Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan
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.
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
Herbert, showing the influence of Donne, writes in his opening line:
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,
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.
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
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'.
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:
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.
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 the third stanza he records how he tried to argue himself into faith, with love, and true religious experience, being conspicuous by their absence.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Similarly, in 'Man' Vaughan writes,
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',
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.
In a similar manner Vaughan contemplates the madness of humanity, and receives understanding from a voice:
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,
Here he is discussing a sacred subject in the most casual colloquial manner. Similarly Vaughan begins 'The World' with,
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,
In contrast, Vaughan's images are more universal, or cosmic, even to the point of judging man in relation to infinity.
In contrast to Herbert's 'milk and sweetnesses' Vaughan sees God's gift as,
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:
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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