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:
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.