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George Herbert

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"Virtue" is one of the poems in a collection of verse called The Temple (1633), which George Herbert wrote during the last three years of his life. By then, he had taken holy orders in the Anglican Church and become rector in Bemerton, England, near Salisbury. Herbert's poems are lyrical and harmonious, reflecting the gentle voice of a country parson spreading the Christian message. He appreciates the beauty of creation not only for its own sake but also because he sees it as a mirror of the goodness of the Creator. Yet, despite Herbert's sense of the world's loveliness, his poems often reflect the transience of that beauty and the folly of investing it with any real value. In "Virtue," he presents a vision of an eternal world beyond the one available to sense perception.

Implicit in "Virtue" is a delicately expressed struggle between rebellion and obedience. The understated conflict lies between the desire to experience worldly pleasures and the desire—or as Herbert would insist, the need—to surrender to the will of God. The battle waged between rebellion and obedience can be seen more clearly in one of the best-known poems in The Temple, "The Collar." Therein, the poet "raves" against the yoke of submission that he must bear until he hears the voice of God call him "child"; then, he submissively yields, as the poem ends with the invocation "My Lord!" This conclusion indicates that what the narrator feels about the experience of the natural world is of less authenticity than an inner voice of authority that directs him toward God.

Herbert's poetry displays a conjunction of intellect and emotion. Carefully crafted structures, like the first three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, of "Virtue," all of which are similarly formed, contain sensuously perceived content, like depictions of daytime, nightfall, a rose, and spring. Such a combination of intellect and emotion, in which the two forces, expressed in bold metaphors and colloquial language, struggle with and illuminate each other, is most apparent in the poetry of one of Herbert's contemporaries, John Donne, and is called metaphysical poetry. In "Virtue," an example of this combination of the intellectual and the sensuous can be seen in the second line of the third quatrain, when the spring is compared to a box of compressed sweets.

In "Virtue," which comprises four quatrains altogether, Herbert reflects on the loveliness of the living world but also on the reality of death. Building momentum by moving from the glory of a day to the beauty of a rose to the richness of springtime, while reiterating at the end of each quatrain that everything "must die," Herbert leads the reader to the last, slightly varied quatrain. There, the cherished thing is not a tangible manifestation of nature but the intangible substance of "a sweet and virtuous soul." When all else succumbs to death, the soul "then chiefly lives." Not through argument but through an accumulation of imagery, Herbert contrasts the passing glories of the mortal world with the eternal glory of the immortal soul and thereby distinguishes between momentary and eternal value.

"Virtue" and many other poems from The Temple can be found in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke and published by Harcourt, Brace & World, in 1963.

Author Biography

George Herbert was born into a wealthy and titled family at Montgomery Castle, in Wales, on April 3, 1593, as one of nine children. His father, Sir Richard Herbert, died in 1596, when George was three years old. His mother, Lady Magdalen Newport Herbert, was a patron of the poet and clergyman John Donne, who presided at her funeral when she died in 1627. Herbert was educated privately until 1605, when he attended the prestigious Westminster School as a King's Scholar. In 1609, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, earning his bachelor's degree in 1613 and a master's in 1616. Two years later, he became a teacher, with the title of "reader in rhetoric," at Trinity, and a year later, in 1619, he was appointed orator for the university, a post that he held until 1628. In this capacity, he represented the university on public occasions, such as by delivering the welcoming addresses when King James I visited Cambridge. In this way, Herbert became known to the King, who, delighted by his performances, awarded him a yearly stipend.

Herbert's first poems were Latin sonnets that he wrote for his mother. In them, he argued that a more fitting subject for poetry than love for a woman was love for God. His first published verses appeared in 1612. They were two poems, also in Latin, written in memory of King James's son Prince Henry, who had died that year. In 1624 and 1625, Herbert was elected to Parliament to represent Montgomery. However, rather than pursuing a career in politics or as a courtier, which had been his intention, after the death of King James, he devoted himself to the priesthood. In 1630, Herbert took holy orders in the Church of England and became the rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury. He married Jane Danvers, the cousin of his mother's second husband, in 1629. During his three years as a priest, Herbert wrote A Priest to the Temple; or, The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life, in which he set forth a guide for pastors in caring for their parishioners and in developing their own spirituality.

