The term “Metaphysical” conveys different meanings. Literally, it means mystical or transcendental. This kind of poetry, therefore, in one sense, deals with such subjects as the soul, God, immortality, a life after death, the relation of the human spirit to the senses and so on. Donne and other poets of his school also have written poems on divine themes but the major portion of their poetry is related to the theme of love and other secular matters. But, Herbert is quite different from them. His entire poetry is religious and devotional in character although it has retained the metaphysical qualities to a considerable degree.
The absence of any definite, systematic, and vivid metaphysical theme is easily marked in the poets of this school. None of them was strictly metaphysical in the sense Dante was. Yet Herbert was one step forward. The religious meditations as expressed in his different poems predominate his poetry. He is a writer of sacred verse sharing some of the metaphysical techniques. His poetry is the frank confession of what he suffered at the different stage of his mind. It is nothing but the reflection of his mental conflict. Agony or conflict that a man suffers in his mind can be made into best lyrics. Herbert, torn between desires and achievements, experienced the severe mental agony and he gave vent to it in his poetry. His piety was genuine and unquestionable. He was not forced by anyone to enter the church to serve God and Christ but of his own accord he gave up the worldly pleasure and ambition for the spiritual life. Yet he felt a vacuum in his mind sometimes; his sacrifice was not complete. Instead of suppressing this rebellious thinking of his mind, he flowed it into his poems. As a result, his poetry became moving. We have poems in which Herbert expresses the feelings of his devotion to and reverence for God and Christ. We have poems in which the spiritual conflict between his worldly ambition and his spiritual aspirations has been expressed. Yet in another kind of poems, Herbert expresses the feelings of his reconciliation with God and Christ.
In the first category of poems, the central theme is the psychology of his religious experience. The subtle analysis and record of moods of his mind move and torch our heart. The poems of the volume called “The Temple” breathe the spirit of the Anglican Church and the influence of the Bible, the Biblical parables, and the Biblical imagery is all-pervasive in these poems.
The Christian beliefs and the concepts are the central themes of many of the poems of Herbert. “The Agonie,” a religious and devotional poem in which the poet emphasizes the importance of understanding the nature of sin and love. The exploration of two vast areas is more important to a Christian than the experiments and discoveries of science. The image presented is that of Christ undergoing the agony on the mount of lives.
A man, so wrung with pains that all his hair, his skin, his garments, bloody be. In “Easter Wings” Christ’s resurrection and His victory over death presented in the last three lines bring before us the scene of the crucifixion and we respond to them with a profound sympathy for the divine martyr. In other poems like “Easter Wings,” “Dialogue,” “Discipline,” “Death,” and “Aaron,” we get the pictures of the dedication of Christ and His love for humankind. There are poems in which Herbert devoutly offers his homage to God or Christ and makes a surrender of himself to the Almighty. In these poems, his untroubled faith has been expressed; “Easter Wings” is such a poem. Here the poet would like to raise upwards like a lark, singing Christ’s victory over death. In this jubilant poem, the rising of Christ from the grave three days after his death has been celebrated. “The Temper” dwells upon his moment of elation and that of despair. The poem concludes with the submission of the poet to whatever decision God may take about him. In the poem “The Pearl,” Herbert tells God that he has given up all worldly pleasures and has come to serve Him with his entire heart. In some of the poems, the poet has made dialogues with God. In “Dialogue,” the poet and God are two speakers. In “Discipline,” he asks God to throw away His iron and adopt love as a means of reforming sinners.
George Herbert suffered from spiritual conflicts and he made a frank confession of the conflict in three of his poems. One such poem is “Affliction.” He acknowledges the bestowing of God’s grace upon him in the first stage but afterward, he is afflicted with sickness and consuming agues. He says,
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I
But at the end, he reaffirms his devotion to God in the following words,
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
In conclusion, we can say that Herbert has revealed his love for religion, Christ, and God in his poetry in varying moods. Actually he confined the theme of his poetry to the religious experiences that he acquired during the short period of his service in the Church. The theme of religion made him a poet lyrical by nature.