Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The theme and meaning of this poem point to Herbert’s life, in which poems ultimately became prayers and prayers became poems. His early life of high hopes, high achievements, and thwarted ambitions prepared him to write poems about people’s attempts to align themselves with God’s will. Born into a good family, Herbert was well-educated and brought up to expect a court position. He served as a tutor and as the University Orator at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, positions meant to prepare him for such a career. However, he saw his plans fail to materialize at the deaths of those influential friends who would have recommended him. He then began, later in life than most, to pursue Holy Orders. This was not a completely new direction for him, for he had been influenced by his mother, who encouraged him to pursue a religious life. However, his decision to become the parson at the country church in Bemerton, England, at age thirty-five did require a change in his life. His poems of the struggle to accept God’s will and recognize His love for humanity were written during the four years he was pastor at Bemerton before his death at age thirty-nine.

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“The Rose” could serve as an introduction to Herbert’s task of describing humankind’s inner conflicts. He commits himself to the ascetic life, a life not lacking in its own kind of beauty. In its description of the speaker’s resolution to turn away from the inviting pleasures of this world and focus on the “size” of self, it speaks to all humankind. Through the internal conversation explaining the speaker’s choice, the poem offers a reaffirmation of a spiritual decision.

While some readers of devotional poets have preferred the more spontaneous verses of Herbert’s disciple Henry Vaughan or the more impassioned poems of John Donne, Herbert’s admirers appreciate the subtlety of his wit and the sincerity of his voice, both of which are evident in “The Rose.” The manipulation of the rose itself to symbolize first what he rejects and then what he accepts shows the nature of his wit and his appreciation for paradox. Indeed, all of his poems are informed by that major paradox of Christian teaching: In order to save one’s life, one must lose it for the sake of Christ. The carefully designed artistic form and the clearly realized, particular voice of this ardent pilgrim create poems that express both the universal truth of humanity’s relationship with God and each person’s struggle to accept God’s love and will. Typical of Herbert’s work, this poem demonstrates the correspondence between form and meaning. “The Rose” encloses the totality of its meaning through the order, the voice, the dialogue, the symbol, and the paradox.

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