George Herbert's "Sonnet I"

Updated on December 11, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

George Herbert

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet I

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 love and pursuit of the realization of his Divine Creator. 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.

George Herbert's"Sonnet I" features 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.")

Sonnet I

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?

Commentary

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: "Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might."

Couplet: Why so much Attention to the Food of 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. Alas, the state of affairs has not changed, lo these five centuries hence.

Source

Biographical Sketch of George Herbert

Born in Wales on April 3, 1593, George Herbert was the fifth child of ten. His father died when George was only three years old. His mother, Magdalen Newport, was a patron of the arts, whose support of John Donne's Holy Sonnets garnered for her Donne's dedication of that work. Mrs. Herbert relocated the family to England after her husband's death, where she educated and raised them as devout Anglicans.

Herbert entered Westminster at ten years of age. He later won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where one of his professors was Lancelot Andrewes, a distinguished bishop, who served on the committee responsible for translating the King James Version of the Bible.

At the early age of sixteen years, Herbert composed his two devotional sonnets, which he sent to his mother with the announcement that he was accepting the calling to become a poet. Herbert also become an accomplished musician, learning to play the lute and other instruments.

Herbert earned the B.A. degree in 1613 and then completed the M.A. in 1616. Remaining at Trinity, he became a major fellow and served as a reader in rhetoric. He was elected to a public oration position from which he represented the school at public events. He enjoyed that position so much that he quipped that it was, "the finest place in the university.”

After serving for two years as a representative to parliament, Herbert left his position as public orator in 1627, and in 1629, he married Jane Danvers. He then began serving in the Church of England. He remained as rector in Bremerton until his death. He helped build the church with his own money, while serving as preacher and writing poetry.

In addition to poetry, Herbert wrote devotional prose. His 1652 A Priest to the Temple was a manual of practical advice to country preachers. He continued to write poetry but did not seek publication. Only from his deathbed did he encourage publication of his poetry. He sent his manuscript of poems, "The Temple," to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, requesting that Ferrar release the poems only if he thought they might help "any dejected poor soul."

Herbert is one the most important and talented of the Metaphysical poets along with John Donne. His poems impart his deeply religious devotion; they are linguistically precise with a musical nimbleness that demonstrates his original employment of the poetic device known as "the conceit." About George Herbert's poetic diction, Samuel Taylor Coleridge has opined: “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected."

In March 1633, just one month shy of age forty, Herbert died of tuberculosis, after suffering the disease most of his life. . His manuscript, "The Temple," came out that same year. The Temple was so popular that by 1680, it had gone through twenty reprints.

Andrew Motion on George Herbert

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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