Caroline Poetry: Metaphysicals and Cavaliers

by David Hamilton (August 2014)

This essay on an interesting but ignored aspect of English literature is from my forthcoming book: Some Literary Essays: Comments and Insights (Booklocker).

There were two groups with recognisable styles in the Caroline or the Stuart period (1603–1714) the Metaphysicals and Cavaliers. T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of the movement known as the Metaphysical poets, especially John Donne. His critical appraisal rehabilitated Donne in the second decades of the twentieth century. Donne’s style was crude compared to Ben Jonson and more suited to Verse Satire. Many of these poems show the use of technique but not always depth of meaning.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) in his early life was a womaniser and wrote many love poems. He also wrote verse satires. He travelled widely and later turned to religion. He wrote original secular poems and his love poetry turned on paradox and puns which challenged the hackneyed Petrarchan of Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. He was an intellectual poet in the sense that he used argument and acted in different mental states and also used riddles. His verse was not metrical and he lost favour till rehabilitated by Eliot in the early twentieth century.

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637), his rival influence used his classical learning in his poetry and drama. Some of his better-known poems are virtual translations of Greek or Roman originals and have an attention to form and style. Jonson avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that pre-occupied Elizabethan classicists and accepted both rhyme and stress and imitated the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint, and precision.

There are many significant poets who were influenced by Donne and Jonson. Some are well known like George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell and others not so, like Richard Crashaw, Henry King, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Carew, John Cleveland, Sir Richard Lovelace, Sir John Denham, Edward Waller and Charles Cotton.

These poets of the Caroline period were inspired by John Donne and Ben Jonson but with divisions of allegiance; later critics separated them into Metaphysicals, who followed Donne, and Cavaliers who followed Jonson; but the categories are often arbitrary. Roland of Hawthorndon recorded two criticisms Jonson made of Donne, which highlighted aspects of the Metaphysical style, when Jonson visited him during a walking tour of Scotland in 1618-19:

Donne, for not keeping of accent deserved hanging. Second, Donne himself for not being understood would perish. The harshness of Donne’s rhythms, his not keeping of accent which comes from pursuing the progress of the thinking mind rather than the smooth regularity of prosody and the difficulty of his ideas and conceits would make him not understood.

These features conversely were admired and imitated by succeeding poets.

The effect was called “Strong line poetry” for Donne and his imitators who could suggest affirmation or criticism. It was not known as Metaphysical until Dryden and Doctor Johnson wrote about it. Thomas Carew, in the most perceptive of the elegies on Donne praised the way his, “Imperious wit and giant fancy had made our stubborn language bend and had produced a line of masculine expression.”

The followers of Jonson spurned strong lines and abstruse fancies and strove for a smooth elegance of style a plainness, even a simplicity of style. They were thoroughgoing classicists. Robert Herrick, a devoted admirer of Jonson, wrote a charming if fawning tribute, “Prayer to Ben Jonson.” He uses religion for this prayer-poem:

When I a verse shall make,

Know I have pray’d thee,

For old religion’s sake,

Saint Ben to aid me.

Make the way smooth for me,

When I, thy Herrick,

Honouring thee, on my knee

Offer my lyric.

When I a verse shall make,

Know I have pray’d thee,

For old religion’s sake,

Saint Ben to aid me.

That is the smoothness and directness some of Jonson’s followers were trying to achieve. The sorting of these writers into twin categories simplified the differences. Henry Vaughan, who is usually classed as metaphysical, opened his first volume of poetry (1646) with a piece that named “Great Ben” as the first of poets. “The gentlemanly cavaliers who wrote with ease” as Pope described them, lumping them together with the Court Wits of Charles II reign, wove metaphysical conceits into their elegant Jonsonian verse. They really only adopted superficial features from their models and few shared Jonson’s moral idealism or were capable of conveying the psychological insight or depth of passion of Donne. There was a third tradition of devotional verse derived slightly from Donne, but is influenced by George Herbert, which I consider at the end under “Religious Poetry.”

