George Herbert’s “The Rose” is a lyric and meditative poem first published as part of his collection The Temple, a group of poems written as a record of a man’s efforts to recognize and follow God’s will; it was also intended to guide and comfort others. “The Rose” has the musical and cyclical qualities typical of many poems in the collection as well as many of Herbert’s hymns that appear in the Anglican hymnal. Each of its eight stanzas of four lines has a rhyme scheme of abab. Every line begins with a beat and continues in three iambic feet. Three stanzas—1, 5, and 7—include two lines ending in feminine rhyme; that is, the second-to-last syllable receives the beat, and the unaccented syllables rhyme. These three sets of lines come to bear the important message of the poem: The rose offers pleasure, it purges, and it claims repentance.
The poem is also something of a meditation that takes the form of a dialogue with self or an imagined questioner. The speaker explains his reasons, either to a friend or to himself, for adopting the life he has chosen. His decision to give up his life in order to be more useful reflects a submission to God’s will. Pressed, in the first line, to take more pleasure in life, the speaker responds that he wants no more pleasure than he has apportioned to his “strict but welcome size.” Pleasures, he explains, do not exist. They are only griefs in disguise. He offers the rose as a symbol of all that is beautiful in the world to explain his point. The rose, he notes, is fair and sweet, but its beauty is accompanied by pain: It is thorny, and it pricks. This discomfort must be borne by the admirer of the rose. If the rose symbolizes all “that worldlings prize” and ultimately causes pain, it is clear, by extension, that all other worldly joys also bring suffering. With suffering comes repentance, and, while repentance cleanses, it also rends the spirit, just as “physick” (medicine) rends the body.
The speaker thus prefers health over the cure. He refuses the offer of worldly pleasure, yet he refuses it gently (“fairly”). Surprisingly and paradoxically, however, he ends by accepting the rose. Through analysis of the rose as representative of life’s pleasures, he has seen his reason for rejecting it. Yet as he explains his choice, he recognizes more clearly the beauty of his own preference for the simple, godly life. This life now comes to be best represented by the rose. In its simple, incomparable beauty, it is unlike the worldly pleasure of life even if it does provide an instructive metaphor for it. Thus, the rose comes to represent the simple, beautiful, and accessible gift that he accepts.
Forms and Devices
“The Rose,” like all of Herbert’s poems, has an orderly, clever, and paradoxical form. Using simple words, Herbert constantly invents new forms that appropriately reflect the ideas being explored. His poems use all the repetitive devices (particularly rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and repetition of words and phrases), as well as meter and form, to convey meaning. The shaping of some poems to reinforce the literal meaning shows the importance he attaches to the form itself. The form also reflects the perception of an orderly universe, which is revealed through close observation, analysis, and a metaphorical habit of mind.
Herbert’s poems present an artistic formulation of the analysis of a conflict. The result is often a dialogue. The Socratic dialogue was, for the classically educated person of the seventeenth century, the way to explore a topic in order to understand it. Herbert uses the dialogue repeatedly in his poems, achieving both...
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