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A Comparison of the Poetry of George Herbert and John Donne

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2091
  • Category: Poetry

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George Herbert and John Donne lived at the same time, from the end of the 16th century and into the early 17th century. Throughout this time there was a lot of religious controversy and problems. King James of England had introduced a new version of the bible that caused much protest. Religion played a dominant role in people’s lives. This may be why both Donne and Herbert wrote poems concerning religion and life. At the time, the average life expectancy was very low; everyone had a sense of their own mortality and shared a fear of death. Of the three poems they each concern religion and life in a different way. Both poets use varying grammatical structures to convey a sense of deep religious meaning as well as relating to normal life. I shall analyze ‘The Quip’ and ‘Vertue’ by George Herbert and Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne.

George Herbert wrote many poems in his relatively short life of only 40 years. He was a well educated and influential man. He was the Orator at Trinity College, Cambridge, but despite this history, he those to become a parish priest, 3 years before his death in 1633. His collection of poems was known as the Temple. ‘The Quip’ was written soon after Herbert became a priest and contains a lot of reference to Christianity. Of the six stanzas, four have refrains at the end which contain religious faith and reference to God. The poem also includes mentions ‘the world’ which indicates ordinary life as well. The poem is an iambic tetrameter which means that each line has four iambs, i.e. an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. This is common in English because many English words follow a similar pattern, although iambic pentameter is the most common in English poetry and is commonly associated with Shakespeare. The pattern of a/b/a/b follows the general pattern of the day. This is the pattern that Herbert uses in most of his poems, and ‘The Quip’ was no exception.

‘The Quip’ itself means a witty joke, so it is an interesting title for such a poem and already begins to tell you, in a way, about the poem although not in the expected way. The first stanza begins with a mention of ‘the world did on a day’. This immediately suggests a form of personification and brings ‘the world’ to life. ‘With his train bands’ in the second line confirms this. Using personification helps the reader relate to the poem and makes the scheme less complicated and cumbersome. ‘the world’ and ‘his train-bands’ is indicative of the real world in which people live in and through and the things commonly associated with that world. ‘All in sport to geere at me’ also shows that the world’s ‘train-bands’ i.e. comrades, are not of a good nature and are what people think will lead to damnation or ruin. The ‘temptations’ of the world are similar to the seven deadly sins of Christianity, in the poem these temptations are; Beauty, Money, Glory and quick wit and conversation. All of these are in ‘The Quip’ and ‘geere’ at Herbert, possibly because he has chosen to become a priest and leave the company of these worldly things.

There is a refrain at the end of the four stanzas that describe what the temptations said to Herbert. ‘but thou shalt answer, Lord, for me’ shows the unswerving faith in God, Herbert has. Herbert believes that God will protect him from these temptations and that he does not have to answer them. The refrains are also an example of repetition, and so make the line more persuasive and meaningful as well as emphasizes the point. Personification all so heavily used, the temptations are given human like qualities. Beauty uses temptations of the flesh and sexual desires to attack Herbert in the form of a rose. However, symbolically, the rose fades within days of reaching its zenith of magnificence. It is something that cannot last. Money insults Herbert about his choice and mocks him. Herbert himself was a musician, and so, Money says ‘I heard in musick you had skill’, thereby attacking Herbert still further. Glory ignores Herbert as if he was of no consequence, insulting Herbert by making him feel low and insignificant. Finally, ‘quick wit and conversation’ appear, and made ‘an oration’. Herbert use to be the orator at Cambridge. The temptations of the world are trying to make Herbert seem a failure and laugh at his choice of life.

Throughout the poem Herbert uses grammatical formations and structures to emphasize a particular point. Alliteration and onomatopoeia are used as well as plosive letters. For example, ‘brave Glorie puffing by’, the ‘puffing’ is emphasized by pronouncing it in an explosive way and is also an example of onomatopoeia. ‘Silks that whistled’ is an example of alliteration. There are also a few words in the poem that can be said in a forceful way, ‘quick wit and conversation’ the word ‘conversation’ can be pronounced in 5 syllables, which further emphasizes the words. Personification is also a main driving force behind the poem. The whole idea of a world and the temptations acting together like a human becomes the concept of the poem. How it is other people that can betray and turn on you, is why I think Herbert made personification an active role. Right from the beginning, personification is made clear. Even the things that Herbert did and believed in, betrayed him and are trying to tempt him away from his chosen life. As orator at Cambridge and as a successful man he worked alongside ‘Glorie and quick wit and conversation’.

‘Vertue’ is another of Herbert’s poems and is in many ways different and similar to ‘The Quip’. The poem is in itself much shorter than ‘The Quip’ and is not as dense. There is still the refrain at the end of each stanza. Herbert still uses the a, b, a, b style and ‘Vertue’ is an Iambic Tetrameter, like ‘The Quip’. This follows Herbert’s typical style of writing, despite that Iambic pentameter is becoming more popular at the time and is principally used by Shakespeare. ‘Vertue’ mainly concerns death and loss. During this period, people were heavily conscious of their morality as life expectancy was not high. Herbert himself died at only 40. His collection of poems ‘The Temple’ was only published after his death in 1633. This poem was written towards the end of his life when he would have been more aware of death.