An exponent of the metaphysical style was John Cleveland and the most conceited writing of the time was known after him as “Clevelandisms.” “Elegy on the Memory of Mr. Edward King drowned in the Irish Sea” is an example on a celebrated casualty. Milton had done a famous version “Lycidas” and wrote in rare and poetic words in pleasant flowing lines which, by comparison, Cleveland’s were unreal conceits. The choice of words and the way the sense flows through the lines show Milton to be a genius; the awkward, halting sense of Cleveland show a poetaster.

Milton’s “Lycidas”:

Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew

Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme.

He must not float upon his watery bier

Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,

Without meed of some melodious tear.

Cleveland’s elegy. The first part:

I like not tears in tune, nor do I prize
His artificial grief that scans his eyes;
Mine weep down pious beads, but why should I
Confine them to the Muses’ rosary?
I am no poet here; my pen’s the spout
Where the rain-water of my eyes runs out,
In pity of that name, whose fate we see
Thus copied out in grief’s hydrography.
The Muses are not mermaids, though upon
His death the ocean might turn Helicon.
The sea’s too rough for verse; who rhymes upon’t
With Xerxes strives to fetter th’ Hellespont.
My tears will keep no channel, know no laws
To guide their streams, but like the waves, their cause,
Run with disturbance till they swallow me
As a description of his misery.

Tears are the beads on a poetic rosary that pour down like poetic rainwater, down the runaway spout of the poets pen in place of ink. He coined the word Hydrography to express the conceit of an elegy written in water. The ocean that drowned King become Helicon, the fount of the classical muses, who themselves become mermaids. The medieval scholastic law that the ocean contains parallel forms of all the forms of life that exist on land is used as Marvell did later more smoothly in “The Garden”, “The mind, that ocean, where each kind does straight its own resemblance.” According to Cleveland the only things that had no counterpart in the ocean were books, arts and foreign tongues but now the learned edge of King is in the sea, “Neptune hath got a university.” This is a witty lamentation without sorrow.

At that time Abraham Cowley was regarded as the greatest poet since the restoration. He used a philosophical argument about the nature of identity in a love poem that justifies the lover’s lack of constancy. A common metaphysical trait was to produce an outrageous argument against a commonplace of the age like inconstancy:

Five years ago (says Story) I lov’d you,
For which you call me most inconstant now;
Pardon me, Madam! you mistake the man,
For I am not the same that I was then;
No flesh is now the same ’twas then in me;
And that my mind is chang’d, yourself may see.
The same thoughts to retain still, and intents,
Were more inconstant far; for accidents
Must of all things most strangely inconstant prove,
If from one subject they t’ another move;
My members then the father-members were
From whence these take their birth which now are here.
If then this body love what th’ other did,
‘T were incest; which by Nature is forbid.

That style of wit derives from the flippancy of Donne’s early work and imparts a limited pleasure in the reader. Cowley’s love poetry does not transcend this level of ingenious intellectual play as Donne did in his more profound explorations of human love. Wit without psychological insight is shallow and soon palls. The Metaphysical mode without the passionate genius of Donne finally shrivelled and died of its own sterility.

Cowley, who later wrote an epic on King David, developed from these early imitations to an Augustan mode of classical verse. He was a professional man of letters; the Cavaliers by contrast were gentleman poets, amateurs, who wrote poetry as courtly accomplishments and many were not published until after death and some like Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, Sidney Godolphin and William Strode did not appear until the twentieth century. Suckling is the epitome of the cavalier, not just as a writer but as a dashing, cynical figure in the court society. John Aubery, the late 17c biographer and gossip, later described him as, “The greatest gallant of his time and the greatest gamester both for bowling and cards so that no shopkeeper would trust him for sixpence.”

