John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan
Religious Metaphysical poetry

by Ian Mackean
Me thought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply'd,
My Lord!

[George Herbert 'The Collar']

Introduction: Characteristics of Metaphysical poetry

John Donne (1572-1631) established what has become known as the Metaphysical style of poetry which was taken up by later poets, the two under consideration here being George Herbert (1593-1633) and Henry Vaughan (1622-95). Some of the chief characteristics of Donne's style are: the abrupt opening of a poem with a surprising dramatic line; the use of colloquial diction; the ideas in the poem being presented as a logical and persuasive argument, the purpose of which is to aid his wooing, whether of a woman or God. Donne took metaphors from all spheres of life, especially from crafts and the sciences, and made frequent use of the 'conceit': a surprising, ingenious, far-fetched turn of ideas. Often a whole poem is an extended 'conceit', and frequently a poem ends with a final 'conceit' in the last two lines. Donne developed his technique writing love poetry, and later adapted it to the writing of religious poetry.

Donne and Herbert

George Herbert's poetry shows that to a large extent he followed the lead offered by Donne, but he also made contributions which were quite distinct. Herbert's distinguishing characteristic is his simplicity of diction and metaphor. He retains the colloquial manner, and, to an extent, the logical persuasive presentation of ideas, but he draws his metaphors from everyday domestic experience, employing a range of simple commonplace imagery in contrast to the sophisticated imagery of Donne. 'Conceits' are not an important part of Herbert's poetry, and his appeal is not so intellectual as Donne's. A technique Herbert introduced was the ending of a poem with two quiet lines which resolve the argument in the poem without answering the specific points raised by it, and this represents quite a dramatic break from Donne. Donne expresses his doubts in intellectual terms, and answers them in the same way. Herbert occasionally explores his doubts in intellectual terms, but answers them with emotion. In this way Herbert conveys the insight that one cannot argue or reason with God; one either feels God's presence, or loses the feeling. In these respects Herbert can be considered to have broken new ground, into which Henry Vaughan followed later.

Unlike Donne, Herbert wrote no love poetry, having decided, when he began writing poetry at Cambridge, to devote his poetic works to God. He seems to have had less difficulty in adjusting from court life to a religious life than did Donne, and his faith seems to have been more secure than that of Donne. Izaak Walton reports that Herbert was considered as almost a saint by those that knew him. Herbert's poetry is certainly about struggles of a religious kind, but the struggles are neither so desperate nor so personal as Donne's. Herbert's poetry is of a more instructive kind; instructing by example rather than precept. He writes for others, recording his struggles in order that others may follow his example. The thought in Herbert's poems can be seen as a continuation of the thought in his sermons, and it is this purpose behind his poetry which largely determines his style. In the opening stanza of 'The Church Porch' he writes,

A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.

Donne's Holy Sonnet 'Batter my Heart' and Herbert's 'The Collar' are both poems about the struggle to maintain faith in God, and a comparison of the two will illustrate some of Herbert's particular characteristics.

Donne's 'Batter My Heart' shows the poet involved in a deep-rooted and desperate struggle with his own soul. He almost seems to doubt whether God exists at all, and the power of the diction and imagery is indicative of serious turmoil. In the opening line Donne writes,

Batter my heart, three person'd God; (p.85)

Herbert, showing the influence of Donne, writes in his opening line:

I struck the board, and cry'd, No more. (p.135)

Both openings are abrupt and dramatic, evoking violent action, and both are delivered in a personal and colloquial manner. Another similarity is that both poems take the form of arguments, using logic to make the reasoning convincing and persuasive. Donne writes,

. . . for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. (p.86)

Herbert writes:

What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit? (p.135)

The arguments are of quite different kinds. Donne's thinking is more intellectual, his line of reasoning reflecting a rigorously disciplined mind. Herbert's arguments relate more to feelings, the kinds of feeling with which we can all identify. Consequently, we notice a difference in style. Herbert's lines are simpler and shorter, and we understand them easily, whereas understanding Donne takes effort and concentration.

