John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Alternatives: The Reinvented Poem

One of the particular virtues of Herbert's poetry is its provisional quality. His poems are ready at any moment to change direction or to modify attitudes. Even between the title and the first line, Herbert may rethink his position. There are lines in which the nominal experiences or subjects have suffered a sea-change, so that the poem we think we are reading turns into something quite other. The more extreme cases occur in Herbert's "surprise endings," in what Valentina Poggi calls his "final twist," in which Herbert "dismisses the structure, issues, and method" of the entire poem, "rejecting the established terms" on which the poem has been constructed. A case in point is " Clasping of Hands," which ends, after playing for nineteen lines on the notions of "thine" and "mine," with the exclamation, "Or rather make no Thine and Mine!" In cases less abrupt, Herbert's fluid music lulls our questions: we scarcely see his oddities, or if we see them, they cease to seem odd, robed in the seamless garment of his cadence. When in "Vertue" he breathes, "Sweet rose," we echo, "Sweet rose," and never stop to think that nothing in the description he gives us of the rose—angry in hue, pricking the eye of the rash beholder, with its root ever in the grave—bears out the epithet "sweet." Is the stanza about a sweet rose, as the epithet would have us believe, or about a bitter rose? This is a minor example of Herbert's immediate critique of his own clichés ( "The Collar" could serve as a major example) and poses, in little, the problem of this chapter: how to give an accurate description of Herbert's constantly self-critical poems, which so often reject premises as soon as they are established.

Herbert's willingness to abolish his primary terms of reference or his primary emotion at the last possible moment speaks for his continually

From The Poetry of George Herbert. © 1970, 1975 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Harvard University Press, 1975.


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