Suckling’s heedless attitude and throw away style have much in common with Donne’s early style of flamboyant poetry though they lack the wit and intellectual rigor of the dialectic. Suckling never gives the sense that his flippancy conceals great depth of experience that you get with Donne. This exemplifies his style and point of view:

Out upon it, I have lov’d
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings,
Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

This foreshadowed the etiolated lyrics of Charles II’s restoration courtiers and prefigures the ethos of the rake heroes on that stage when Suckling enjoyed a vogue and was quoted in plays. The representative of the idealistic strand of the Cavalier mode is Richard Lovelace. He was imprisoned several times in the 1640s for serving the king. His famous work “To Althea, from Prison”:

When Love with unconfinéd wings

Hovers within my gates,

And my divine Althea brings

To whisper at the grates;

When I lie tangled in her hair

And fettered to her eye,

The birds that wanton in the air

Know no such liberty.


Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage.

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

His other famous work “To Lucasta Going To the Wars”, is typical of his accommodation of Metaphysical conceits to Jonsonian lyric grace and his cavalier attitude to love, which is a development into the Caroline era of an earlier courtly code of chivalry. This poem has a moderate wit shown in the conceit of the mistress and the metaphor of nunnery:

Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

It plays on embracing fate and the physical embraces of a woman and the paradox of confirming his love for Lucasta by loving martial honour more. This is an ingenious twist to the ubiquitous theme of inconstancy in the era. It does not have the overt cynicism of Suckling on love, the attitude to woman and woman’s place is also cavalier. The dismal in those last two lines as if shouted over his shoulder as he canters off to war implies a different conception of relationships from Donne’s valedictory poem that shows strong concern for the lady and mutual suffering. This is poetry from male strength. For the alternative, turn to Henry King’s “The Surrender.” King conducts a parting ceremony in the speaking tones and conceits one associates with Donne not the songlike tones of the minor cavaliers:

Fold back our arms, take home our fruitless loves,
That must new fortunes try, like turtle doves
Dislodgëd from their haunts. We must in tears
Unwind a love knit up in many years.
In this last kiss I here surrender thee
Back to thy self, so thou again art free;
Thou in another, sad as that, resend
The truest heart that lover e’er did lend.

Now turn from each. So fare our severed hearts
As the divorced soul from her body parts

The poet begins by lamenting that the love he shared with the lady is ending as if it were like the inconstant and mutable passion of what Donne had dismissed as “Dull sublunary lovers”:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Donne was referring to Platonic lovers but their love had not reached such purity while they were under the moon. Henry King’s “The Surrender” is metrically excellent and also carries meaning.

My once dear Love; hapless that I no more
Must call thee so: the rich affections store
That fed our hopes, lies now exhaust and spent,
Like summes
of treasure unto Bankrupts lent.
We that did nothing study but the way
To love each other, with which thoughts the day
Rose with delight to us, and with them set,
Must learn the hateful Art how to forget.
We that did nothing wish that Heav’n could give
Beyond our selves, nor did desire to live
Beyond that wish, all these now cancell
As if not writ in faith, but words and dust.

The word “must” echoes at the beginning of the second line and is effective at the end of the penultimate line and got there by a poetic inversion. We are not told why “haplessly” they have to part but there is that strong sense that something is forcing the end of their relationship they don’t want to cease. It was a long standing relationship in which both were equal partners and cannot be easily shrugged off like a Suckling or Lovelace disposed of their mistresses for a new love or military glory. This love must be un-ruffled, slowly, deliberately, painfully, as the texture of their love was woven out of both their loves and the final parting like a death, a sundering of the two parts of a whole living entity:

Fold back our arms, take home our fruitless loves,

That must new fortunes try, like turtle doves

Dislodgëd from their haunts. We must in tears

Unwind a love knit up in many years.

In this last kiss I here surrender thee

Back to thy self, so thou again art free;

Thou in another, sad as that, resend

The truest heart that lover e’er did lend.

Now turn from each. So fare our severed hearts

As the divorced soul from her body parts.

Henry King wrote another great poem, “The Exequy” about the death of his wife. It is lament in the form of an Elegy. His other works are negligible.

Accept, thou shrine of my dead saint,

Instead of dirges, this complaint;

And for sweet flowers to crown thy hearse,

Receive a strew of weeping verse

From thy grieved friend, whom thou might’st see

Quite melted into tears for thee.

