Herbert shares many qualities with the poets of the metaphysical poetry that started with John Donne. But, he retains his individuality in his poems. We do find the metaphysical conceits in his poems and the themes of his poetry are certainly akin to those of Donne, Marvell, and others. But, his craftsmanship makes him different from others. In many of his poems, he followed the conversational method and dramatic starting of John Donne. Yet the form and style of his poems are quite independent and the manner in which he presents his themes has awarded him a specialty – distinct and alternative stanzaic and metrical experimentation.
The poet Herbert has introduced various kinds of stanzas in his poems keeping the theme in mind. His meter is so varied that it strikes the reader sharply. Almost every poem presents a special combination of lines and rhymes. It appears to be an uphill job to make a list of the different kinds of stanzas he has used. In about one hundred and fifty poems, he has used one hundred different stanzaic forms. It should be noted here that his poems are written in a simple and easily understandable language, but the craftsmanship he has used is one of the most complex patterns of poetry in English.
Herbert explores many ways of rendering the themes in his poems in their shapes and textures. The poem “Easter Wings” consists of two stanzas in the shape of wings. The lines are arranged in vertical lines so that the poem can resemble the shape of a bird’s wing. “The Collar” is written in an ingenious way. The verse of this poem enacts disorder very much in keeping with the theme of rebellious feelings and the final surrender. it has a definite line of arguments which are clearly divided into four sections. The verse rather seeks freedom from the inner constraint symbolized by the collar. This is why it avoids set patterns. In the poem “Denial,” the second and the fifth lines of each stanza remain unrhymed while the poet is describing his separation from God.
My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
But when the poet anticipates his reconciliation with God, he mends his rhyme:
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.
Herbert is simply simple. Written in an age of Verbose Writing, his poems are easily intelligible to the modern reader. Long after him, Wordsworth advocated the simplicity of language which he had earned quite satisfactorily. In his dealings with God, his language is easily comprehensible. Few English poets have been able to use the plain words of ordinary speech with a greater effect of simple dignity than Herbert. This simplicity has been called the secret of his power.
Herbert is a disciple of Donne when he uses the conversational tone. This tone establishes intimacy between the poet and the reader. So, when his poems are read aloud, the emphasis falls on the natural order of the speaking idiom. In “Discipline,” we get the use of his conversational tone. The poet appeals to God:
Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
The lines suppose as if God has taken a rod to punish him. In “Dialogue,” The poet and God speak in alternate stanzas. In “Redemption,” the poet gives us an account of his search for Jesus Christ and the ultimate encounter with him. These elements of his poetry have enriched it with sincerity and directness.
All of Herbert’s poems do not necessarily contain simple themes to understand easily. Some of them have metaphysical subtlety and intellectual analysis. In spite of having an obvious liking for homely illustrations, analogies, and metaphors, some of his poems contain plenty of learned allusions, but still, he cannot forget the carpentry, gardening, and everyday domestic activity. Therefore, some of his poems are scholarly while many others are the popular ones. Poems like “Vanitie,” “The Pearl,” and “Jordan” have an upper-class background.
In the poems of Herbert, there is quite a lot of words and phrases which strike us by their appropriateness, novelty, and effectiveness. In “The Affliction,” the poet recalls how sickness has cleaved his bones tuning his breath to groans. In the same poem, he speaks of its futility in the following manner:
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
In “The Pearl,” the poet writes, “My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live, / And grumble oft….”
Herbert’s craftsmanship in his poetry has been characterized by terseness and compression. Many of his lines have an epigrammatic quality. In the poem, “Virtue,” the last stanza is pregnant with meaning. This stanza in which he speaks of the permanence of a virtuous soul has an epigrammatic quality. In “Man,” we find such meaningful terse lines:
For man is ev’ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
George Herbert’s craftsmanship is unique. It has added additional grace to the ‘dry’ metaphysical poetry. It is neat and subtle. It is fresh, sweet, and clean. It has been the appropriate machinery to clothe his conceits.