Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many of Herbert’s earlier poems, “Old Masters” expresses a profound dissatisfaction with the present state of the world and a longing for a better, more meaningful way of life. This poem, however, differs substantially from most of its companion poems in Report from the Besieged City in two important ways. First, “Old Masters” is more deliberately nostalgic than the other pieces in the volume. The contrast between past and present is implied more than actualized, and Herbert dwells at length on the sweetness and beauty of the Old Masters’ art, into which he longs to escape. The present state of the world holds almost no interest for him, except as something to be radically changed. Second, Herbert’s usual ironic complexity is almost entirely absent here; gone are the antithetical twists and layered juxtapositions that characterize the “Mr. Cogito” poems of this volume. Instead, Herbert offers the reader a surprisingly candid and direct appeal for an imaginative, sentimental return to bygone days of spiritual unity and artistic selflessness and longs for a recapitulation for a Renaissance that had run its course over six hundred years ago.

It is peculiar, as well, that the theological center of the Old Masters’ work—God—goes unmentioned in the text, as if Herbert, while crying out for the values of a lost mastery, cannot bring himself to pronounce the deity’s name without violating his own post-Nietzschean sense of bathos and overt sentimentality. To say “God” would be to go too far in a world where God has been declared dead. Herbert finds himself, in the poem, performing a difficult balancing act, faced, on the one hand, with a great need to combat his “hard moments of doubt” with some sort of stable value system and, on the other hand, with an inherently modern, ironic sensibility that does not trust itself enough to utter the name of God without calling its motives and position into question. As well as of a longing for the spirituality of the Old Masters, then, Herbert’s prayer reminds the reader of his irreconcilable differences from them.