Dear loss! since thy untimely fate

My task hath been to meditate

On thee, on thee; thou art the book,

The library whereon I look,

Though almost blind. For thee, loved clay,

I languish out, not live, the day,

Using no other exercise

But what I practise with mine eyes;

By which wet glasses I find out

How lazily time creeps about

To one that mourns; this, only this,

My exercise and business is.

So I compute the weary hours

With sighs dissolvëd into showers.

Edward Waller, who with Sir John Denham, was picked up by the Augustan poets as one of the refiners of English verse and characterised by Pope as “Sweet and smooth.” He effectively, in lyric and couplet, passed on the elegance of Jonson to the later classical period. His most famous anthology piece “Go Lovely Rose” has a perfect lyric, but it also has verbal pungency and precision of waiting in the choice and placing of words. This is a carpe diem seduction poem that uses the arguments that Milton’s “Comus” uses to the lady, “Beauty is nature’s brag and must be shown in courts, and feasts, and high solemnities where most may wonder at the workmanship.”

The distinctive cavalier note is in the cynical indifference of the first line. This cavalier is caught exactly in the line from Stanza 3, “Suffer herself to be desired.” The passive construction makes her an object of male lust and not an independent agent. The lady like the rose that blooms in the desert will die uncommended, if she persists in her perverse coyness. This is another construction that makes her the object of another’s action. That long word uncommended is at the end of a mainly monosyllabic constructio stanza has added weight because an art of lyric is placing a long polysyllable in a context of lighter words.

Edmund Waller wrote:

Go, lovely Rose—

Tell her that wastes her time and me,

That now she knows,

When I resemble her to thee,

How sweet and fair she seems to be.


Tell her that’s young,

And shuns to have her graces spied,

That hadst thou sprung

In deserts where no men abide,

Thou must have uncommended died.

That roses have a short-lived span of beauty like youth is commonplace, but here the rose and lady become identified as objects of mans’ commendation, desire, and admiration. The whole argument in typical cavalier tones is from the male perspective and women only have value in relation to the activities of man. Lady and rose are both caught up in the undiscriminating now, of stanza 4: The common fate of all things rare. It derives some of its vitality from the witty possibilities of the various meanings of the words common and rare.

Another cavalier poem is “Epitaph on the Earl of Strafford,” one of the best short poems of the era and not about love. It is by John Cleveland and shows the mixed influences of Donne and Jonson. Cleveland, an arch Metaphysical in the “Elegy for Edward King,” is here a disciple of Jonson. It is a witty poem but not a conceited poem. The wit used derives from a Jonsonian play of words against each other and points to the antithetical style of the Augustan satirists who used couplets to balance each other. It is about the Epitaph on the Earl of Strafford who was executed in 1642. He had been chief advisor to Charles I and was scapegoated by the long Parliament of 1640 who impeached him. He had devised Charles’ policies of the 1630s and it appears that Charles sacrificed him as a sop to the powers of parliament.

Here lies wise and valiant dust,
Huddled up ‘twixt fit and just:
Strafford, who was hurried hence
‘Twixt treason and convenience.
He spent his time here in a mist;
A Papist, yet a Calvinist.
His prince’s nearest joy, and grief;
He had, yet wanted all relief.
The prop and ruin of the state;
The people’s violent love, and hate:
One in extremes loved and abhorred.
Riddles lie here; or in a word,
Here lies blood; and let it lie
Speechless still, and never cry.

Strafford was a contradiction. His religion Calvinist or Papist; his relationship with Charles, “His princes nearest joy or grief”; his political significance, “The prop and ruin of the statehis popularity, “Loved and hated in the extremehis removal from the scene, Was his execution just because he had acted treasonably? Or was it a matter of political convenience or tactical fitness on Charles and Parliaments part. Truly riddles lie here, and also here lies blood.

Was Strafford guilty of blood and justly condemned or is it blood on the hands of those who found it expedient to be rid of him. Whatever, “There is nothing that can be done about it now, so let it lie speechless still and never cry. The cynicism or realism about politics is finally expressed in pithy lines. This realism is presented at greater length but with more skill in Andrew Marvell’s “Ode on Oliver Cromwell” which is also neatly balanced between possible judgements:

Nothing now Dinner stay’d

But till he had himself a Body made.

