Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Sacred Poets > His constructive ability
  George Herbert’s personality and divided aims reflected in his poems The metaphysical fashion  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

II. The Sacred Poets.

§ 3. His constructive ability.

Herbert was a conscientious worker, continually polishing and resetting his poems. This fact has become clearer since Grosart brought to notice the manuscript, including not quite half of The Temple, which had lain, unused by previous editors, in the Williams library. The extensive differences between the Williams MS. and the 1633 edition show that, in revision, Herbert struck out too fantastic conceits, smoothed away roughnesses and replaced unsatisfactory poems by others on the same themes. It remained for a later editor, George Herbert Palmer of Harvard, to turn the Williams MS. to yet greater profit, by using it as a basis for distinguishing between Herbert’s earlier and later work. Palmer’s order, at some points, is arbitrary and unconvincing; but no greater service has been done towards understanding Herbert than by this attempt to arrange his poems chronologically. Herbert’s growth in artistic mastery, as well as in depth of character, is made abundantly clear by this treatment.   5
  In metre, Herbert never goes far afield. He makes no experiments with lines of three-syllabled feet, and even the trochaic measure is seldom used instead of iambic. But, in minor arrangements, as to the length of the lines, the incidence of the rimes and the number of lines to the stanza, Herbert is always looking out to find what will suit each particular poem. Palmer reckons that, of the 169 poems which comprise The Temple, “116 are written in metres which are not repeated.” The variations run within a narrow circle, but, at least, they show the poet’s interest in experiments of form. In Aaron, the same sequence of five rimes throughout the five verses is used with consummate success, giving the effect of “one set slow bell.” The whole framework, in all its parts, is fashioned exactly to fit the thought of the poem; it is artifice throughout, and yet, within its limits, a masterpiece of art. His constructive ability is one of his best artistic gifts. The Quip is a poem of perfect length, its parts are well knit with a refrain and other correspondences of phrase and it works to a well-turned close. The same neatness of construction marks a dozen other short poems, like The Pulley, Justice, Decay and the two poems oddly called Jordan. He has an instinct for a good ending; not infrequently there is a surprise in store, as in The Collar, where the rebellious mood collapses at the Master’s voice, or in the first sonnet on Prayer, where a string of definitions, both felicitous and preposterous, leads up to the simplest possible description of prayer as “something understood.” He has also a pretty turn for personification, which puts life into reflective poems like The Quip, Avarice and The Collar. To see how it gives animation to his work, one has only to compare Herbert’s Decay with Vaughan’s imitation, Corruption.   6
  Herbert’s ingenuity, at times, misleads him into what can only be called tricks, like the representation of the echo in Heaven, or the intentional failure of the rime at the close of Home. The verses shaped like an altar and the Easter wings came under Addison’s condemnation as “false wit.” They would find no parallel to-day except in Alice in Wonderland, but many of Herbert’s fellow poets—Drummond and Wither and Quarles—took pleasure in such devices, as well as in anagrams and acrostics. The number of Herbert’s poems affected by this fashion is very small; but it has most unjustly told against him with his critics.   7

  George Herbert’s personality and divided aims reflected in his poems The metaphysical fashion  

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