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John Donne (1572-1631) established what is known as the metaphysical style of poetry which was taken up by later poets such as George Herbert (1593-1633) and Henry Vaughan (1622-95). Some of the main features of Donne’s style are: the abrupt opening of a poem with a surprising dramatic line; the use of colloquial diction; the ideas of the poem are presented as a logical and persuasive argument, the purpose of which is to aid him in his courtship, be it of a woman or of God. Donne drew metaphors from all walks of life, especially the crafts and sciences, and made frequent use of the ‘presumed’: a surprising and ingenious twist of ideas. Often a whole poem is an extended “presumption”, and often a poem ends with a final “presumption” in the last two lines. Gives developed the technique from him writing love poetry, later adapting it to writing religious poetry.

George Herbert he followed the example offered by Donne, but also made quite different contributions. Herbert’s distinctive feature is his simplicity of diction and metaphor. He retains the colloquial manner and, to some extent, the persuasive logical presentation of ideas, but draws his metaphors from everyday domestic experience, employing a variety of simple, common imagery in contrast to Donne’s sophisticated imagery. “Concepts” are not an important part of Herbert’s poetry, and their appeal is not as intellectual as Donne’s.

One technique Herbert introduced was the ending of a poem with two quiet lines that resolve the poem’s argument without responding to the specific points raised by it. In this way, Herbert conveys the idea that one cannot argue or reason with God; one feels the presence of God or loses the feeling. In these respects, Herbert can be considered to have broken new ground, which was later followed by Henry Vaughan.

Unlike Donne, Herbert did not write love poetry, having decided, when he began writing poetry at Cambridge, to dedicate his poetic works to God. Herbert’s poetry deals with struggles of a religious kind, but the struggles are neither as desperate nor as personal as Donne’s. Herbert writes for others, recording his struggles so others can follow his example. The thought of Herbert’s poems can be seen as a continuation of the thought of his sermons, and it is this purpose behind his poetry that largely determines his style. In the opening stanza of ‘The Church Porch’ he writes:

‘A verse can find one who flies a sermon,

And turn delight into a sacrifice.’

Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Batter my Heart’ and Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ are poems about the struggle to maintain faith in God.

Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart’ finds the poet engaged in a deep-seated struggle with his own soul. He almost seems to doubt that God exists at all, and the power of diction and imagery is indicative of serious confusion. In the first line, Donne writes:

‘My heart beats, God of three persons;’

Herbert, showing Donne’s influence, writes in his first line:

I hit the board and cried: No more.

Both openings are abrupt and dramatic, and both are presented in a personal and colloquial way. Another similarity is that both poems take the form of arguments, using logic to make the reasoning convincing and persuasive. give writes,

‘. . . for me

Unless you enslave me, you’ll never be free

Nor ever chaste, unless you rape me.

Herbert writes:

‘What? Will I ever sigh and sigh?

My lines and my life are free; free as the horse,

Loose as the wind, as big as a tent.

Will I continue with the suit?

Donne’s thinking is more intellectual, while Herbert’s arguments are more about feelings, the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. Therefore, we notice a difference in style. Herbert’s lines are simpler and shorter, and we understand them easily, while understanding Donne requires effort and concentration.

Compared to Donne, Herbert places less emphasis on concepts, exotic imagery, and clever thinking, and looks to another source of stylistic inspiration: the Bible, or more specifically, the language of Christ and parables. Where Donne goes out of his way to find an exotic or shocking image, Herbert searches for the most homely common image he can find. In ‘El Collar’, for example, we have a thorn, wine, fruit and cable. We can see the reason for this preference in Herbert’s own observations on Christ’s use of common imagery:

‘by familiar things he might make his doctrine slip more easily into the hearts of even the humblest. . . so that the farming people would have monuments of their doctrine everywhere. . . so you can leave a copy for the pastors.

Where Donne wrote for a limited audience, passing his poems among the wits and nobles of court, Herbert did not want his vocabulary or imagery to be a barrier to any reader’s understanding.