I mean till he were drest: for else so thin

He stands, as if he only fed had been

With consecrated Wafers: and the Host

Hath sure more flesh and blood than he can boast.

These lines play on the Thomist teaching that the Body and Blood of Christ are contained under each of the Eucharistic species and with accounts of the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, who it was said, subsisted for several years on only daily Communion and needed neither food nor drink.

The one least influenced by metaphysical wit was Robert Herrick. He revered Jonson as his master but did not try to imitate the whole range of Jonson’s styles. There are some impressive poems on the good life of a feudal country house. His talent was for short lyrics often of an amatory kind in the tradition of Jonson’s to Penshurst and looking forward to Marvell’s estate poem on Appleton House. An example of Jonson’s style, is “Still to Be Neat”:

Still to be neat, still to be dressed,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed:
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art’s hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.

Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes but not my heart.

It is an unadorned, urban classical style. The dominant notes are simplicity and clarity, yet unobtrusively he has barbed every phrase. The structural device of neatly balancing phrases within the line leads us through from the innocuous “Still to be neat, still to be dressed” to the more suspect, “Still to be powdered, still perfumed” to the open condemnation, “All is not sweet, all is not sound”. The same device is used to point contrasting ideals in the second part of the poem:

Give me a look, give me a face that makes simplicity a grace, they strike mine eyes but not mine heart.

The indifferent impersonal construction stands out from the song like movement and how in the penultimate line the word “adultery” reaches back ambiguously through the references to sweet neglect, simplicity and powdering and perfuming to make us wonder what kind of feast would keep her in a constant state of readiness.

Herrick’s discipleship shows in a little poem “Delight in Disorder” which seems to be directly inspired by “Still to Be Neat.”

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;–
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

The two have the same basic idea that sweet neglect in a woman’s dress is more attractive then when art is too precise in every part. Note the exactness in choice of words like the verb “kindles” in clothes a “wantoness”; and “erring” in the erring lace, which has implications of more than just untidiness, as well as the magnificent “tempestuous petticoat.” There is a distinction: Jonson’s poem is moral in its effect. The sweet neglect that he opposes to artful costume and cosmetics is a simplicity that strikes the heart. Herrick’s, by contrast, has a salacious sense. It is not the heart that is being kindled but wantonness by the sweet disorder in the dress. A certain carelessness is sexually more exciting than too much care. Also characteristic of Herrick is his concentration on minute details. He notices every little thing, the cuff, the ribbons, the lace and he dwells delightfully on each in turn. He was the principal miniaturist in the 17c lyric form. In an exquisite five-lined poem on her feet, he has nothing to say but it is nicely turned. No one else would have noticed, let alone described it with a snail image. In many poems he responds to minute changes in the appearance of things, to the gradual changes in natural processes that most barely notice:

A Gyges ring they bear about them still,

To be, and not seen when and where they will;

They tread on clouds, and though they sometimes fall,

They fall like dew, and make no noise at all:

So silently they one to th’ other come,

As colours steal into the pear or plum,

And air-like, leave no pression to be seen

Where’er they met, or parting place has been.

Lovers come and go like those things, the falling of the dew, the colouring of fruit as it ripens. One day its green next day it has a tinge of red. It’s imperceptible then suddenly you are aware of a minute change. The images are more important than the ostensible subject of the poem as lovers secretly steal to and from each other. In Herrick, nothing is stationary and change is the one constant law of life – change, transience, process, the effects of time – he was one of the great rhyme poets  on living things are the subjects of his best poems. As in “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May”, Old time is still flying. His greatest poem, one of the best carpe diem poems in the language, “Corrina’s Going A-Maying”, is in the same tradition as Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. “Corrina” has elements of pastoral and carpe diem poetry. Both types were dramatic and spoken by a lover to his beloved. Pastoral literature was idealistic and imagined an ideal world of nature far from the transitory world of human experience. It was a world of youthful lovers. In the evergreen pastoral world, golden lads and girls do not “As chimney-sweepers come to dust,” as a song in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”.

