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George Herbert's "Vertue": An Easter Poem? by Suzanne McDonald At the literal level, George Herbert's lyric poem "Vertue" has a self-evident and incontrovertible meaning: it juxtaposes earthly transience and mutability with the immortality of the true Christian soul. In addition, though, there seems to be both internal and external evidence to suggest an added dimension concerned with the dual nature of Christ, both mortal and divine, as we encounter this paradox through the events of Easter. This should not altogether surprise us. As one commentator has remarked, "a glance at Herbert's table of contents will show how many of his poems are subsumed under the series Advent, Nativity, Ash Wednesday and Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, and some special days like Trinity Sunday and All Saints; also, many more of the poems are Lenten or Holy Week poems than we have recognized."1 External evidence for this surmise is provided by implicit biblical allusions incorporating imagery which has fixed meanings outside the immediate context of the poem, while internal evidence is provided by the strategic choice of these images in "Vertue," and the occurrence of similar words and images throughout the fabric of The Temple. The literal and metaphoric modes are not, of course, mutually exclusive, since both views derive from the same source: it is the Fall which brings the decay of nature and of earthly beauty, and hence the need for Christ to assume flesh and to die. If we see the poem in the light of Christ's death and resurrection, rather than viewing it merely as an account of nature's corruption and the survival of the upright soul, then some of its perceived difficulties and peculiarities will disappear, and its richness and pathos will be enhanced. The poem's most suggestive line is the second, where the day is described as "the bridall of the earth and skie" (I. 2).2 The implications of this are clear: the earth and sky are united by the day, and not, as has been suggested, that the stanza depicts the deflowering of an innocent bride.3 Rather, it is the concept of marriage itself which is present: it is in the day itself that the earth and sky are joined. There is little to hinder the natural extension of this image to include the person of Christ, who, in spite of his divinity, assumes 62Suzanne McDonald man's flesh, accomplishing in himself that which Herbert attributes to the day: the union of heaven and earth. The scriptural and patristic resonance which surrounds the notion of "bridall" is strong, including such universal commonplaces as the marriage of both the earthly church and the individual soul to Christ the divine bridegroom. That the day represents Christ is likewise a commonplace, since the sun, by its perpetual rise and fall, is a constant symbol of Christ's birth, death and resurrection, a topic most famously explored and developed in Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward" and Milton's "Nativity Ode." The first stanza may therefore contain an implicit suggestion of the Easter pattern inherent in the concept of the fall of the day and of the sun. Other poems in The Temple, and the structure of the work itself, support this approach. "Vertue," for instance, is immediately preceded by "Lent," a fact to which I shall have occasion to return. Looking further afield, however, other poems in The Temple employ the same vocabulary and imagery to focus on the central paradox of the Easter celebration. "Sunday," for instance, which has for one of its major themes the significance of Sunday in the Easter cycle ("This day my Saviour rose" [1. 36]) opens with a line comparable to the first line of "Vertue" — "O Day most calm, most bright" — and Sunday is presented as "Th'indorsement of supreme delight, / Writ by a friend, and with his bloud" (U. 3-4). Moreover, Christ is again depicted as a source of light: "The week were dark, but for thy light: / Thy torch doth show the way" (U. 6-7). "Sunday" is concerned most centrally with the Resurrection. By implicitly invoking its first line, "Vertue" maintains the association, but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 61-69
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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