Even Close Reading is Vanity, Perhaps

Update:  I should point out that this piece, like my article on Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” is an example of an early version of my Religion & Literature specialization.  At this point, I consistently described my major research interest as “Biblical backgrounds to English literature,” and it’s still an important element in my approach to scholarship.

And here’s a brief close reading of a poem put together for the Metaphysical Poetry and Prose seminar I took with Dr. Robert Ray, who literally wrote the book on Donne and Herbert.  Not much preface required, except to warn you that the conclusion is a bit dull, to be honest:

All is “Vanitie,” Saith the Poet

Like most of The Temple, George Herbert’s “Vanitie” (1) contains a knife-edge balance of Biblical context, personal reflection and public statement, reinforced by careful word choice and using both thematic and aural shifts of tone. Whether by deliberate allusion or incidental similarity of thought, Herbert’s deeply Christian language sends the attuned reader scurrying through the pages of his Bible (or, in this age of marvels, a search engine) for the passage that just eludes the memory. In line 5, for instance, Herbert uses a commercial image to represent the thoughts of the “fleet Astronomer” about the “spheres” he “surveys” so that he “knoweth long before” others what they will do. This image of a planned commercial venture resonates with James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go . . . and make a profit’ . . . you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . you boast in your arrogance.” The similarity of image reinforces the argument against pride that will appear in the following stanzas, and occurs in the only clearly ironic phrase of the stanza.

Another important cluster of Biblical allusions occurs in the last stanza, where God is depicted as putting the law “in us” (cf. Romans 2:14-15 “Law written in their hearts”); “mellowing the ground / With showres and frosts” (cf. Matthew 5:44-45 “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”; Psalm 147 on “frost”; and passim, especially the Matthew 13 parable of the soils, on the human heart as “ground”). The weight of all these (and more) come to bear on the single word “death” (see Proverbs 14:12 “its end is . . . death”) followed by a pregnant caesura (one can almost hear a sob in the space after the comma) and the phrase “but missest life at hand.” The idea that the secret of life is immediately available, “at hand,” invokes a Biblical passage that ties together much of the poem: Deuteronomy 30:11-15 (which is quoted in Romans 10:9-10). In the passage, God speaks to the people through Moses, saying,

this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.

The passage lies closely parallel to the entire poem, particularly the last stanza, in its concepts and even in its images—the word is not “out of reach” (i.e., it is “at hand”) but “in your heart” (i.e., “embosome[d] in us”), it is not “in heaven” or “beyond the sea” (i.e., no “Astronomer” or “Diver” is required). It is a choice of “life . . . and death” in which “man [has] sought out and found” “death, but missest life at hand.”

The public statement in “Vanitie” is among the sharpest in The Temple, especially when it is understood that Herbert’s imagery represents a critique not only of those seekers of secrets the “fleet Astronomer,” “nimble Diver” and “subtil Chymick,” but also of the thoughtless pride of the rest of humanity. This broader critique is carried out in three stages, with a crux in the second stanza. The first stage is so simple as to be easily missed. In line 6, the “Astronomer” is said to know the “aspects, and . . . glances” of the spheres “long before.” “Before,” however, is a preposition demanding an object—and loudly demanding it, for it is left hanging at the end of a short line with a comma to emphasize the resounding silence that follows the word. The stanza is logically and grammatically incomplete, and leaves the reader with the question, “before what?”—a question never fully answered in the first stanza.[ The closest possibility to a first-stanza solution would be “dances,” treating the action content of this noun as if it were verbal (i.e., “knoweth long before [they dance]”). This, however, seems a bit of a stretch; and the reiteration of “before” in line 20, with a completion logically related to the content of lines 5-7, seems a much stronger thematic link.]

This gap is widened in the second stanza, where we find not only the “nimble Diver” and “God” but also an unnamed lady who “wears” the “dearly-earned pearl” which is “her own destruction and [the Diver’s] danger.” The appearance of this extra person begins to hint at a fulfillment of the “before” question of the stanza; there are more people in the poem than the seekers of secrets. The others are represented by the lady just as the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” are represented by the “Diver” in the second stanza’s complex conceit. The interpretive crux of the poem is thus reached in line 14, when it becomes clear that the lady is at least as much the object of criticism as the secret-seekers: for the secret wrested out by the “Diver” is not only “danger” to him but “destruction” to her, a “destruction” she “wears” “with excessive pride.”

It is unsurprising, then, to find the completion of the “before” of the first stanza in the end of the third stanza’s climactic trope. “The subtil Chymick” is to the microcosmic universe what “the fleet Astronomer” is to the macroscomic; both are represented by “the nimble “Diver” of the second stanza. The missing object in the first stanza, represented by the lady in the second, now appears in the form of the “ordinarie suitours at the doore.” The “before what?” becomes “before / They appeare . . . / To ordinarie suitours,” and the parallelism is perfected: the outwardness of “dances” meets the inwardness of “bed-chamber” in the form of the “suitours” who are neither at the dance nor in the bedchamber; who do not see the “secret glances” nor the “naked . . . principles” with which the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” dally.

The first three stanzas, in fact, are a self-contained whole: by the end of line 21 all the conceits have run their course and the characters of the secret-seekers as well as the mass of mankind who pride themselves on following them stand indicted of pride and presumption. It is in the fourth stanza, however, that Herbert moves from public to personal reflection, leaving the violent words (“bore,” “piercing,” “cuts,” “devest,” “strip”) for warmer words of entreaty (“deare,” “glorious,” “embosomes,” “mellowing,” “poore”). The stanza becomes aurally softer and metrically smoother (note the abundance of resonants and round vowels) than the clipped, hurried pace of the first three. The two questions maintain the tone, requiring no downward inflections at all until the end of the stanza; while the lengthy enjambed phrase “thou searchest round to finde out death” (with three repetitions of “ou” and to “d-t” combinations to further slow the pace) ensure a lengthy pause after the climactic word, “death.”

This careful, gentle control of the emotional setting through metrical and aural effects allows Herbert to poignantly express the frustration of watching those to whom every good has been given who still fall short, as well as the contrition of recognizing oneself in that portrait. The poem’s final utterly anti-climactic verb “missest,” as if failure to respond to all God has done were a mischance, creates a striking irony in light of the three stanzas of sharply-worded indictment with which the poem began. The ability to create and control such striking juxtapositions that marks Herbert as one of the prime exemplars of the metaphysical tradition in poetry.