The poem follows the path of life. The stanzas start with beautiful and happy things but finishes with a darker, unhappy ending. This was how life was seen at the time. Everything was beautiful when you were young but as time goes by; life loses its colour and becomes more of a hardship. Each stanza starts with ‘sweet’ description of the things which appear beautiful to humans; ‘Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright’ and ‘Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave’. The first line also features a strong use of sibilance, that adds emphasis and force behind the poem and it is also the first line of the poem which provides an opinion of the poem almost immediately. The stanzas are split into 2 moods, of a happy side and a depressing, morose side. This shows the two sides of the poem and life.

The refrains are all set forward in the sentence which gives a direct atmosphere. There are not as many structures as there are in Herbert’s other poem ‘The Quip’, the only examples are personification in the rose of the second stanza, and sibilance in the first stanza. This poem however is of more metaphorical value and describes what man fears the most. The final stanza finishes the poem in an unexpected way. It describes how the soul can not be destroyed, but only ‘lives’ after the body is destroyed and death, ‘Then chiefly lives’. Throughout the poem, there is a rhythm which is similar to music. ‘Vertue’ has the idea of music intertwined in it, and it follows a musical chord.

John Donne wrote many poems in his life and was also a religious man, being the Dean of St.Pauls cathedral. Many of John Donne’s poems had a religious background as well as a wilder side, as he was an adventurous man who sailed and fought in naval battles against Spain. Donne also secretly married his boss’s daughter without permission and received a lot of criticism for this. With this background, Donne wrote many religious and passionate, but at the same time forceful poems. Holy Sonnet 10 is an Iambic Pentameter, unlike Herbert’s poems, and follows an A, B, B, A pattern as opposed to A, B, A, B used by Herbert. However Holy Sonnet 10 does not follow this pattern, as halfway through the poem the pattern changes to C, D, C, D which is the same as Herbert, then however, the final 2 lines are in an E, E pattern which is completely random from the other poems I have studied. Donne may use these sudden changes in pattern to project an atmosphere depending on the mood he wants to convey. These changes may reflect Donne’s temperament and wild ideas.

Holy Sonnet 10 uses more grammatical and metaphorical structures than Herbert’s poems. He uses enjambment, plosive letters, paradoxes, sestet and octaves, alliteration and metaphors. Even at the beginning of the poem, the first line can be said powerfully. ‘Batter my heart’, ‘Batter’ is an explosive word and adds emphasis right at the start of the poem. This already gives an impression of the poem and shows Donne’s preferred style. ‘Knocke, breathe, shine…’ are all actions that imply a direct approach, it is also related to the three persons of God, mentioned in line 1; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This is to further emphasize the idea by relating to God. Enjambment is used at the end of the first line as it runs on into the second line, this keeps the words and rhythm flowing. There are also examples of enjambment at the end of lines 3 and 12, this keeps the atmosphere going at important points and maintains the mood. Line 4 also contains a more violent and wilder relation to the line 2 actions. ‘breake, blowe, burn’ as opposed to ‘knocke, breathe, shine’. Already it is clear how Donne uses religion and passionate, wild ideas in his poems. Herbert’s poems do feature religion playing a significant role, but his poems are not as violent or energetic.

In the 7th line, Donne makes a reference to reason ruling man instead of God. This was a heretical and wild thought at the time, as the church was very powerful force and was prepared to suppress heretical thoughts such as that with force. It was believed however that it was reason that separated humans from animals, and so, are human’s defining characteristic. Then Donne goes on to say that reason sometimes fails man and betrays him, but God is always there and will forgive men. This shows Donne’s faith in God, which is much the same as Herbert. Donne however seeks accepts the inevitable and gives himself up to God and imprisonment. The whole idea of God imprisoning and ravishing a person is completely paradoxical when God is seen as a forgiving being. To show this, Donne has made the last 2 lines, paradoxes. ‘You enthrall mee, never shall be free’ and ‘ever chast, except you ravish mee’. Many of the lines in Holy Sonnet 10 can be said in a crescendo of force and noise. For example, the first line does this, as does the fourth line. This may be used to emphasize certain points and project power in what Donne is saying. Herbert also used music in some of his poems, especially in ‘Vertue’ where music is intertwined in the words and the way one can read the poem. All of these structures are used to great effect by Donne to create a powerful poem.

Of all these 3 poems, I prefer ‘Vertue’ as it has great metaphorical meaning and possesses a deep, quiet power behind it. However I believe that John Donne writes better poetry than George Herbert. His poetry has a wildness that is not normal for the age and is more complicated to understand which is what any great poem should be able to do.

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