Carpe diem poetry was developed by Horace in Augustan Rome. Carpe diem is Latin for “Seize the day,” and this popular poetry expresses the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Time is fleeting, life is short, and beyond this life lies only the darkness of eternity. 

Many of Herrick’s poems on the transience and flowers of youth have effects like, “To Daffodils”:

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see

You haste away so soon;

As yet the early-rising sun

Has not attain’d his noon.

Stay, stay,

Until the hasting day

Has run

But to the even-song;

And, having pray’d together, we

Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,

We have as short a spring;

As quick a growth to meet decay,

As you, or anything.

We die

As your hours do, and dry


Like to the summer’s rain;

Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,

Ne’er to be found again.

“As quick a growth to meet decay as you or anything.”

The beauty and delicacy of flowers has an added poignancy because it can never be permanent. Everything passes away never to be found again. The note of wistfulness at the acceptance of the laws of organic life is the continuous theme of Herrick’s poetry.

Religious lyrics

These flourished in the early part of the century. The principal exponents were George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. Herbert, born in Montgomery, Wales, was ordained into the Anglican Church and died at forty. Many of his poems were published posthumously and revived his catalogue of work built up since he was a student at Cambridge. There is a variety of religious lyric in “The Temple.” In some the Anglican clergyman advises his flock on their conduct; in some the rituals and holy days of the church are celebrated like baptism, Holy Communion, Easter; some are offerings of praise to god.

It is in another kind of poem in which Herbert’s voice is most distinctively heard and which has most appeal to the modern reader. This is personal meditations where the poet examines his own personal experiences and his living and changing relationship with God in quiet contemplation. It has been said that he wrote love poems to God instead of an earthly mistress. You can derive a spiritual autobiography from these. John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding is an exemplar of the form but both Herbert and Vaughan wrote poems in the mode of spiritual biography. They are usually in prose and trace the highs and lows of a lifetime relationship with a God who Herbert addresses as an intimate acquaintance, very different from Donne’s wrathful and fearful God that make him tremble in his sonnets. Poems like “Affliction 1” and “The Pilgrimage” are cast as autobiographical surveys of Herbert’s life in God’s service.

Another achievement was to develop and hand on to his successors in the Anglican tradition a vocabulary and imagery for describing the responses of the individual soul. “The Flower” deals with God’s return after a period of spiritual emptiness and creative barrenness. Herbert refers to what has come to be known as “The Dark Night of the Soul” made famous by St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa. I have dealt with the experience in my forthcoming book of poems King Alfred’s Jewel (Troubador) though I understood it as a dark pit but the varied descriptions refer to the same phenomena. After the dark period comes light or return which, to me, was rising up to listen to the Harmony of the Spheres, but it is always a return to the light. I tried to describe it from inside but Herbert only refers to it.

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;

To which, besides their own demean,

The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.

Grief melts away

Like snow in May,

As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,

Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell

And up to heaven in an houre;

Making a chiming of a passing-bell,

We say amisse,

This or that is:

Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were;

Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!

Many a spring I shoot up fair…

The renewed contact with God is like the return of spring to the dead earth inspiring a restored life that makes the poet bud again and once more relish versing. There is an intimate tone of address unlike Donne’s quaking, agonising and disputing before God. There is a sense of a personal relationship with God apart from the ritual framework of established worship. Very influential on later poets was what a critic has described as “The imagery of inner weather”. The frosts and tempests of the soul and the imagery of natural growth of plants applied to the inner life, a blending of spiritual and natural life in metaphor rather than simile so Herbert does not say that his soul is like a plant but that his shrivelled heart has recovered “greennesse” and he feels himself “bud” again. The plant imagery had a widespread progeny after his death. Several poets openly imitated him and named their volumes as humble adjuncts to “The Temple.”

