"Virtue" is one of the poems in a collection of verse called The Temple (1633), which George Herbert wrote during the last three years of his life. By then, he had taken holy orders in the Anglican Church and become rector in Bemerton, England, near Salisbury. Herbert's poems are lyrical and harmonious, reflecting the gentle voice of a country parson spreading the Christian message. He appreciates the beauty of creation not only for its own sake but also because he sees it as a mirror of the goodness of the Creator. Yet, despite Herbert's sense of the world's loveliness, his poems often reflect the transience of that beauty and the folly of investing it with any real value. In "Virtue," he presents a vision of an eternal world beyond the one available to sense perception.
Implicit in "Virtue" is a delicately expressed struggle between rebellion and obedience. The understated conflict lies between the desire to experience worldly pleasures and the desire—or as Herbert would insist, the need—to surrender to the will of God. The battle waged between rebellion and obedience can be seen more clearly in one of the best-known poems in The Temple, "The Collar." Therein, the poet "raves" against the yoke of submission that he must bear until he hears the voice of God call him "child"; then, he submissively yields, as the poem ends with the invocation "My Lord!" This conclusion indicates that what the narrator feels about the experience of the natural world is of less authenticity than an inner voice of authority that directs him toward God.
Herbert's poetry displays a conjunction of intellect and emotion. Carefully crafted structures, like the first three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, of "Virtue," all of which are similarly formed, contain sensuously perceived content, like depictions of daytime, nightfall, a rose, and spring. Such a combination of intellect and emotion, in which the two forces, expressed in bold metaphors and colloquial language, struggle with and illuminate each other, is most apparent in the poetry of one of Herbert's contemporaries, John Donne, and is called metaphysical poetry. In "Virtue," an example of this combination of the intellectual and the sensuous can be seen in the second line of the third quatrain, when the spring is compared to a box of compressed sweets.
In "Virtue," which comprises four quatrains altogether, Herbert reflects on the loveliness of the living world but also on the reality of death. Building momentum by moving from the glory of a day to the beauty of a rose to the richness of springtime, while reiterating at the end of each quatrain that everything "must die," Herbert leads the reader to the last, slightly varied quatrain. There, the cherished thing is not a tangible manifestation of nature but the intangible substance of "a sweet and virtuous soul." When all else succumbs to death, the soul "then chiefly lives." Not through argument but through an accumulation of imagery, Herbert contrasts the passing glories of the mortal world with the eternal glory of the immortal soul and thereby distinguishes between momentary and eternal value.
"Virtue" and many other poems from The Temple can be found in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke and published by Harcourt, Brace & World, in 1963.
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