George Herbert (1593-1633)

George Herbert was rector of Bemerton between 1630-1633. He was also a poet and his colloquies and religious themes really appeal to me. His poetry reflects a balanced Anglicanism (neither Puritan nor Catholic), and for me the simplicity of diction and metaphor are an important part of what make them so interesting and effective.


When Herbert’s father died the young family moved to London, and Herbert’s mother became friend and patron to the Metaphysical poet John Donne. ‘These close links with the older poet had an influential and positive effect on Herbert’s life and work’ (Graham, 2000). But unlike Donne, ‘Herbert wrote no love poetry, having decided, when he began writing poetry at Cambridge, to devote his poetic works to God’ (Mackean, 2005).

There is a clarity and directness in Herbert’s verses. His writing is sometimes musical and often his structural forms are uncomplicated and not unlike a ‘song’.  Perhaps some poems were indeed meant for musical accompaniment. An example of this could be ‘Easter Song’. In fact, we can still find some of Herbert’s work in British hymnals today. A few famous ones being ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’ and ‘Teach me, My God and King’.

Many of his poems are also colloquies (conversations) between himself and God or with his heart, and we can see good examples in his poems ‘Good Friday’ and ‘The Pearl’. In these works the tone is ‘private, subjective and modest’. In ‘Good Friday’ we hear Herbert modestly saying ‘o my chief good’ and ‘how shall I count what thee befell?’ These colloquies allow for a powerful exchange of emotions and dilemmas between the poet and the recipient.

A prominent and important theme in Herbert’s poetry is his struggle between an ordinary life versus a surrendering to God. A good example of this can be found in his poem ‘The Collar’ a clever metaphor playing on the idea of the collar being both a restraint (Herbert being a servant of God), and an item of clerical clothing. Herbert intends a pun on the word collar with the word ‘choler’ meaning anger. The poem is a complaint being voiced by someone rebelling against the constraint he feels binds him. The poem is rich with restraining imagery ‘collars, cages, cable and ropes’, and there are rhetorical questions asked throughout giving the reader a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Another interesting aspect of this poem is the randomness of the stanza form. This may suggest exaggeration of a conversational tone. We can almost imagine the poet really speaking in this poem. Likewise, the unusual stanza pattern may symbolise indiscipline of the rebellious spirit, or impulsiveness. Both ideas are interesting and work well with the style and theme of the poem. Also of interest is the contrast between the start of the poem, where the narrator depicts violence ‘I struck the board (altar), and cried, No more/I will abroad’ to show a spiritual crisis. This is in sharp contrast to the calm ending: ‘Me thought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied, My Lord’, where the poet hears God’s voice and instantly knows his place and admits God’s authority.

Herbert’s poetry is full of Christian imagery and is probably semi-autobiographical. It is also clear that his sureness of tone comes from a very sound biblical knowledge. This can be seen in his poems ‘Man’ and ‘Love III’. In ‘Man’ Herbert develops a theme drawing from the book of Genesis and Psalm 8. His good understanding of theology is effectively put to use in uncomplicated and clear language. In this poem we also see an interesting conceit. Here ‘man’ is a metaphor for the world. He also possibly intended a double meaning where man is seen as the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. ‘Herbert often drew his inspiration from everyday domestic experiences, employing a range of simple commonplace imagery’ (Mackean, 2005). Good examples of this can be found in his poems ‘The Church-Floor’ and ‘The Window’. Herbert drew upon the structures and artefacts which surrounded him as a priest as sources for his verses. Both poems are:

Based on the church building itself: the metaphysical and allegorical interrelationship between devotion and the place which has been made for it provides the sustained images (Graham, 2000, p.56).

In ‘The Church-Floor’ the first four stanzas are only three lines each ending with ‘Patience, Humility, Confidence and Charity’ a personification of human virtues built upon aspects of the church floor. The last octave of the poem ends with ‘Blest be the Architect (referring to God), whose art/Could build so strong in a weak heart’. Although this poem is simplistic in style the comparison between the virtues and Herbert’s use of concrete imagery, is both effective and interesting. The same can be said of his poem ‘The Windows’ where Herbert this time compares preachers to church windows. Implying that through the grace of God man can become a window through which the glory of God shines as a light through a window. Again, this poem is a simple but effective comparison of church architecture and human qualities. A further interesting observation on the poetry of Herbert reveals how he often used ‘pattern poems’ as an effective tool:

George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is written in a form of pattern poetry known as carmen figuration, otherwise known as shaped verse, in which the words and lines are arranged on the page so that they create a visual image or illustration of the poem’s subject. Herbert creates a visual image of wings, whether intended to be angels or of birds, offer a thematic view of the human state (Dykes, 2002).