Crashaw titled a volume, “Steps to The Temple.” Christopher Harvey, “The Synagogue or The Shadow of the Temple”; Ralph Nevitt called his MS collection of religious poems “A Gallery.” His greatest follower, Henry Vaughan, claimed in the preface that he owed his poetic inspiration and his conversion to Herbert’s example. Joseph Beaumont an Anglican priest who was thrown out of his living when the Puritan faction took power in the1640s used the type of imagery found in “The Flower”. He makes simple but effective use of inner weather in “Jesus Inter Ubera Mariae”:

In the coolness of the day,

The old world even, God all undressed went down

Without His robe, without His crown,

Into His private garden, there to lay

On spicy bed

His sweeter head.

There He found two beds of spice,

A double mount of lilies in whose top

Two milky fountains bubbled up.

He soon resolved: “And well I like!” He cries,

“My table spread

Upon my bed.”

Those lines also show how later poets learnt from Herbert to use the conventions of love poetry. The powerful effect of the lady’s eyes that were common in Petrarchan love poetry is applied to God’s impact on the receptive poet. A glance from God thawed the pure ice in his heart. Christopher Harvey revitalised imagery of the parable of the sower with plant imagery from Herbert’s “The Flower.” It is in his volume “Scolia Cordis”, the School of the Heart, “See how the scene which thou did sow lies parched and withered will not grow without some moisture and mine heart hath noe that it can truly call its own”.

This shows a major poet learning from another but developing what they adopt in new directions. Vaughan began with imitation of “The Flower” but went further than Herbert in completely identifying with the life of a plant, providing an empathic feeling with the nature of the processes of vegetable life which is one of his most distinctive contributions to 17c lyric. This is “Unprofitableness”:

But since Thou didst in one sweet glance survey
Their sad decays, I flourish, and once more
Breathe all perfumes and spice;
I smell a dew like myrrh, and all the day
Wear in my bosom a full sun; such store
Hath one beam from Thy eyes.
But, ah, my God! What fruit hast Thou of this
What one poor leaf did ever I yet fall
To wait upon Thy wreath?
Thus Thou all day a thankless weed dost dress,
And when Th’ hast done, a stench, or fog is all
The odour I bequeath.

The image of the revitalising glance from God occurs here as in the Beaumont poem. In “Disorder and Frailty,” Vaughan presents spiritual awakening as a seed responding to the warmth of the sun and breaking through its covering of earth to bud and flower. It is a more imaginative version of Harvey’s mechanical image of the seed in the second stanza:

I threaten heaven, and from my cell
Of clay and frailty break and bud,
Touch’d by thy fire and breath; thy bloud,
Too, is my dew, and springing well.
But while I grow,
And stretch to thee, ayming at all
Thy stars and spangled hall,
Each fly doth taste,
Poyson, and blast
My yielding leaves; sometimes a showr
Beats them quite off; and, in an hour,
Not one poor shoot,
But the bare root,
Hid under ground, survives the fall.
Alas, frail weed!

A little known religious writer was Thomas Traherne. The major figures of the Metaphysical Revival, Donne and Herbert, endured but Thomas Traherne had been forgotten, and when his work was discovered it was mistaken for that of Vaughan. He published only one book, Roman Forgeries (1673), and, as a clergyman he did not rise to prominence. So obscure is his background, in fact, that scholars once argued about what family and even what part of the country he came from. John Aubrey published in Miscellanies (1696), brief details of some visions related by Traherne–a basket floating in the air and a strangely dressed apprentice. Traherne was a devoutly religious man charitable to the poor and strictly devotional. Some of Traherne’s writing is incoherent and breaks down into sighs and exclamations which to earth bound spirits sounds like an orgasm, but to the aspirant is the writer trying to express union with God. He described the Union more expressively in “Aspiration”:

Though all their merits diverse be
According to their pains,
Yet love doth make that every one’s
Which any other gains,
And all which doth belong to one
To all of them pertains.

O King of kings, give me such strength
In this great war depending,
That I may here prevail at length
And ever be ascending,
Till I at last arrive to Thee
The source of all felicity!


David Hamilton’s latest book is Culture Wars, his next book, Some Literary Essays: Comments and Insights is due to be published soon. 


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