The most striking difference between the two poems is found in the last two lines of each poem. Donne’s poem ends with a ‘presumption’ (quoted above), cleverly juxtaposing the concepts of ‘captivate’ and ‘free’, and ‘chaste’ and ‘dazzling’. Herbert’s final lines have just the opposite effect:

‘I thought I heard one call, Kid!

And I answered, My Lord!

Impact is achieved through the simplicity of a one-word call and a two-word response. Herbert’s technique was taken up by later poets, such as Henry Vaughan, who uses it at the end of ‘The World’.

In many poems, such as ‘Affliction’, ‘Man’ and ‘The Flower’, Herbert follows Donne’s lead in addressing God directly, and these seem to be the most personal of his poems. We see him exploring his personal relationship with God, wanting to understand God better and make himself more worthy.

We see in Herbert a poet who, though derived from Donne, used the medium of metaphysical poetry for a candid exploration of his own faith and, in doing so, broadened the scope of the genre to allow the poet a more personal approach than is apparent in Donne. .

henry vaughan shares Herbert’s concern with the relationship between humanity and God. Both see humanity as restless and in constant search for a sense of harmony and fulfillment through contact with God. In ‘The Pulley’, Herbert writes:

‘However, let him keep the rest,

But guard them with querulous restlessness:’

Similarly, in ‘Man’, Vaughan writes:

‘The man still has toys or care,

It has no root, nor is it tied to a place,

But always restless and Irregular.

Both poets are aware of the sinfulness of humanity, but in other respects their attitudes toward humanity seem to differ. Herbert wants to feel the presence of God among the simple and natural things in life, and his humility is too deep to openly criticize his peers. Vaughan, on the other hand, has the arrogance of a visionary. He is humble before God and Jesus, but seems to despise humanity. This attitude is evident in ‘The World’, in which he refers to the ‘affectionate lover’, the ‘dark statesman’ and the ‘fearful miser’, and particularly in these lines from ‘Man’,

‘[Man] ain’t got as much wit as some stones

that on the darkest nights point to their homes,’

The end of Vaughan’s poem ‘The World’ clearly shows Herbert’s influence. In Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ we see the expression of anger and frustration at the apparent futility of serving God being stifled by God’s intervention.

‘But as I grew madder and fiercer and wilder

in every word,

I thought I heard one calling, Girl!

And I answered, My Lord!

Similarly, Vaughan beholds the madness of humanity and receives insight from a voice:

‘But how did I make her crazy to discuss

One whispered like this

This Ring the Husband did not make for anyone,

But for his girlfriend.

Another area where Vaughan’s style clearly derives from Herbert’s is in the opening lines of some poems. For example, Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’ begins,

‘When God first made man,

Have a cup of blessings waiting for you;

Here he is discussing a sacred topic in the most casual colloquial way. Similarly, Vaughan begins ‘The World’ with,

‘I saw Eternity the other night’

These two openings also illustrate the most striking difference between the two poets, which lies in the scope of their vision. Herbert is realistic and simple in the images of him. Instead, Vaughan’s images are more universal, or cosmic, to the point of judging man in relation to infinity.

‘I saw eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and infinite light’

The term ‘visionary’ is appropriate for Vaughan, not only because of the large scale of his images, but also because his metaphors frequently draw on the sense of vision. While Eternity is ‘Like a great ring of pure and infinite light’, the ‘dark statesman’ is compared to a blind creature: ‘Yet caved the Mole’. Where Herbert presents his ideas through realistic associations with common words, Vaughan communicates mystical, transcendental flashes of spiritual insight.

Vaughan made no secret of his debt to Herbert. Herbert’s poems were published under the title ‘The Temple’, and Vaughan titled his volume ‘Steps to the Temple’. But just as Herbert added his own variation to the title role offered by Donne, Vaughan also made an important contribution of his own, presenting his transcendental and spiritual vision in such striking ways.

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