Another good example of Herbert’s use of shaped verse can be found in his poem ‘The Altar’ in which the words of the poem itself form a shape of an altar. Interestingly, Herbert uses the theme of an altar in his poem as a metaphor for how one should himself as a sacrifice to the Lord.

I think it is fair to say that Herbert was a master of economy when it came to poetry. Although many of his themes are serious and weighty, Herbert approached his work with a directness and simplicity quite different to the other Metaphysical poets of his time. ‘John Donne often expressed his doubts in intellectual terms, answering them in the same way. Herbert on the other hand occasionally explored his doubts in intellectual terms, but he answered them with emotion’ (Mackean, 2005).

Through Herbert’s often ‘conversational, persuasive and proverbial’ tone, we can see a poet plagued by his own human weaknesses and doubts.  A reader would not have to be religious to relate to the common struggles Herbert experienced in his life. Indeed, whether one approaches Herbert’s work from a religious point of view or not, it would be hard to deny that his simple lyrical poems are packed intensely with emotion and often speak for themselves.


Keats & Coleridge – Romanticism

A brief look at Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. What links them to the Romantic tradition?

In a letter to Benjamin Bailey (Nov 1817) Keats wrote ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.’ This is an interesting quote as it sums up one view of Romanticism as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Writers, artists, and composers during the Romantic period valued intuition over learning and imagination over doctrine. This is a direct contrast to the earlier Age of Enlightenment which valued both logic and science. The Romantics wanted their work to be for everybody (not just for the educated) and to bring back the spiritual with a new language connected to nature and beauty. It is with this view in mind that I would like to analyse two poems from this period and to demonstrate how their language and content links them as examples of ‘Romantic’ poetry.

In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ the speaker directs his address to a nightingale as a way of expressing an intense thought and feeling. ‘The first half of the ode shows how the speaker desires to escape the self and its human condition’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.91). Stanza one begins with thudding alliteration – a sense of melancholy. This is reinforced with ‘numbness’, ‘dull opiates’ and ‘sunk’. He is too happy in his happiness and is tipping over into sadness. In stanza two he longs for wine and the sensuous joys of summer. We see this in ‘tasting of Flora’, ‘country green’ and ‘sunburnt mirth!’ In both stanzas the poet is focusing on his own feelings and intuition rather than trying to apply reason and logic. These were important ideas to the ‘Romantics’ who valued nature and spontaneity and the importance of the individual self. Continuing with the analysis, we notice the mood shift in stanza four where he connects with the world of the nightingale and talks of light in both the literal and spiritual sense. This ‘experienced’ enchantment is intensified (in stanza five) with vivid images and references to different sensory experiences. We have sight: ‘white hawthorn’ and ‘pastoral eglantine’, fragrance (or smell): ‘the coming musk rose’, taste: ‘dewy wine’ and lastly hearing: ‘the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves’.  This intensity peaks in stanza six with a moment of complete happiness ‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’. In stanza seven he refers to the bird as a symbol of immortality and links legend, romance, the bible and the timelessness of the nightingale’s song. The repetition of the word ‘forlorn’ interestingly punctures the poem and here the speaker returns grounded to the original place. We are reminded of the important ‘Romantic’ principle of imagination through the elevation of the poets self – the contrast between earth v. heaven and stasis v. movement. In the final stanza the speaker’s soul returns to the earth from its visionary world gentle and dreamy, ending with two questions ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?’ which concludes nothing other than ‘the ode itself and its musical fellowship with a vanished nightingale’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.92).

Looking at the structure of the poem we notice the ode is composed of ten line stanzas: a Shakespearian sonnet-quatrain (abab) plus a Petrachan sestet (cdecde). According to Wolfson (2001) ‘this form subscribes to a metrical contract, against which a contrarian poet such as Keats could play the urgencies of passion and impulse. The ode is graceful and free and it is fluidly handled’. It builds to a climax and returns to earth gently. This is a wonderful example of a poem that focuses on the less tangible ‘Romantic’ areas of human experiences.

If we now consider Coleridge’s poem Frost at Midnight. We notice that the overriding concern of the speaker is his relationship with his infant son and his aspiration for him to have a better start in life. We notice ‘the silence of the house is pregnant with preternatural energy’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64) but it is a quality silence ‘the kind of silence that has absolutely nothing to do with loneliness, or emptiness; the kind of silence that actually empowers the consciousness’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64). An interesting ‘Romantic’ platform to begin our analysis of the ideas within the poem.

