George Herbert – “Denial”, “Virtue”, “Man”

“Denial” is another crisis-of-faith poem, in which Herbert uses an interesting device – each stanza but the last one ends with a line which does not rhyme with the others. This emphasizes the main metaphor of the poem, in which the speaker, after praying unsuccessfully to God, who doesn’t seem to hear his prayers, feels like an unused and unstrung lute thrown carelessly aside. In the last stanza he asks God to “cheer and tune” his heartless breast (heartless because he feels so discouraged) by granting his request, so that God’s favours “and my mind may chime/and mend my rhyme”.

“Virtue” in three stanzas describes the three things, in the ascending order of how long they last: a sweet day, sweet rose and sweet spring. They all are by their nature fleeting and must die. But “a sweet and virtuous soul” can never die even when the whole world turns to ashes on the Doomsday.

“Man” begins with the conversational “My God, I heard this day…”  What the speaker heard was that when people build a big house, it’s because they want to live in it. But what house can be more stately than man is? Man is everything: plant, animal and the unique being possessing reason and speech (the idea is similar to the one expressed by Thomas Browne). He is the microcosm (which is of course all over the place in Donne’s poetry). Everything in nature: plants, seas, rain, serves to help him (Didn’t Herbert hear about poisonous plants and floods?) So if man is such a wonderful palace, the speaker asks God to always dwell in it. I realize this post is really poor, but I am after my first day of teaching this semester and I am really tired.


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