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"VIRTUE" George Herbert (1633) George Herbert stated early in his career that he intended to write lyrics based on spiritual love, rather than tradi tional erotic love, and he often used the sonnet form to do so. While "Virtue," a lyric included in his posthumous collection The Temple, is not a sonnet, its four four-line stanzas employ various symbols traditionally found in the works of the Cavalier poets for a purpose quite different from that of the celebration of earthly love. Herbert's theme that death shall come to all things except a virtuous soul is given emphasis through the use of the symbols common to love lyrics.
The first stanza notes that the "Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright," which serves as "The bridal of the earth and sky," that is, it weds the earth to the sky, shall die, to be wept over by "The dew." Herbert establishes a pastoral scene, which he then ruptures with the appearance of death, undercutting the calm setting for romance for which readers of his era would be prepared. In addition the death is mourned by the dew, commonly a symbol of cleansing and new life, but here used to signal death.
In the second stanza Herbert introduces a favorite representation of romance and a traditional symbol of the sexually active woman, with the "Sweet rose." However, in Herbert's vision, the rose possesses a "hue angry and brave," its color so intense that it causes "the rash gazer to wipe his eye." Not only does the rose die, before doing so, it spoils expectations of an attractive, alluring blossom, instead offending all who rashly gaze.
In the third stanza it is "Sweet spring," filled with both the beautiful days and the roses Herbert has already described, that meets death. He compares the season of birth and renewal to "A box where sweets compacted lie," but once again, "all must die." Herbert completes his poem by making clear the only survivor will be "a sweet and virtuous soul." He selects a nontraditional symbol for comparison to such a soul, that of "seasoned timber," which, "though the whole world turn to coal / Then chiefly lives." Images of timber and coal hold little romance, yet these are the symbols of life in Herbert's rendition. He successfully turns tradition against itself in a display of stylistic skill.
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