On March 1, 1633, Herbert died of tuberculosis. He had always been sickly, and one of his reasons for not pursuing an academic career at Trinity College after graduation had been the taxing effect of study upon his unsturdy constitution. From his deathbed, he sent a manuscript of poems called The Temple, in which is included the poem "Virtue," to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, a fellow clergyman, asking him to publish them if he thought they were worthy and would contribute to people's spiritual advancement. Ferrar indeed published the poems that year, and by 1680 the collection had gone through thirteen printings.

By all accounts, Herbert was a gentle and pious person with a sweet and generous nature. He helped rebuild the decaying church at Bemerton with his own money and was loved and esteemed by his parishioners, whom he cared for spiritually and, when necessary, by sharing in their labor or giving them money. Izaak Walton, his first biographer, wrote of him, "Lowly was Mr. George Herbert in his own eyes, thus lovely in the eyes of others."

Poem Text

   Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
   The bridal of the earth and sky;
   The dew shall weep thy fall tonight,
   For thou must die.
   Sweet rose, whose hue, angry and brave,           5
   Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
   Thy root is ever in its grave,
   And thou must die.
   Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
   A box where sweets compacted lie;               10
   My music shows ye have your closes,
   And all must die.
   Only a sweet and virtuous soul
   Like seasoned timber, never gives;
   But though the whole world turn to coal,
   Then chiefly lives.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

Herbert begins "Virtue" with an apostrophe, or invocation. That is, here, he starts with a direct rhetorical address to a personified thing: as if speaking to the day, the narrator says, "Sweet day" and then characterizes the day as "cool," "calm," and "bright." Thus, for one noun, "day," he provides four adjectives. The rest of the line is made up of the adverbial "so," signifying intensity, repeated three times. Herbert is presenting a fairly generic image, without any action, as no verb appears among these eight words. Nor can a verb be found in the next line, which is a kind of appositive, or a noun phrase placed beside the noun that it describes. "The bridal of the earth and sky," which describes the "day," indicates no action, instead merely illustrating and amplifying the conditions depicted in the first line. That is, the "sweet day" is the bridal—the marriage, conjunction, or union—of the earth and the sky. In sum, Herbert presents a serene yet invigorating day and locates the reader in the celestial and terrestrial realms simultaneously, for the day in its loveliness brings them together.

Day, however, gives way to night, just as life gives way to death: "The dew shall weep thy fall tonight," the narrator asserts, turning a daily natural event, nightfall, into a metaphor. Beyond death, the line also suggests grief at the loss of paradise on Earth, the Fall, which is the original cause of death in the Judeo-Christian story of the Creation. The evening dew, invested with emotion and made to represent grief, is equated with tears, which are shed at nightfall over the Fall, the sin that brought death into the world.

Lines 5-8

In beginning the second quatrain with the word "sweet," Herbert continues to connect the beauty of nature with impermanence, as any "sweet" thing must, over time, lose its sweetness. Like the day, the rose is an emblem of earthly splendor. It is "sweet" like the day, saturated with color, and graced with magnificence. (Angry and brave are complex words in Herbert's usage, as aspects of their meanings have all but passed from English. Angry, in the seventeenth century, could signify "inflamed," while brave could signify "having a fine or splendid appearance." The suggestions of wrath and courage carried by these words also reinforce the rose's magnificence, as it is characterized thus as standing knowingly in the prospect of doom.) So magnificent is the rose that Herbert calls one who looks at it a "rash gazer." Here, "rash" suggests a lack of necessary caution in taking in a sight so dazzling that the gazer is moved to "wipe," or rub, "his eye," as one does in wonder. Also, a warning may be understood to be present in the word "rash": one who beholds the rose is in danger of desiring its seductive but transitory beauty over the sweetness of what endures in eternity, the soul itself.

