“The Flower” by George Herbert
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“The Flower” by George Herbert is an exuberant, joyful poem in which a single image of the spiritual life is expanded with naturalness and elegance that appear effortless. Herbert refines a style in which the writer tries to write honestly and directly from experience: his imagery is more homely and accessible than John Donne’s: if nothing is too exotic for inclusion in Donne’s verse, nothing is too ordinary for inclusion in Herbert’s. But this has the result that Herbert’s images are, generally, more intelligible to the modern reader.
In The Flower, Herbert celebrates the joy that accompanies the spiritual renewal, which follows the times of trial. Though he has experienced this many times, yet each time it happens the joy is as boundless as ever. In the second line of the poem he likens this to the regeneration of “the flowers in spring”(2) and thereafter writes of himself as if he were such a flower. This clear statement of the simile makes it plain to the reader that everything written about the flower is to be understood as a picture of man’s life in relation to God. Yet we can also delight in the idea of the flower’s expressing its feelings about the killing frosts which the “tributes of pleasure bring”(4). The flower, loving the return of spring, but fearful of a late frost, and certain that winter will eventually come again, longs for the perpetual spring of “…Paradise where no flower can wither”(23). By its selfishness and sinfulness it is watered and tries to seize heaven by its own growth; such arrogance must then be punished by God’s anger, more severe than any frost. Yet God’s severity is remedial not malicious, when the lesson is learned, the flower may be allowed to put out new growth. This is its nature, its proper function in the eyes of God, and its delight. Man’s joy is to be found in doing the proper, appointed duty, however high or humble, which he has received from God. This delight is asserted in this stanza of the poem:
“And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. O my only light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night”(36-42).
These lines speak of the love of God, as a whole delight, of the senses as much as of the spirit. The Flower concludes simply: God’s purpose is to show us “we are but flowers that glide”(44), to let us acknowledge our limitation and inconsequence; yet, paradoxically, if we can see this, the reward is great: God “has a garden for us, where to bide”(46). It is those who want more than this, swollen by their arrogance or eminence, who will “Forfeit their paradise by their pride”(49). He makes his subject (a large one, admittedly) God’s communion with man. Of this he writes comprehensively and truthfully. His verse reflects his speakers relationship with God – often troubled (but never tortured), often joyful; not thinking of himself or his own importance overmuch, yet never doubting God’s majesty, justice and power.
There is a direct connection to God, which is incidentally straight too, “But while I grow in a straight line, still upwards bent, as if heaven where mine own, thy anger comes, and I decline…”(29-31). The speaker wants seemingly to reach God, to climb to heaven, just like a flower tries to reach for the sun. Here is the first time in the poem where the flower is actively trying to reach God. Before the imagery has been the flower that pleases God, here we have a more active plant to deal with. God is the being who can be infinitely warm and tender, and in the next furious in his temper. The flower doesn’t always accept or understand this reaction of changing of the seasons, just like man doesn’t understand God’s ways always. “Thy anger comes, and I decline: what frost to that?”(31-32). Here the flower, like the speaker, is coming to terms with the fact that all is in God’s control, however straight one goes. And in the next stanza the flower realizes that it will bloom again, even after “so many deaths”(37), man too, will return to God’s grace and love.
When we reach the flowers budding yet again, it is difficult to fathom for it that storms or even winter really happened. So it is for man also, that once the fit of doubt in faith has passed, it is dreadfully hard to recall ever having doubted at all. “It cannot be that I am he on whom thy tempests fell all night”(40-42). Just like the flower lives and flourishes every spring, our speaker returns to his writing and faith after each lapse from the same. He might be aging, like to the flower, but he still maintains his writing, which are immortality and a celebration of God in itself.
The work of God can be understood once we have accepted our mortality, and bend like flowers, to the will of God, then we also will see that he provides the most wonderful garden for any flower to live in. Paradise will be won once the man, like the flower, sees the infinite love of God, if not Paradise might be lost. “These are thy wonders, Lord of love, to make us see we are but flowers that glide; which when we once can find and prove, thou hast a garden for us where to bide; ho would be more, swelling through store, forfeit their Paradise by their pride”(43-49).
The never ending circle of life for a flower, shown in this poem, to illustrate the spiritual life in relations to God is a wonderful metaphor in that it shows both growth, stagnation and resurrection. When flower and man alike respect the duty that owe to the “Lord of love” the will receive bountifully bliss. And even if both flower and man in their ignorance sometimes aim higher than God accepts, they will be forgiven and given yet another life, another chance, over and over again. God is all love and Paradise and the Garden of Eden for the flowers and men that learn their lesson.