John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan: Religious Metaphysical poetry

A person who is raving, fierce, and wild, is not capable of making a balanced judgement. In ways such as these the central simple idea is filled out in the structure and diction of the poem.

Another technique used by Herbert is clearly seen in the poem 'Redemption', and it is in poems such as this that he comes close to his model: the parable. On the surface 'Redemption' tells a simple story of a tenant being granted a favour by his landlord, but a little reflection shows that the story is a symbolic representation of the relationship between mankind, God, and Christ.

The meaning of the story told in the poem builds in a cumulative way when we piece details together and interpret them - the title being the clue to the interpretation. We learn, for example, that the landlord has 'gone - about some land, which he had dearly bought'. Later we learn that the landlord is among 'theeves and murderers'. Finally the poet meets the landlord,

. . . there I him espied,

Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died. (p.121)

These final lines show that the price paid for the land which was 'dearly bought' was Christ's death on the cross. Complexities such as these place Herbert among the Metaphysical poets, in spite of his essential simplicity and avoidance of 'conceits'.

In many poems, such as 'Affliction', 'Man', and 'The Flower' Herbert follows Donne's example in addressing God directly, and these seem to be the most personal of his poems. We see him exploring his personal relationship with God, wanting to understand God better and to make himself more worthy.

In 'Affliction' he charts, in a considered and meditative manner, the fluctuations and failings of his faith. In the first three stanzas he records some of his early feelings about God which were not true faith at all, but exercises in indulgence, or self-gratification. At first he thought his service 'brave', suggesting that he was more concerned with his own glory than with the glory of God. In the second stanza he reveals a mercenary attitude, in which he looks forward to a relationship with God which will bring him personal reward.

. . . both heav'n and earth

Pay'd me my wages in a world of mirth. (p.122)

In the third stanza he records how he tried to argue himself into faith, with love, and true religious experience, being conspicuous by their absence.

Thus argu'd into hopes, my thoughts reserved

No place for grief or fear. (p.122)

These experiences are presented in the past tense, and in the last line we see that he now realises that his relationship with God must be founded on love.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. (p.123)

In 'The Flower' we see Herbert trying to understand, and reconcile himself to, the cycle of spring and winter, life and death, to which all things on earth are subject. He relates the cycle to his own experiences of periods of happiness and fruitfulness and periods of decline, which he attributes to the will of God.

The theme of 'The Flower' resonates with the theme of 'The Pulley' in which he sees God as deliberately causing a state of restlessness in the soul of mankind in order that he should not become complacent and forget that finding God requires a continuous struggle. The final stanza of 'The Flower' also relates back to 'Affliction', for we can see the errors of false faith stemming from human pride. The need for love in his relationship with God found at the end of 'Affliction' is complimented by the need for humility found at the end of 'The Flower'.

Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.

Who would be more,

Swelling through store,

Forfeit their Paradise by their pride. (p.138)

Where Donne's sense of 'repining restlessnesse' was never stilled, even by revelation of the love of God, for Herbert the notions of 'quiet' and 'rest' are essential to his poems. Donne asks questions and rarely resolves them, while in Herbert the resolution is satisfactory and deeply felt.

We see in Herbert a poet who although essentially derivative of Donne, used the medium of Metaphysical poetry for a sincere exploration of his own faith, and in doing so broadened the scope of the genre to allow the poet a more personal approach than that apparent in Donne, an approach which was in turn taken up by Henry Vaughan.

Herbert and Vaughan

Henry Vaughan shares Herbert's preoccupation with the relationship between humanity and God. Both see mankind as restless and constantly seeking a sense of harmony and fulfilment through contact with God. In 'The Pulley' Herbert writes,

Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlessnesse:

Let him be rich and wearie, then at least,

If goodness leade him not. yet wearinesse

May tosse him to my breast. (p.136)

Similarly, in 'Man' Vaughan writes,

Man hath stil either toyes or Care,

He hath no root, nor to one place is ty'd,

But ever restless and Irregular. (p.273)

Both poets are conscious of the sinfulness of mankind, but in other respects their attitudes towards mankind seem to differ. Herbert is primarily concerned with perfecting himself. He wants to feel God's presence among the simple, natural things of life, and his humility is too deeply felt for him to openly criticise his fellows. Vaughan, in contrast, has the arrogance of a visionary. He feels humility before God and Jesus, but seems to despise humanity. This attitude is apparent in 'The World', in which he refers to the 'doting lover', 'darksome statesman', and 'fearfull miser', and particularly in these lines from 'Man',

. . . [Man] hath not so much wit as some stones have

Which in the darkest nights point to their homes, (p.273)

The ending of Vaughan's poem 'The World' clearly shows the influence of Herbert. In Herbert's 'The Collar' we see the expression of anger and frustration at the apparent fruitlessness of serving God being stilled by the intervention of God.

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde

At every word,

Me thought I heard one calling, Child!

And I reply'd, My Lord! (p.135)

In a similar manner Vaughan contemplates the madness of humanity, and receives understanding from a voice:

But as I did their madness so discusse

One whispered thus

This Ring the Bride-groome did for none provide,

But for his bride. (p.272)

Another area in which Vaughan's style is clearly derivative of Herbert's is in the opening lines of some poems. For example Herbert's 'The Pulley' begins,

When God at first made man,

Having a glasse of blessings standing by; (p.136)

Here he is discussing a sacred subject in the most casual colloquial manner. Similarly Vaughan begins 'The World' with,

I saw Eternity the other night (p.271)

These two openings also illustrate the most striking difference between the two poets, which lies in the scope of their vision. Herbert is down-to-earth and simple in his imagery, his images having impact because they are more 'domestic' than one would expect for such a grand subject. For Herbert God has 'a glasse of blessings', and he describes God's blessings in commonplace terms,

At first thou gav'st me milk and sweetnesses;

I had my wish and way:

My dayes were straw'd with flow'rs and happinesse;

There was no moneth but May, ('Affliction' p.122)

In contrast, Vaughan's images are more universal, or cosmic, even to the point of judging man in relation to infinity.

I Saw Eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light (p.271)

In contrast to Herbert's 'milk and sweetnesses' Vaughan sees God's gift as,

A way where you might tread the Sun, and be

More bright than he. (p.272)

The term 'visionary' is appropriate to Vaughan, not only because of the grand scale of his images, but also because his metaphors frequently draw on the sense of vision:

They are all gone into the world of light!

. . . Their very memory is fair and bright

. . . It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast.

. . . I see them walking (p.275-6)

And while Eternity is 'Like a great ring of pure and endless light', the 'darksome statesman' is likened to a blind creature: 'Yet digged the Mole'. Where Herbert presents his ideas through down-to-earth associations with common words, Vaughan communicates mystical, transcendental, flashes of spiritual insight.

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