As with the day, so with the rose: despite its living splendor, death awaits. "Thy root," buried in the earth, as it must be if the rose is to flourish, "is ever in its grave." Thus, life and death are entwined, and death is an ever-present aspect of life. Indeed, by emphasizing the common ground shared by the root, the source of life, and the grave, the receptacle for death, Herbert evokes two Christian lessons: first, that life contains elements of death and must inevitably give way to death and, second, that death is not finality but part of the continuum of existence. In awareness of death, one realizes the true meaning and purpose of life and will thus prepare his or her soul, through the exercise of virtue, for eternity.

Lines 9-12

The word "sweet" begins the third quatrain as well, now describing the spring, which is subsequently characterized as "full of sweet days and roses." As such, the delights presented in the first two quatrains are contained in the third, and the narrator solidifies his suggestion of the earth's rich bounty. In the second line of the quatrain, spring is likened to "a box where sweets compacted lie." Then, as in the previous quatrains, the third line iterates the transience of earthly delights: "My music shows ye have your closes." Through this line, the narrator offers the poem itself as proof of his argument regarding the impermanence of things. By "my music," the narrator refers to the very verse being read, this poem. "Close" is a technical term in music indicating the resolution of a musical phrase. Thus, the poetic verse, like everything else the narrator has so far depicted, must come to an end, as it temporarily does with the four stressed and conclusive beats of the twelfth line: "And all must die."

Lines 13-16

Breaking the pattern established in the previous three quatrains, the final quatrain begins not with the word "sweet" but with a limiting expression: "Only a." The reader has been told that the "sweet day," the "sweet rose," and the "sweet spring" all "must die." In contrast to them is the soul: "Only a sweet and virtuous soul / … never gives." "Sweet" is no longer used to denote an aesthetic quality, nor is the word sufficient to stand alone anymore; in fact, in being yoked with "virtuous," it is invested with a moral and spiritual dimension. The soul that is sweet and virtuous, unlike the spring, the rose, and the day, "never gives," that is, it never gives way to death, instead ever enduring. Such a sweet soul, disciplined by virtue like wood that has been seasoned, is fully strengthened. Lumber that has been seasoned, aged, and dried is more suitable for use in construction than is fresh lumber; "seasoned timber" is sturdy and enduring. The conflagration suggested in line 15 by the image of "the whole world turn[ing] to coal" alludes to chapter 3, verse 10, of 2 Peter, in the New Testament, where Peter speaks of "the day of the Lord," the judgment day when "the elements shall melt with fervent heat" and "the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."

Thus, the first three quatrains present images of earthly beauty, but each ends with the word "die." The last quatrain presents images of an eternal soul and of a conflagration that turns the whole world, except that virtuous soul, to blackened coal, and its last line ends with the word "live." As such, the entire poem, which all along warned of death, shows the way in which Herbert believes that he and his readers may achieve eternal life: by shunning transient glory and humbly embracing virtue.


The Transience of Earthly Beauty

Repeatedly, throughout the sixteen lines of "Virtue," Herbert asserts beauty's transitory nature. His warning is not that people themselves must die but that the things that delight people while they are alive must pass away. The word "thou," repeated in the last line of each of the first three stanzas, serves as an address to each of the day, the rose, and the spring. The word does not refer to the poet himself or to the reader, even if one hears associative and suggestive echoes in those directions. Consequently, Herbert's poem does not assume the character of a threat. It serves, rather, as an instrument devised to wean both poet and reader off dependence on the visible world for joy and spiritual nourishment in order to redirect both poet and reader to the inner cultivation of virtue.

The Interconnection of Life and Death

Besides expressing the impermanence of natural phenomena in "Virtue," Herbert also reveals the interconnection of the realms of life and death. The earth, which represents impermanence, and the sky, which represents eternity, are joined (by the day) in union in the second line of the poem. Similarly, the seventh line shows that a root, a source of life, and a grave, a tomb for life, share the earth as a common location. In the Christian story, Jesus's temporary journey into earthly death assures humankind of the existence of a way into eternal life.

