The Christian Influence in Herbert’s Metaphysical Poetry and Ferrabosco’s Music in the English Renaissance
A cultural and artistic movement blossomed in England from 1588 to 1666 called the English Renaissance. The two most dominant forms of literature of the English Renaissance were drama and poetry. In the 17th century, poetry became more experimental and transcendental, forming metaphysical poetry that dealt with spiritual, intellectual, and philosophical matters, inspired by the conception of the universe and the role of human spirit and existence. Their style went against Elizabethan love poetry, and focused more on how to regard God. George Herbert, a notable metaphysic, wrote poetry to emphasize the relationship between man and God. Connecting with the spiritual enlightenment of the English Renaissance, Herbert’s metaphysical poetry extended beyond the physical world and explored the spiritual world, specifically in relation to and with God, through analysis, intellect, and conceit.
Herbert was an Anglican Christian, which influenced his works. In his poem, “Easter Wings,” he celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. The first line is directly addressed to God, calling him “Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store.” The descriptors “wealth and store” describe the abundance of purity and innocence when God created man. The second line, “though foolishly he lost the same” is a clear allusion to Adam and Eve, for man lost everything (paradise) foolishly due to their actions. Lines three through five describe how man “decayed” and became “most poor,” by turning his back on God. In this context, “poor” means a poor moral and spiritual standing, as man no longer has anything left spiritually due to sin. Herbert addresses God again in lines six and seven, “With thee/O let me rise,” asking to become purer. The next two lines accentuate this point, saying “As larks harmoniously sing this day thy victories,” employing larks to symbolize holy celebration, and referring to “this day thy victories” as Jesus over earth. Here he is using physical things such as larks and singing to conjure the spiritual world. The ending of the first stanza, “Then shall the fall further the flight in me,” states that man’s fall will only want to make the speaker seek redemption more, and begins a metaphor of “flight” to relate to the title as well as to become closer to God.
For the second stanza of “Easter Wings,” Herbert uses “sorrow” “sickness,” and “shame” in the first three lines to describe man’s punishment for sinning. As a result, he became “most thinne,” which holds the same meaning as “most poore,” and thus connects the two parts of the poem. He repeats “with thee” to echo his desire for a connection with God, again explained by the next line “Let me combine,” combining with God. Herbert echoes “thy victory” to further praise the Lord. Moreover, “for if I imp my wing on thee,” describes a physical level of their relationship, since “imp” means an implant on a falcon’s damaged wing. Similar to the previous stanza, the speaker uses his spiritual yearning to relate to a physical relationship of a bird and a feather. Metaphorically speaking, grafting his wing onto God will help him fly towards purity and salvation: “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”
An interesting aspect of “Easter Wings” is that it is concrete, for the two stanzas are shaped like wings, which explains the title of the poem. The two sets of wings indicated flying with God or Jesus, and flying towards spirituality. The shape of the wings go from fat, thin, and then fat again because of the meaning of the lines. For instance, the starting three lines in the first stanza discusses the Lord and his creation of man, establishing a pure beginning, and the turn of the stanza, “most poore,” is when the wings become thinner, signaling man’s descent from paradise and virtue. Faith is restored in the last three lines as the speaker is determined to repent for his sins and achieve salvations because the wings grow fat again. The shape of the poem correlates with the theme of the poem, which is redemption being obtained through a union with God.
In 1633, Herbert wrote another poem called “The Collar.” One of his occupations was an Anglican priest, so the speaker might be Herbert himself. The first two lines express immediate anger: “I struck the board and cried “No more;/I will abroad!” The speaker uses “abroad” to convey going out into the world and shaking off his restrictions. He longs for freedom in the next line, “What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?” and then interprets his abundance of freedom through similes, “My lines and life are free, free as the road/Loose as the wind, as large as store.” The fifth line,“Shall I still be in suit?,” is a pun asking both if he will be in pursuit as well as if he will always be in the suit of a clergyman. In the next line, the speaker continues to question himself: “Have I no harvest but a thorn / To let me blood, and not restore / What I have lost with cordial fruit?” The harsh image of a “thorn” is visualized as pricking him and making him lose all his abundance and pleasure, as illustrated by “harvest” and “fruit.”
He tries to compensate: “Sure there was wine/Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn / Before my tears did drown it.” The wine is used to represent the church and Jesus, which he was exposed to as a priest, but the other images portray secular pleasures the speaker cannot enjoy because of his priesthood. The question, “Is the year only lost to me?” shows how separated he feels from everyone else, for he cannot experience happiness and freedom. “Have I no bays to crown it /No flowers, no garlands gay?All blasted?/All wasted?” continue to express his regret, for there is no triumph nor merit in being a priest.
