scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, Herbert's sonnet varies the third quatrain, resulting in the minor change of EFFE. The other quatrains and couplet keep the traditional Elizabethan rime scheme.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A Sonnet

(1)
My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls 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 layes
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 wayes are deep, and still the fame,
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 fuel choose
Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?

(2)
Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them, is thy abuse
Why should I women's eyes for crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth; when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.

Commentary on "A Sonnet (1)"

Part 1 of Herbert’s double sonnet explores the issue that poets have become secular and no longer demonstrate a devotion to God.

First Quatrain: The Loss of Deep Devotion

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?

The speaker is searching for an answer to his question about why folks especially poets, no longer show deep devotion to their Creator. Historically, there exists many whose devotion burned bright for God-realization. Even as they pursued other interests in life, many "Martyrs" burned for realization of their Divine Beloved.

The speaker wonders if the purpose of poetry has become solely a servant of venality, and material existence. He notes that the art seems now devoted mainly to human romantic love which fades with time.

Second Quatrain: Sonnets to and for God

Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove

Continuing his query of God, the speaker then asks, "Why are not Sonnets made of thee?" He finds God more alluring and motivating than any of the people and things in God's creation.

Thus, the speaker also wonders why songs do not burn with devotion for the Divine. The speaker's question, "Cannot thy love / Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise / As well as any she?" suggests that God's love should motivate men's souls as easily as the sight of a beautiful woman does.

Third Quatrain: Dove vs Cupid

Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy wayes are deep, and still the fame,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might

Then speaker asks God if His "Dove" cannot overtake "their Cupid['s arrow]" in targeting the hearts of humankind. Since God's "wayes are deep" and widely known, the speaker wonders why poetry cannot accommodate itself to the name of God.

The final line of quatrain three begins the speaker's final question, which concludes in the couplet. The question begins regarding God’s fire and its force.

Couplet: Attention to the Food for Worms?

Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?

The final question summarizes and emphasizes the criticism of the absurdity of attaching so much attention, time, and energy to something that will one day become food for the worms, that is, unless the worms decide not to eat it.

This speaker deems the human body to be an unfit vehicle to serve as the object of profound contemplation that so many of his contemporary poets tend to think it is.

Commentary on "A Sonnet (2)"

The speaker continues to explore the baffling issue that poets continue to choose to praise and uplift the physical encasement over the glories of the Creator of those encasements.

First Quatrain: The Great Heft of the Creator

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Oceans of ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid

The speaker makes the mighty claim that God is so great that oceans of inks could be used up by poets writing about God. He claims that God’s "Majesty" covers the earth just as it was covered by the great flood. The clouds prove that God should be praised, and in the opinion of the speaker, poets should use their praise to celebrate and glorify the Creator of the cosmos.

Second Quatrain: False Comparisons

Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them, is thy abuse
Why should I women's eyes for crystal take?

The speaker then opines that comparing a woman’s face to "roses and lilies" is folly. Those flowers speak of the Lord, and turning them into "a pair of cheeks" denigrates the Lord’s power, force, and beauty. The speaker then asks why he should consider the eyes of a woman to resemble a "crystal lake."

God made the latter even as made the former but the speaker finds using God’s creation merely to describe a human being diminishes the magnificent power and creativity that the Lord possesses.

Third Quatrain: Low Thinking

Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find

The speaker then criticizes those poets who continue to use God’s creations to place fellow human beings (especially women) on an undeserved pedestal. He labels their ability to discover subject matter debilitating; they remain of "low mind," and their powers of "invention" are poor.

The speaker then again begins his final remark by sharing only part of it with the final quatrain, leaving the couplet to complete the thought.

Couplet: The Beauty of God Alone

In the best face but filth; when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.

The speaker then avers that when one gets down to foundation of it all, it is only God’s beauty that is worthy of poetry. Even in the "best face" there exists nothing to praise with high art of poetry.

In the final quatrain and couplet, the speaker has employed two technical terms from classical rhetoric, invention and discovery. He is demonstrating that the creative force of God lives in humankind. That the human being has been able to detect composition techniques suggests that the soul of man, that divine spark of God, has the ability to create, and for this speaker, that ability is wasted when employed in ways other than praising the Creator.

Andrew Motion on George Herbert

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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