As with Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, nature plays an important part in ‘Frost at Midnight’ and it is used to great effect in the poem. The speaker is acutely aware of what is going on both inside and outside of the cottage. In stanza one he is hyper-aware and dwells on a mixture of intrusive thoughts ‘abstruser musings’ and mix of sensory information ‘inaudible as dreams’ ‘thin blue flame’ and ‘fluttered’. In addition to this the silence is broken twice by an ‘owlets cry’. These are important as they show the poet being both introspective and highly aware of his surroundings. He is using his imagination and internalising, two important ‘Romantic’ ideas. Stanza two is a recollection of his school days. We find ‘stirred’ and ‘haunted’ and ‘wild pleasures’. He also adds ‘supernatural’ qualities to his childhood memories as when he refers to the church bells as ‘sounds of things to come.’ In stanza three he comes back to the present and contrasts his upbringing in the city with images of nature and the sublime. He imagines his child growing up submerged in the awesomeness of nature ‘wander like a breeze/by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds.’ The poem also has a strong Christian element where nature represents the physical presence of God’s word. We notice this in ‘Himself in all, and all things in himself’. This is important as he links nature with the divine. The final stanza concludes with a message of hope for his child. It is full of optimistic gems from all the seasons. We find ‘summer and greenness’ the ‘robin redbreast betwixt tufts of snow’ and ‘the secret ministry of frost.’

The poem is a verse monologue. It was classed by Coleridge as one of his ‘conversational’ poems. According to Audet (1970) ‘much of the poems success derives from the tension created between the poet’s extreme emotion and his natural, conversational language’. The poem ‘has a restraint and naturalness of language which suits the rather simple events described. To obtain this naturalness, Coleridge has employed a flexible, easy-flowing blank verse’ (Audet, 1970). It is this conversational style that marks it as a truly ‘Romantic’ poem that can appeal to anybody no matter how educated or uneducated. It is full of natural imagery, human instinct and is considered by many to a seminal poem from this period.


AUDET, R.A. 1970. ‘Frost at Midnight’: The Other Coleridge [www] (6th Jan, 2012)

FERGUSON, M., SALTER, M.J., STALLWORTHY, J. 2005. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th edn. London: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 935-937 & pp. 810-811.

KEANIE, A. 2002. Student Guide to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Greenwich Exchange, pp. 62-64.

WOLDSON, S.J. 2001. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 90-93.


KRAUZE, A., SPENCER, L. 1997. Introducing the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd.

O’HARA, K. 2010. The Enlightenment. Oxford: One World Publications

WHITNEY, E. 2010. English Romanticism [www] (6th Jan, 2012)

Drift: Verses (1900) – Horatio Brown

I’ve decided to share with you today a small poem from Horatio Brown’s extremely uncommon anthology “Drift: Verses” which made a limited appearance in 1900. It was suppressed before publication due to its homoerotic nature. Brown spent most of his adult life in Venice, a dedicated aficionado of Italian history and young gondoliers.


[At a London Music]

Two rows of foolish faces blent

In two blurred lines; the compliment,

The formal smile, the cultured air,

The sense of falseness everywhere.

Her ladyship superbly dresses –

I like their footman, John, the best.


The tired musicians’ ruffled mien,

Their whispered talk behind the screen,

The frigid plaudits, quite confined

By fear of being unrefined.

His lordship’s grave and courtly jest –

I like their footman, John, the best.


Remote I sat with shaded eyes,

Supreme attention in my guise,

And heard the whole laborious din,

Piano, ‘cello, violin;

And so, perhaps, they hardly guessed

I liked their footman, John, the best.

A Crown of Friendship (1921)

Although slightly later than the Victorian period I usually write about, I wanted to post a little blog about an obscure poet called Fabian S. Woodley, who wrote the unusual and extremely scarce anthology A Crown of Friendship. It’s unusual in the sense that all his poems have a distinctively ‘Uranian’ tone. Woodley clearly had a passion for young men, and declared that ‘Boyhood was the only ideal worth following’. This is apparent in all his extant poems.

After the First World War, Woodley wrote for a local newspaper, the Somerset Country Gazette, before settling on a teaching career (I’m not sure this was entirely appropriate given his penchant for youth!). He worked as an English teacher at several well-known schools, including Wellington College, and it was during this period that he published his collection A Crown of Friendship. I have chosen to share his poem ‘The Beautiful’, as it’s the best piece in the collection, IMO.


The Beautiful

Long years ago there came to me in sleep
The vision of a boy divinely fair;
His eyes were moon-kissed seas, serene and deep,
Elysian blossoms crowned his golden hair;
Light flowed around him, gently fell his voice
Like a soft-singing shower of silver dew,
Long time he gazed, then smiling, spoke ” Rejoice!
Seek only Me, for I alone am true!”


Straightway he fled upborne within a maze
Of mighty wings and music wonderful,
Whilst all the air grew dizzy with the praise
Of voices crying loud, ” The Beautiful.”
Heavenward he vanished — but his radiant face
Still haunts me — a pure spiritual joy,
And well I know he makes his dwelling-place
In the clear honest eyes of any boy.