The Power of Christian Virtue to Overcome Mortality

The last stanza reverses the despair built up in the first three, by expressing the notion that salvation is achieved through the cultivation of a "sweet and virtuous soul." Such a soul is formed, Herbert suggests, through appreciation of the beauty of nature, with the understanding that those natural objects, which indeed exercise a positive influence on the soul, must perish. The soul that is shaped by the appreciation of the sweetness of natural beauty—as long as that beauty is seen to be transient—can itself become sweet by refocusing its appreciation on the beauty of virtue, sacrifice, and the eternal afterlife.


Despite his poem's focus on the transience of earthly beauty and of the experience of earthly rapture, Herbert delights in the depiction of nature and natural phenomena. He brings the reader into the English countryside in springtime, to be dazzled by the light of day, the hue of a rose, the scent of the earth, and the dew-covered fields at evening, as well as by the music of the poet's appreciation of these things. Herbert introduces natural images into his verse not as ends in themselves but as a means of carrying out the religious instruction to which the poem is devoted.


An implicit theme of "Virtue" is faith. Although what is visible to humankind in the poem is the transience of earthly delight and the decay of nature, the poem ultimately conveys what cannot be seen and must instead be felt: the existence of a quality, the soul, which exists in eternal delight in a dimension other than the one in which our bodies live. The first three quatrains show what the poet can actually see; the fourth refers to what he knows by virtue of the vision granted to him by his Christian faith. Faith allows him to see what is invisible to the eye.

Topics For Further Study

  • In an essay, discuss whether Herbert's "Virtue" is or is not significant in the twenty-first century.
  • Virtually all religions present some idea of what happens to people after they die. In an essay, consider the following questions: If you are religious, what are the teachings of your religion about what happens after death? If you are not religious, what ideas have been taught to you about what happens after death? What are your own beliefs about what happens after death? Are they in accord with what you have been taught, or have you developed other ideas? Is death a serious concern to you, or is it something you do not think about? Fully explain all of your responses.
  • Consider a loss you have suffered. In an essay, discuss the nature of the loss, how it affected you, and how you coped with it. Then conduct interviews with six people regarding loss and coping with it. Present your results to your class, analyzing the responses and comparing and contrasting the nature of the responses with consideration for the age of the respondents.
  • Write a dialogue in which two characters, one a believer in God and one a nonbeliever, discuss Herbert's poem "Virtue."
  • In "Virtue," Herbert focuses on the transience of the delights of the natural world. Rewrite the poem using products of technology instead of natural phenomena.



Much of the force and grace of "Virtue" come from the device of anaphora, which gives the poem its orderly and predictable structure and endows it with a soothing and even hypnotic quality. Anaphora is the repetition of words and patterns for poetic effect. This device is immediately apparent in the first line, with the triple repetition of the word "so." Moreover, the same poetic structure governs each of the first three stanzas, while the fourth stanza is shaped by a slight variation of this structure. Each of the first three stanzas begins with the word "sweet" and ends with the word "die." The second line of each stanza presents an image reflecting nature's splendor, while the third line of each stanza offers a diminution, or lessening, of that splendor. Each of the fourth lines contains four one-syllable words, with these four words nearly identical from stanza to stanza. The effect of anaphora is to make an argument by means of a pattern of language, as the use of anaphora suggests that in several different instances, the same laws apply. Finally, the variation allowed by the last stanza breaks the tension built up by the repetition, offering a solution, the practice of virtue, to a problem that had seemed unsolvable, transience.


In poetry, apostrophe is the technique of calling upon or addressing a particular person or thing. In the first three stanzas of "Virtue," Herbert indirectly addresses the reader of the poem by directly addressing the day, a rose, and the spring. In the fourth stanza, he does not address the soul but instead talks about it. Thus, he differentiates his relationship to the eternal world of the soul from his relationship to the natural world. Also, he thus puts himself in the role of a teacher and a preacher, conveying a message about the natural world and its impermanence.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1630s: Most of England was made up of cities and villages that were integrated with the natural world depicted in Herbert's "Virtue."

