A poem a day by George Herbert: ‘Vertue’
Written by: Helen Wilcox
This short poem is one of the most perfect lyrics in the English language. In pure and exquisitely simple phrases, it suggests the perfection of the created world – the new day, the bright rose, the fresh spring – yet also reminds us of the inevitably transitory nature of life. All the ‘sweet’ things described in the first three stanzas are innocent, beautiful and packed with potential, but they conceal within themselves the seeds of their own mortality: the day must ‘fall’ into night, the rose’s root is already ‘in its grave’, and spring must ‘close’ as it gives way to subsequent seasons. Like a melody – or the patterns of verse itself, the poet’s ‘musick’ – all things contain their endings and ‘must die’. This phrase comes from the poem’s refrain, which is subtly varied in each of the first three stanzas but cumulatively suggests that this is a carpe diem poem, in which the final stanza will, rather conventionally, urge readers to seize the day (or the rose or the spring) while they can. However, at this point Herbert’s poem takes an unexpected turn, which is (paradoxically) typical of his great rhetorical skills. The last stanza surprises us by asserting the one thing that will not die, the virtuous soul, which lives on even as the world itself comes to an end. Suddenly the poem’s title, ‘Vertue’, and its most frequently repeated word, ‘sweet’, are brought into conjunction with one another. This spiritual virtue is the true sweetness, strong as ‘season’d timber’. Instead of ending as a lament for that which dies, the poem concludes as a celebration of all that ‘lives’.