By George Herbert
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
“Vertue”, modernly referred to as ‘Virtue’, is a deceptive poem. Although it is, to an extent, about the importance of virtue, it spends a lot of time considering death and the temporarily of the physical world. The first three stanzas don’t actually consider the concept of virtue at all. Instead, they describe how all things and, in particular, nature, are shadowed by the constant presence of death. Then, in the final stanza, Herbert suggests that the only thing not to be limited by death is the virtuous soul. Such religious individuals are made eternal through their relationship with God.
Metre & Structure
This poem is written in a very constant iambic tetrameter that only deviates from this rhythm a few times, including the switch to iambic dimeter at the end of each stanza. These shorter lines arguably emphasise the theme of death in this poem as the long lines are brought to a short, abrupt halt. There is also the occasional switch to trochaic meter in this poem that helps emphasise certain words and lines.
The rhyme pattern in this poem is even more constant. It is made up of alternating rhymes, yet its more interesting feature is the repeated rhyme for “skie”, made throughout the various stanzas. This emphasises the “die”, making it sound more effective, and also making its absence in the final stanza all the more noticeable. There are also a lot of oppositions in this poem that can be linked through their rhymes. For example, “bright” rhymes with “night”, an opposite that emphasises the sense of darkening and growing loss and sadness as the poem progresses.
Line by Line
- “Sweet”, “so” – The constant sibilance in this poem is emphasised through the repeated word, “Sweet”. This sibilance creates a relaxed, melancholy tone.
- “The bridall of the earth and skie” – This allusion to marriage relates to the sense of harmony within the poem. At the same time, however, it indicates a link between “earth” and “skie” that is indicative of death. The “earth” represents the mortal human world while the “skie” indicates the Christian heaven that Herbert, as a devout Christian and priest, valued.
- “The dew shall weep” – The personification here indicates the power of nature as well as emphasising the poem’s sense of melancholy.
- “Thy fall” – This alludes not only to a physical fall or even a death, but also to humankind’s Fall through the Original Sin and thus suggests that Herbert’s audience has committed a sin – as if they are somehow at fault.
- “To-night” – The plentitude of natural imagery in this opening stanza hints towards the sublime (the idea of being overwhelmed and overpowered by nature). The darkness of night gives a similar impression of powerlessness.
- “For thou must die” / “And thou must die” / “And all must die” – There is a sense of an imperative command within this final, rather ominous line of the stanza. It is almost as though Herbert is telling his audience that they have no choice but to die. This point is emphasised by the abrupt nature of the monosyllabic “die”, as well as by the shorter line that forms the conclusion to this stanza. The repetition of this line throughout the poem reminds us that death is a constant theme, overshadowing the natural beauty Herbert describes. It also progresses from “thou must die” to “all must die”, this progression revealing the power of death.
- “Angrie and brave” – The harsh sounds and meanings of these words contradict with the relaxed, melancholy tone of the poem. This indicates a change of the poem’s mood as its relaxed tone becomes more aggressive.
- “Bids” – The change of tone in the poem is emphasised by this plosive “Bids” which also causes a break in the iambic meter (it momentarily switches to a trochaic meter at the start of this line).
- “Rash” – This again hints to the theme of sin as Herbert suggests that his audience is somehow at fault for staring at the “rose”. This is perhaps due to their ignorance as they didn’t expect to find any “angrie” tones within the natural world that is ordinarily associated, as in the first stanza, with peace and tranquility.
- “Root” / “Grave” – This earthly imagery emphasises the theme of death and suggests that the reason the “rose” is “angrie” is because the natural peace of nature is continually disturbed by the knowledge that its beauty is only temporary; the “rose”, like humanity, “must die”.
- “A box” – This “box” may indicate a collection of flowers, yet it also alludes to coffins and death; in this poem, the positives are always shadowed by the ominous and constant presence of death.
- “Sweets compacted lie” – Again, “compacted” may allude to the beauty of flowers all growing close together, yet it may also be a reference to the multitude of dead flowers nourishing the ground from which they grow. In the same way, “lie” may refer to the physical action of lying down, or to deception, and thus also the double meanings alluded to throughout this poem.
- “Musick” – This probably alludes to Herbert’s own poetry but also indicates the beauty that is at least conveyed on the surface of this poem. It is also possible that the “box” from the previous line may be referring to a music box, which highlights this sense of beauty through its connection to a melodic charm.
- “A sweet and vertuous soul” – Like the natural world, the soul Herbert considers is “sweet”. Yet what separates it from the temporality of nature is that it is “vertuous”. This is Herbert’s main point as he finally refers to the poem’s title.
- “Season’d timber” – Nature is again being presented as temporary, yet here it is made temporary through purposeful destruction. The wood is not dying naturally, but being converted to timber, cut down by human hands for the sake of industry.
- “The whole world turns to coal” – This again hints towards humankind’s purposeful destruction of nature. Herbert thus emphasises a political message within this poem as industry is polarised to virtue. This presents it as in some way immoral, which comes back to the “angrie” references made earlier. Herbert may be indicating that he does not agree with this destruction of nature, perhaps due to the Christian concept of human stewardship over nature.
- “Then chiefly lives” – It is only really in this final line that the primary message of this poem is conveyed. Herbert is saying that whilst most things, such as the average person and much of the natural world, are temporary, the virtuous person will live forever through their connection to God and the idea of an afterlife.
“Vertue” is all about the importance of Christian values. It promotes Christianity through the idea that a true, virtuous Christian will be made eternal in God’s afterlife. Yet even as an atheist, I am able to appreciate the message in this poem. There’s something really quite beautiful about Herbert’s descriptions of the natural world, contrasted to the ever-constant presence of the death that works to reveal Herbert’s main point in this poem. This is that there are many beautiful or “sweet” things in this world, and we can appreciate that beauty, yet no matter how beautiful they are, they cannot champion virtue, which allows such “sweet” things to be preserved eternally. So, whilst it is a Christian poem, it’s not inaccessible to the average reader. I often find religious poems quite difficult to appreciate as they are packed with biblical allusions, yet this poem isn’t like that. It is complex, but not in the sense that you need an in-depth understanding of the Bible to access it. In fact, if it wasn’t for the last stanza, this poem couldn’t be called a religious poem at all.