The transience of life

This poem should be studied alongside another of Herbert's poems, Life. Both deal with what the Elizabethans called mutability, a common theme with them; what we might call the transience of life. A lifespan really was a lot shorter then than now. Herbert's own death at 39 was not uncommon, for example. Old age, as we know it, was not something that most people experienced. In fact, you would be counted old if you made your mid-fifties!

A sweet, sad song

The first three stanzas are a sweet, sad song, but seem to have little to do with the title. Three natural images of transience are used: the day, the rose, and Spring. Each has a mark or emblem of its early death: the day has evening dew as an emblem of mourning; the rose has roots in the ground, signifying our burial; and the Spring, like a song, has to have closure.

The verse is at its simplest and sweetest, seemingly in ironic contrast to the subject matter. How can Herbert be so calm about it? Only at the beginning of stanza two are we jarred by ‘whose hue angrie and brave'. The rose's redness signifies anger rather than, say, a sweet perfume, or a luxurious richness. For a moment, William Blake's poem The Sick Rose comes to mind.

An enigmatic ending

However the last stanza explains all. The calmness is because a ‘vertuous soul ... never gives' (i.e. gives way). The simile is sudden, ‘Like season'd timber'. It doesn't rot, but lasts from season to season. Then the clinching metaphor hits us. It is enigmatic – what does ‘though the whole word turn to coal' mean? ‘Coal' seems so out of keeping with the sweet nature imagery. Does it tie in with ‘timber', coal having derived from wood, a permanent transformation of it? Or does it mean something which burns, thinking either of the fires of final judgement, which was part of the Christian imagination of Herbert's time, or the transience of burning coal? After a series of obvious images, Herbert, perhaps as a true metaphysical poet, leaves us with what seems like an unresolved conceit.

Investigating Vertue
  • Read through Vertue
    • How do you understand the image of coal?
    • When is it that the virtuous soul ‘chiefly lives'?
  • How can we tell Herbert meant this to be set to music?

(see Themes and significant ideas > The Transience of Life).

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