    Today: After the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and urban development of the twentieth, England is no longer the green, open country it was in Herbert's time. However, through concerted conservation efforts much of the nation's forest land has been restored.
  • 1630s: Universities like Cambridge were dedicated primarily to educating young men to serve in the priesthood and thus focused on divinity studies.

    Today: The great English universities provide secular education in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to male and female students alike.
  • 1630s: The English monarchy was the central governing power.

    Today: England is a constitutional monarchy in which the government is made up of an elected prime minister, an elected House of Commons, and a House of Lords, some of whose members are elected and some of whom hold hereditary positions. The monarchy has no real governing power and as such is rather a symbolic institution providing England with a cultural identity.

Historical Context

Lyric Poetry

Originally, a lyric poem was one sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, a small stringed instrument resembling a harp. In time, a lyric poem became such a poem that might be so accompanied even if it actually was not. Lyric poetry is characterized by the poet's giving intimate expression to his innermost thoughts and feelings, in a way that he could not simply by, say, telling a story. Herbert's "Virtue" reflects his inner delight at the loveliness of nature as well as his meditation in response to nature. Rather than telling a story, "Virtue" reveals an internal mood. In part because of the value given to human perception by the Renaissance, lyric poetry flourished during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England.

Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is the name given to the poetry written by a loose collection of seventeenth-century poets, including John Donne foremost as well as George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and John Cleveland. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by intellectual argument expressed in sensual imagery and a colloquial, or everyday, style of writing. (Writing that was colloquial in the seventeenth-century, of course, would not seem so in the twenty-first.) Sentence structure is often complex, and metaphors bring together images that might not at first seem appropriate, as Herbert does in "Virtue" when he speaks of the spring as "a box" in which "sweets compacted lie."

Devotional Poetry

While verse may be classified as metaphysical poetry based on formal, technical, and stylistic aspects, verse may be classified as devotional poetry based on the content and intention of the work. Devotional poetry is exactly what its name implies: poetry written, and intended to be read, as an act and expression of devotion to the Deity, as is all of Herbert's verse. Like metaphysical poetry, devotional poetry was especially prevalent in the seventeenth century, when the intersection of religion and politics dominated intellectual discussions; in fact, many of the authors of metaphysical poetry, including Donne, Vaughan, and Crashaw, are also renowned for their devotional poetry. In "Virtue," Herbert praises the virtue of the Creator by praising the beauty of the creation. Beyond that, he intuits from that beauty a dimension of existence attainable only through faith in and devotion to the Creator, not merely through what he has created.

Critical Overview

Next to his great contemporary John Donne, who was a family friend, fellow poet, and fellow churchman, Herbert is regarded as the foremost among the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. His book of verse, The Temple, in which "Virtue" is included, enjoyed immense popularity throughout the seventeenth century in part because of the devotional aspect of his poetry and in part because of his reputation for having a character marked by gentleness and saintliness. His poetry remained popular despite the disfavor his religion, his family, and his allegiance to the monarchy earned him as a result of the displacement of the monarchy by the government of Oliver Cromwell between 1640 and 1660.

The great American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, discussing Herbert's verse in his lecture "English Literature: Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wooton," remarks that Herbert was "not content with the obvious properties of natural objects but delights in discovering abstruser relations between them and the subject of his thought." Emerson adds that Herbert's "thought is often recondite and far fetched yet the language is always simple and chaste" and that he demonstrated "the power of exalted thought to melt and bend language." In his essay "The Metaphysical Poets," T. S. Eliot comments, "In the verse of George Herbert … simplicity is carried as far as it can go." Russell Fraser, in an essay titled "George Herbert's Poetry," writes that "among makers of the short poem in English Herbert's peers are Yeats, Frost, Donne and Jonson, and Shakespeare at sonnets." This is high praise.

Criticism of "Virtue" is usually of the exegetical type, as it might be for scripture; exegesis is a type of critical investigation that sets out to clarify and explore the meaning of images of and allusions to objects like "dew" and "seasoned timber." For the general reader, such criticism can tend to be obscure and to make a poem seem more convoluted than it first appears. Nevertheless, when a reader can connect, for example, "dew" with Christ's grace or a "rose" with his simultaneous presence and departure, "Virtue" gains added breadth.


