What are the most important similarities and the most important difference between Shakespeare and George Herbert's writings, using Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" and George Herbert's "Easter Wings" as...

What are the most important similarities and the most important difference between Shakespeare and George Herbert's writings, using Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" and George Herbert's "Easter Wings" as examples?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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  • Both Herbert as a Metaphysical poet and Shakespeare as a Renaissance man have the fall of Adam as an underlying theme in their verses.

Ranked with John Donne as one of the great Metaphysical poets, George Herbert composed poems that exemplify fervent religious devotion accompanied by a most ingenious use of conceit. His poetry is precise in word, agile in meter. As a metaphysical poet, in "Easter Wings" Herbert creates the conceit of the wings that are the metaphor for transformation from sin to redemption as a result of Christ's coming after the Fall and His Resurrection (Easter). Most creatively, Herbert not only composes a poem on this transformation, but he depicts man's fall visually as the stanza narrows and man's redemption as it enlarges again into the second wing. With man's redemption, there are formed "Easter Wings" as he can now attain immortality in heaven because of Christ's dying for man's sins:

               Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

William Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII is also written with the extended metaphor of transformation from mortality to immortality. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is the rhetorical question that begins the speaker's argument that the mortality and finite quality of nature is not comparable to his lover's beauty because such things as the "darling buds of May" die. But "Death" and "his shade" will not conquer the lover's beauty as it will last in "eternal lines" of verse.

  • The greatest difference in these poems is in subject matter and form.

While Herbert's verse is deeply religious (the speaker's soul is immortalized by Christ's victory over Death), Shakespeare's lover's beauty will be immortalized in art, as stated in the final couplet:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare's poem differs greatly from that of Herbert's as it conforms to the Petrarchan sonnet; the octave forms the argument that the speaker does not want to compare his love to nature that is temporal and contains a volta, or turn in thought, as the speaker rejects the comparison to a summer's day: "And every fair from fair sometime declines." Then the sestet offers the solution that the speaker will write this verse which will last as long as "men can breathe."

Herbert's religious poem quite cleverly assumes a form that gives further meaning to his verses in its visual quality. It exemplifies how man's spiritual fortune waxes and wanes as he moves away from God in original sin, then toward Him from the redemption of Easter and Christ's ascension.

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