Poetry Friday: Poetic Virtue and Dr. Hardcastle

A man once said that conservation was a sign of “personal virtue,” and when he said this, ‘virtue’ quickly lost points for some — and gained points for others. It’s an old-fashioned word, virtue is, and seems to imply in modern times a sort of do-gooder attitude of scrupulous perfectionism. But once upon a time, a virtuous person was merely one of the best sort — thoughtful and helpful and not given to excess — the kind of person everyone wanted to have around.

I remember my high school English teacher Dr. Hardcastle reciting this poem from memory with perfect, crisp diction. (Sweet day! So cool, so calm, so bright! was actually a line he was apt to declaim on nice mornings, when the rest of us were gazing longingly out of the windows.) He taught us that George Herbert had been a priest, and this poem part of a liturgical tradition. Knowing this, it is easier to see the poem as both a celebration of seasons and consonants, as well as a dark reminder of a priest’s ever present knowledge of judgment and death. It is balanced in contrasts: dawn and dusk, blooming and withering, sweet spring, and its close, a soul and its ‘vertuous’ reward – life, when all else may be turned to coal.

Dr. Hardcastle was in his early sixties when he was my teacher in high school, and I expect that the fatal refrain of this poem has come to him. Still, every new, dew-bright day in Spring reminds me of this poem, and of him — a virtuous man gone to his reward, as they say, whatever that might be.

The Temple (1633), by George Herbert:

  
Vertue

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.

Poetry Friday graces the blog of The Miss Rumphius Effect today; gather round and bring your verses.

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Go Figure, Henri Weldon in 9/2022 from Katherine Tegen Books.

Comments

  1. Even his name sounds poetic. How wonderful to have a teacher like that, one whose voice can be remembered, even years later. It’s what they say AND how they say it, isn’t it?

  2. I’ve always liked that poem, but had forgotten about it–thanks for bringing it back to mind! I think I appreciate it more now, too…

    SIGH. No time for Poetry Friday this week. And I was even working on a poem of my own that I was hoping to post, but I haven’t had time to finish it.

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