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he attempts to show how a contemporary reader might approach Herbert's early-seventeenth-century poem "Virtue."

If poetry that is nearly four centuries old, like Herbert's lyric poem "Virtue," is to be meaningful to contemporary readers, something within that poetry must transcend its own time, bridging the distance between history and experience. If a poem cannot do these things, then it is only a museum piece—an artifact, a remnant of the past. Such a poem may be interesting to the general reader as a curiosity, for the glimpse it gives of another time; otherwise, it may be interesting to specialists and scholars as material to put under the microscope and dissect, allowing them to track down learned allusions and write largely unread scholarly articles. What, then, does "Virtue" have to offer a contemporary, common reader, rather than a scholar?

"Virtue" was written by a priest of the Church of England in a rural district of England sometime between 1630 and 1633, nearly a decade before Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Revolution and the beheading of King Charles I. Following in the tradition of "warning" verse, which reminds readers of the transience of the temporal world, however beautiful, and of the possible perils of the world to come, the poem appears on first reading to be lovely in a genteel sort of way and certainly transient itself. It is a poem of sixteen brief, alternately rhymed lines, made up of ninety-eight words in all, with the word "sweet" appearing six times and the word "die" three times. In addition, the word "die," which appears at the end of the fourth, eighth, and twelfth lines, dictates the rhymes of the preceding second, sixth, and tenth lines; the sounds of the first words of the seventh and eleventh lines, "thy" and "my," respectively, also accord with this rhyme scheme. The poem is not only brief, therefore, but also concentrated. It is composed of four stanzas and is structured anaphorically, meaning that each of the first three stanzas repeats the same established pattern, while the fourth offers a slight, and meaningful, variation of that pattern.

Each of the first three stanzas begins with an invocation, or an address: to the "day," to a "rose," and to the "spring." Each is called "sweet." The third line of each stanza reiterates the message of transience: day will fall; the earth that nourishes also serves as a grave; and musical phrases come to an end. The fourth lines of the three stanzas present similar warnings in almost identical words: "For thou must die," "And thou must die," and "And all must die." The last stanza offers what must be seen as a moral: While all the lovely delights of Earth will perish, the soul that has devoted itself to becoming "sweet and virtuous" will live.

"Virtue" is thus an instruction not only in how we must look at life but also in faith itself. Presenting what is clearly visible to the human eye in the first three stanzas, that is, impermanent earthly delights, the poem moves in the fourth stanza to what is invisible and is thus apparent only to the faithful: the permanence of the eternal life that follows death for the soul that is "sweet and virtuous." Herbert attempts to make his argument more convincing by setting up a tension in the first three stanzas that he resolves in the fourth. Indeed, each of the first three stanzas ends in frustration, and through that frustration Herbert instills a longing in the reader. By heralding day, rose, and spring as desirable and then devaluing them in demonstrating their impermanence, Herbert fosters in the reader a desire for something worthy and permanent. Thus, by breaking, in the fourth stanza, the pattern that governed the first line of each of the first three stanzas, beginning with the word "only," Herbert resolves his poem's tension. The structure of his rhetoric naturally wins the reader to his position, even if only momentarily.

When he composed "Virtue," Herbert was writing for a like-minded audience. He was a pastor, and he was communicating a common belief among his followers, in a form intended to delight them and reaffirm what they knew. He was speaking not only to those in his small village, who could hear him preach his sermons on Sundays, but, indeed, to members of his religion throughout England. The poems in The Temple, of which "Virtue" is but one of many, are sermons, or lessons for the faithful. They are designed to strengthen faith by addressing resistance and celebrating acquiescence. This sort of verse is called "devotional poetry." For the poet, the verse exists as a testament of his faith; for faithful readers, it sings of their spiritual condition and offers the lyrical pleasure of dwelling in a familiar abode, as comforted by the reiteration of a common belief.