Donne, having begun his poetic career writing love poems in which the ingenuity of thought, and originality of 'conceits', were the main criteria by which they were to be judged, employed the same methods when he turned to religious poetry. Herbert puts less emphasis on conceits, exotic imagery, and ingenious thought, and looks to another source for stylistic inspiration - the Bible, or, more specifically, the language of Christ and the Parables. Where Donne goes out of his way to find an exotic or striking image - a globe, beaten gold, a pair of compasses for example, Herbert looks for the homeliest commonplace image he can find. In 'The Collar' for example we have a thorn, wine, fruit, and cable. We can see the reason for this preference in Herbert's own observations on Christ's use of common imagery:

by familiar things he might make his doctrine slip the more easily into the hearts even of the meanest . . . that labouring people might have everywhere monuments of his doctrine . . . that he might set a copy for the parsons.

Where Donne wrote for a limited readership, passing his poems around the wits and noblemen of court, Herbert did not want his vocabulary or imagery to be a barrier to any reader's understanding.

The most striking difference between the two poems comes in the final two lines of each. Donne's poem ends with a 'conceit', (quoted above), ingeniously juxtaposing the concepts of 'enthrall' and 'free', and 'chast' and 'ravish' (p.86). The meaning of these lines may not be clear on first reading, but their function is to encapsulate the argument, or dilemma, presented by the poem. Herbert's final lines have quite the opposite effect:

Me thought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply'd, My Lord! (p.135)

The impact here is achieved through the simplicity of a call of one word and a response of two words. The drama lends immediacy, drawing us in to share the poet's experience. Far from reiterating or encapsulating the dilemma explored in the poem, the lines resolve and transcend the dilemma. The questions are not answered, but abandoned when the sense of the actual presence of God renders the doubt and frustration redundant. Herbert implies that in religion reason can never be enough; faith, which fills the unknown, is the only answer. Donne did not use this technique; it was Herbert's contribution to the genre, which was taken up by later poets, such as Henry Vaughan, who use it at the end of 'The World'.

The essential simplicity of Herbert's approach is reflected in the titles he chooses, often single words such as 'Man', 'Life', 'Love', and 'Death'. These words often do not reoccur in the poems, and nor, if the poems were read without the title, would the reader be able to supply them. The unifying ideas in Herbert's poems are often simple too, such as the idea of a pulley, or a collar.

At times perhaps he comes close to over-simplifying his subjects; to liken man's need for God to a pulley, for example, or the discipline of faith to a collar, might seem rather crude. But this initial simplicity is deceptive, for the poems generally embody a system of complex thought, revealed by the structure and the use of metaphor. The structure of 'The Collar', for example, reflects the struggle between freedom and discipline in its alternation of long and short lines.

My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit? (p.135)

Complexity is also present in that the frame of mind he is expressing contains the seeds of its own downfall, for that which is free, loose, and large, can also be directionless and undisciplined. The diction of a later line reveals Herbert's self-condemnation:

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde (p.135)

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.

Vaughan made no secret of his indebtedness to Herbert for literary and spiritual guidance. Herbert's poems were published under the title The Temple, and Vaughan entitled his volume Steps to The Temple. Vaughan said of Herbert, 'The blessed man whose holy life and verse gained many pious converts, of whom I am the least.' Vaughan's poetic debt to Herbert lies chiefly in his having borrowed a conceptual framework in which to structure and present his ideas. Some of Vaughan's ideas even seem to have been borrowed from Herbert, but it is reasonable to suppose that he felt he was sharing the ideas, rather than stealing them. But Vaughan also made an important contribution of his own, in presenting his transcendental, spiritual vision so strikingly.

Gardner, Helen (Ed). The Metaphysical Poets. Penguin. 1972.

See also:
John Donne. Religious poetry. Holy Sonnet (Batter my Heart) and A Hymn to God the Father
John Donne. Love Poetry
John Donne. A Valediction: of Weeping and A Valediction: forbidding mourning. Metaphysical Love Poems

© Ian Mackean, February 2005
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