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Donne's mental grasp and his command of language are shown in his grim realism, and in the packed thought of his verses, which is expressed oftentimes in the tersest words. An example is found in the description of a storm at sea in his poem The Storm:
“Lightning was all our light, and it rain'd more
“Some sitting on the hatches would seem there
Herbert and Vaughan. – Donne's example in the use of conceits and in the writing of devotional poems was followed by a number of poets who succeeded him, and whom we may call the Religious Poets. Some of these writers carried the use of conceits to the point of extravagance.
Others, however, wrote more simply, especially GEORGE HERBERT (1593-1633) and HENRY VAUGHAN (1621-1695), whose poetry is full of sincere religious feeling. Indeed, so tranquil is it, so lifted into the serene air of holy meditations, that it seems a place of sanctity in the midst of a turbulent age. The circumstances in which these two poets wrote were in keeping with the remote and unworldly atmosphere of their work, for Herbert was a country parson, and Vaughan a village
doctor in Wales. Herbert, sprung from the younger branch of a distinguished family, was a courtier in his youth, and thought of devoting himself to a public career. His birth and spirit, he tells us, entangled him in a world of strife, and inclined him towards
“the way that takes the town."
But after some hesitation, he resolved to take orders. In 1630 he became vicar of Bemerton, a village about a mile from Salisbury. Here he wrote his poems, and here he died three years later.
Herbert's poetry has nothing of the inspired majesty of Milton's verse, but it pleases by its even tone of joyous contentment in the round of daily service and worship. Occasionally, as in the verses entitled The Collar, he strikes a note of passion which tells of the spiritual conflict through which he passed. In his most famous book of poems, The Temple (1633), the reader is invited to enter The Porch of the holy edifice, and in The Church to realize with the author the full joy of a religious life. To paraphrase the words of his biographer, Isaac Walton, Herbert was lowly in his own eyes and lovely in the eyes of others, and both the beauty of his nature and the religious seclusion of his surroundings shine through his poems. “It is his quiet religion, his quaint, contemplative, vicarage-garden note of thought and scholarship, which pleases most, and will always please, the calm piety of England.”
Vaughan. - Vaughan, Herbert's disciple in sacred poetry, fell below his master in art, but surpassed him in depth and originality. Living out his secluded life in the quiet valley of the Usk, Vaughan saw God revealed not only in the services of the Church, but also in the living world of Nature, in the holy innocence of child
hood, and in the "immortal longings" of his own spirit. He gazes on a gilded cloud or a flower, and finds in them
"shadows of divinity;" searching himself, he comes upon strange hints of man's Divine origin, he discovers some rills ” from the Eternal source of being,
“With echoes beaten from the eternal hills.”
To Vaughan, man's life on earth is a brief exile from that eternal existence from which he came, and to which, when he rises above his temporal limitations, he longs to return. The light of man's spirit is a spark of the Divine light:
“For each enclosèd spirit is a star
Enlight'ning his own little sphere;
Both mornings makes and evenings there."
The Cavalier Lyrists: Robert Herrick. - Meanwhile at Court a group of aristocratic poets composed their slight but often charming love-songs to Celia or Lucasta. Their thoughts are given to the pleasures of this world as frankly as those of Vaughan and Herbert are centered on the next. ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674), a Devonshire vicar, while he shares in the mood of these light and graceful amorists, rises above them in vigor and charm, and in the fine quality of his lyrical gift. In his youth Herrick was one of those genial spirits gathered round Ben Jonson. In 1647, deprived of his living by the Puritans, he left Devonshire and returned to London. There in 1648 he published his Hesperides and Noble Numbers.
Herrick's limpid and altogether charming verse is troubled by no depth of thought or storm of passion.
The greater part of it reflects the pagan spirit of those who lie at ease in the warm sunshine; content to enjoy, they sigh that life is but a day, and lament as the lengthening shadow draws near. The closing verse of his poem, Corinna's going a-Maying, is a good example of his familiar mood; the inevitable chill of regret creeps into the sunshiny lyric of May-day, and his laughter ends in a sigh:
“Come, let us go while we are in our prime,
We shall grow old apace, and die
As fast away as does the sun;
So when or you or I are made
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
There is a captivating naturalness and freshness in Herrick's note; the rural England of his time is green forever in his verse, the hedgerows are abloom, the Maypoles gay with garlands. He sings
“Of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
England was racked with civil war, but neither the strife of religions nor the tumults in the state are able to shatter his Arcadia; while King and Parliament are in deadly grapple, Herrick sings his dainty love-songs
to Julia and Anthea, and babbles “of green fields." Enjoy your May-day, gather rose-buds, "let's now take our time; " such were the gay songs he flung defiantly in the face of sober, Puritan England.
Herrick and Milton. — In the midst of this poetry of self-indulgence there rose the mighty voice of Milton. In Lycidas, which may be said to conclude the poems of his earlier period, Milton, too, asks the pagan question, “Seeing that life is short, is it not better to enjoy?" but only to meet it with triumphant denial. This famous passage becomes of especial interest when we think that it was probably written with such poets as Herrick in mind; when we recognize in it the high seriousness and religious faith of Puritanism, squarely confronting the nation's lighter mood:
“Alas! what boots it with uncessant care