What, then, does "Virtue" offer to readers nearly four centuries later? The answer seems self-evident. For readers who share Herbert's belief, "Virtue" simply reinforces what they already feel and, as it did centuries ago, offers the consolation of a familiar and fundamental belief sweetly restated. For readers who do not share Herbert's belief, "Virtue" can be dismissed as old-fashioned piety not to their taste, or it can, perhaps, be enjoyed and esteemed as an aesthetic object. In either case, the apparent simplicity of the poem may present the greatest difficulty to contemporary readers of whatever persuasion. Whether read by those who agree with it or by those who do not, "Virtue" can be given a cursory glance and dismissed as a pretty set of verses. Scholars, certainly, can offer plenteous evidence to the contrary. They can show the poem's complexity and resonance through analyses of terms like "dew," "fall," and "seasoned timber." Dew can signify the presence of Christ. The word "fall" invokes the biblical story of the Fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden. "Seasoned timber" may suggest the soul that has been cured of its naive and youthful devotion to the manifestations of divinity in nature, allowing it to focus its devotion on divinity itself. The term may also refer, perhaps, to the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Such extensive analyses, however, do not make "Virtue" any more striking as a poem, rather making it only more doctrinal or obscure than it first appears.

What Do I Read Next?

  • "Life," available in Alexander Witherspoon and Frank Warnke's Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry (1963), is another poem of Herbert's from The Temple. Like "Virtue," it focuses on how nature's products die off and thereby reveal the fate of humankind.
  • In "On My First Son," a lyric written in 1603, also available in Witherspoon and Warnke's Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry (1963), Ben Jonson laments the death of his son at the age of seven years. Jonson tries to balance his profound grief with the consolation that death has put his beloved child in a state he ought to envy rather than regret, in removing him from earthly care.
  • In act 4, scene 2, of his play Cymbeline (c. 1612), William Shakespeare introduces a funereal lament, "Fear No More the Heat of the Sun," in which the singers console themselves over the fact of death by accepting its inevitability and its power as liberator from the cares of the world.
  • Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" (1648), found in The Works of Robert Herrick (1823), like Herbert's "Virtue," contemplates the impermanence of time. Rather than offering the alternative of an eternal afterlife, however, Herrick advises that a fitting course of action is to seize the day before it departs and enjoy to the fullest what is offered on Earth.
  • The second poem in A. E. Houseman's cycle A Shropshire Lad (1896), "Loveliest of Trees," is a brief lyric in which the poet contemplates the beauty of nature with an awareness that he, not nature, will pass away.
  • In "Spring and Fall to a Young Child" (1880), found in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1931), Hopkins considers the transience of life and nature from the point of view of an older man reflecting on a girl's experience of autumn.
  • In "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (c. 1945), found in The Poems of Dylan Thomas (1952), the Welsh poet celebrates fiercely holding onto life, despite the inevitability of death, to the very end.

The demands that "Virtue" makes on a twenty-first-century reader are different from the demands it made on seventeenth-century ones. In essence, it demands an aesthetic readjustment, which a responsible reading of the poem will help foster. That is, for the contemporary reader, "Virtue" is less about faith in a world hereafter than about the quiet contemplation of the present world in a gentle and penetrating spirit. Herbert's original intention, as revealed in the poem, was to show the impermanence of earthly delight. As the poem highlights the melancholy aspect of earthly experience by dwelling upon what is disappearing, it compels the reader to in turn dwell upon the words of the poem. This compulsion comes about not because the words are complex or have scriptural resonance but because their pace is one of rhythmic slowness. For the contemporary reader, "Virtue" is as much about embedding oneself in the poem's present as it is about the deceptiveness of temporality.

After the image of the "sweet day" is first invoked in the poem's opening, it is extended by the languorous triple modification, "so cool, so calm, so bright." Implicit in the repetition is a rhythmic instruction to the reader: read this slowly. The tempo is adagio—leisurely, contemplative, slow, and balanced. As the short line proceeds, this implicit tempo marking is reinforced by the hard k sounds of "cool" and "calm" and by the opening and closing consonants of "bright." The opening b of "bright" prevents any elision, or sliding together of sounds, with the o of the preceding "so," which an opening vowel would have allowed. Similarly, the t at the end of "bright" forces the reader to stop, making the line a self-contained unit despite the lack of a verb. Only with a new intake and release of breath can the reader attack the second line's first word, "the," which is followed with another b barrier, in the word "bridal."

