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Leopard

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Herbert: Poems and Prose , selected by W.H. Auden

The Poems of George Herbert, to Which Are Added Selections From His Prose, and Walton's "Life." - George Herbert

W.H. Auden selected and wrote an introduction for this collection of George Herbert's (1593 - 1633) poetry and prose. The fifth son of a minor noble, Herbert was a gifted young man who became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, at the ripe age of 23. (Perhaps some money exchanged hands...) He came to the attention of no less a patron than King James I, but his ambition to become Secretary of State was dashed when James died in 1625. His successor was less impressed with Herbert. So, a fifth son had now the usual two choices - the army or the church. (Since there wasn't much of a standing army then, he really only had one choice.) In any case, Herbert was consumptive - it eventually killed him at 40 - so the church it was.  He was assigned a tiny rural parish on the Salisbury Plain in 1630 (apparently, this time money did not exchange hands) and spent the few remaining years of his life edifying his parishioners.

 

Herbert wrote prose and poetry in English and Latin, though most was not published in his lifetime. Herbert is usually counted among the "Metaphysical Poets", and I agree with Auden that Herbert is probably the most musical of the lot. Moreover, he used unusual rhyme schemes and line structures to great effect, playing with them in ways I have never seen. For example, consider the following poem and observe how after five stanzas of ababc where the fifth line is definitely discordant, in the last stanza we have ababb, resolving the discord into accord, precisely as in music; but note further how precisely this musical structure reflects and supports the content of the poem. Beautiful.

 

                                                     Deniall

 

When my devotions could not pierce
                                       Thy silent eares; 
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: 
            My breast was full of fears 
                                      And disorder: 

            My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow, 
                                      Did flie asunder: 
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
                   Some to the warres and thunder 
                                        Of alarms. 

            As good go any where, they say, 
                                      As to benumme
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
                  Come, come, my God, O come! 
                                       But no hearing. 

          O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue 
                                   To crie to thee, 
And then not hear it crying! All day long
                 My heart was in my knee, 
                                       But no hearing. 

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
                         Untun'd, unstrung: 
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
                 Like a nipt blossome, hung 
                                       Discontented. 

           O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast, 
                                    Deferre no time; 
That so thy favours granting my request, 
                      They and my minde may chime, 
                                           And mend my ryme.

 

There is wit aplenty and some humor in his poetry, but, at least for me, there are too many "edifying" poems in which the parson mounts upon his pulpit. I am allergic to such and can say only that he manifests rather more intelligence in these than those to which I was subjected in the long past age when I was still attending Christian churches. Those of you without such an allergy will surely enjoy the poems more than I.

 

As a final example, I definitely want to show you the following poem, which, as far as I can make out from the content and what little I know about his biography, was written towards the end of his academic career but before he resolved upon his spiritual course. This is exceptional as a lament/complaint which is not resolved into a dedication of the poet to God, but also as a summary of his life to that point of time. Recall as you are reading that he was born into a noble family, spent time at the court of King James, was on the faculty of Cambridge University and was consumptive. As artfully written as the poem is, it is a clear glimpse of how he saw his own life.

 

                                           The Affliction

 

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
                                   I thought the service brave; 
So many joyes I writ down for my part, 
                                  Besides what I might have 
Out of my stock of naturall delights, 
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
                                  And made it fine to me; 
Thy glorious household-stuffe did me entwine, 
                                  And 'tice me unto thee. 
Such starres I counted mine: both heav'n and earth; 
Payd me my wages in a world of mirth. 

What pleasures could I want, whose King I serv'd,
                                 Where joyes my fellows were? 
Thus argu'd into hopes, my thoughts reserved 
                                 No place for grief or fear. 
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fiercenesse seek thy face. 

At first thou gav'st me milk and sweetnesses;
                                  I had my wish and way; 
My days were straw'd with flow'rs and happinesse; 
                                 There was no moneth but May. 
But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow, 
And made a partie unawares for wo. 

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
                                  Sicknesses cleave my bones; 
Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry vein,
                                  And tune my breath to grones. 
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce beleeved, 
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived. 

When I got health, thou took'st away my life,
                                  And more, for my friends die; 
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
                                 Was of more use than I. 
Thus thinne and lean without a fence or friend, 
I was blown through with ev'ry storm and winde. 

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
                                 The way that takes the town; 
Thou didst betray me to a lingring book, 
                                 And wrap me in a gown. 
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise, 
                                Not simpring all mine age, 
Thou often didst with Academick praise 
                                Melt and dissolve my rage. 
I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where 
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happie be 
                                In my unhappinesse, 
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
                               Into more sicknesses. 
Thus doth thy power crosse-bias me, not making 
Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking. 

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
                               None of my books will show: 
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
                              For sure then I should grow 
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
                               In weaknesse must be stout; 
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
                              Some other master out. 
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot, 
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

 

Auden selected two prose pieces to accompany the poems: a lovely letter of consolation to Herbert's ill mother and a chapter from his A Priest to the Temple relating a parson's duties at home.