The turn comes in the answer, given in the seventeenth line: “Not so, my heart; but there is fruit, /And thou hast hands.” Using the “fruit” as a religious symbol, the speaker comes to the realize that devoting his life to the church has not been a waste. The “hands” belong to God, who the priest is now speaking to and praising. He requests God to “Recover all thy sigh-blown age/ On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute/Of what is fit and not.” in the next three lines. He makes it seem like sighing blew his age away, highlighting his misery, and asks God to decide what is best for him. The speaker likens his restrictions of priesthood to a cage and a rope in the following line, “Forsake thy cage/Thy rope of sands.” A rope of sands is not tangible, meaning his religious beliefs are not tangible. However, he wants to take such insignificant beliefs, described as “petty thoughts,” and make them stronger: “Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee.” Here the speaker proves his change of mind in wanting to make these unimportant beliefs stronger, which will bind him to God.
As the poem comes to an end, the priest has become comfortable with his religious services, and instead of yearning to be free, he now yearns to become even more connected with God. This starts with the 24th line: “Good cable, to enforce and draw/And be thy law,/While thou didst wink and wouldst not see./Away! Take heed;/I will abroad.” Here the speaker calls the cable “good,” therefore putting this curtailment in a positive light. Whereas he once felt confined by his priesthood, he now towards God to “take heed,” providing him direction and enforcement. The phrase, “I will abroad,” is used to contrast with its use in the second line, because it originally meant the speaker was going to relinquish his priestly duties, though now it means he will follow God’s lead. Afterwards in the 29th line, he calls “thy death’s-head,” whose literal translation is a skull, but also symbolizes man’s mortality, to “tie up thy fears.” Then the speaker makes a threat: “He that forbears/To suit and serve his need/Deserves his load,” saying that someone who lets himself suffer deserves to suffer in death and in hell. In the last two lines, the priest addresses his previous anger, “But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild/At every word,” yet subdues it with the notion of God, “Methought I heard one calling Child!/And I replied, My Lord.” God has called to him, and the priest’s response confirms his spirituality, regarding God as a religious master.
In addition to Herbert’s poetry, Renaissance music contained metaphors, such as in Musica Transalpinia, a collection of madrigals published in England in 1588. The madrigals were borrowed from the Italians, although the lyrics were rendered into English. It is significant for marking the beginning of the golden age of the madrigals. It contains 57 separate pieces by 18 composers, with Alfonso Ferrabosco having the most, Ferrabosco during the time of the English Renaissance. According to the Petrucci Music Library, track was composed by him for six voices: “Ferrabosco: I was full neare my fall (6 voices) 1. 2nd part. But as the byrd that in due time espying (6 voices).” The song lyrics go: “But as the bird that in due time espying/The secret snare and deadly bush enlimed,/Quick to the heav’n doth mount with song and pleasure,/Trains of false looks and faithless words defying,/Mounting the hill so hard for to be climbed, /I sing for joy of liberty the treasure.” The image of the bird going to heaven reminded me of “Easter Wings,” and how physical ascension translates into spiritual ascension towards God, and therefore salvation. There the bird will achieve pleasure, which the singer is “joyed” for a relationship with God is “treasure.”
Forgiveness from God is a prevalent theme in Christianity that was ingrained in Renaissance society. In both of Herbert’s poems, his speakers ask for forgiveness from God in order to achieve salvation and form a stronger bond with him. Much like in Donne’s poetry, Herbert uses conceits to intensify religious and spiritual themes. In “Easter Wings,” the wings are a conceit for becoming closer to God, and therefore succeeding in salvation. In “The Collar,” the conceit is the priest’s collar, which relates to the restraint and limitations. At the end of the poem, the collar is a sign of willing submission to God. In the 45th track of Musica Transalpinia, the bird is a type of metaphor that contains the same meaning as in “Easter Wings”: flight towards the heavens in order to connect with God. These extended metaphors use physical aspects to speculate the spiritual world, thus making them metaphysical. Each piece uses an analytical approach to subject matter and an accompanying intellectual tone to complete the conceit and theme. In Herbert’s case, the theme is a need to establish a connection between man and God, which ties into the Christianity during the time of the English Renaissance.
Herbert, George. “Easter Wings.” Poems and Poets. Poetry Foundation, 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.
Herbert, George. “The Collar.” Poems and Poets. Poetry Foundation, 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.
Yonge, Nicholas. “Musica Transalpina (Various).” – IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music. London: Thomas East, 1588., 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2016