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George Herbert's "Sonnet I"

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 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 has 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

Written at the young age of sixteen years, George Herbert's "Sonnet I" features a speaker who is precocious in his wisdom and prescient in his awareness.

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.

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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