This pattern of forced retardation continues in the third line and recurs in the succeeding stanzas. In the first line of the second stanza, "sweet rose" forces the reader to negotiate the trill between the two words. Following immediately is the hurdle of h's presented by "whose hue"; the reiterated oo sound also delays the reading. At its end, the line skids to a halt with the v sound in "brave." Over the next lines, many of the same sounds from the first stanza are employed, like the b of "bids" and the th of "thy." Even when new sounds are introduced, they have the same effect of keeping the tempo of the poem slow.

Only in the final stanza does the rhythmic pattern change. The opening vowel of "only" begins what in the context of "Virtue" is a forward tumble of sounds: The reader is propelled by the easy connection between the t of "sweet" and the succeeding "and," as well as by the elision of "virtuous" and "soul," through the blending of the final s of "virtuous" and the initial s of "soul." The second line of the fourth stanza, unlike lines 2, 6, and 10, presents no pause, instead offering a continuation of the first line: "Only a sweet and virtuous soul / Like seasoned timber." The l of "soul," with which the first line terminates, reappears immediately as the initial sound in the first word of the second line, "like." Similarly, the d of "seasoned" merges with the t of "timber."

This kind of minute examination of the most basic elements of "Virtue," the individual letters of individual words, illuminates the way in which Herbert achieved certain aesthetic effects. Indeed, simply undertaking such an examination disciplines the reader to pay attention to the smallest details of objects of the senses and to the process of perception itself. Thus, while the primary notion expressed in the poem is that the phenomena of the natural world are transient and ought not distract one from the eternity of the supernatural world, the poem itself contradicts that notion by demanding a focused and steady attention to its most minute details and, consequently, to its mechanics and to the images represented within it.

Thus, in a sense, "Virtue" seems to be separated from its author's apparent intention: rather than warning a reader not to become fixated on the created world, it stands as a work of human creation demanding absorbed attention. The poem itself is not transient but endures as an object worthy of contemplation across the boundaries of time, as confirmed by succeeding eras. Somewhat paradoxically, while "Virtue" warns against attending to day, rose, and spring as if they were permanent, it demands the reader's lingering attention to itself. Yet, in truth, no contradiction exists. At the core of this earthly, aesthetic object, a mortal creation, is what Herbert believed to be an immortal truth; indeed, "Virtue" instructs the reader in Christian dogma. Moreover, in contemplating the poem, the reader is not truly contemplating that transient something, essentially an artifact of nature. Rather, the reader is contemplating the transformation, by the poet's art, of the transient into the permanent, as the poem itself tempers the way in which the reader perceives the world. What makes something eternal is not only its duration in time but also the depth of people's consciousness, their perception, of it. In this respect, intensity is as much a dimension as time. When it succeeds, that is, when a reader yields to its demands, "Virtue" acts as a vehicle for the expression of the eternal. The poem also compels the reader to reside in and as such create an aspect of permanence, rather than allowing that reader to yield to the hurry and inattentiveness that endow an experience with an aspect of transience.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "Virtue," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Suzanne McDonald

In the following essay, McDonald argues that "Virtue" is an Easter poem celebrating the dual nature of Christ, as both a temporal and an eternal figure.

At the literal level, George Herbert's lyric poem "Vertue" has a self-evident and incontrovertible meaning: it juxtaposes earthly transience and mutability with the immortality of the true Christian soul. In addition, though, there seems to be both internal and external evidence to suggest an added dimension concerned with the dual nature of Christ, both mortal and divine, as we encounter this paradox through the events of Easter. This should not altogether surprise us. As one commentator has remarked, "a glance at Herbert's table of contents will show how many of his poems are subsumed under the series Advent, Nativity, Ash Wednesday and Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, and some special days like Trinity Sunday and All Saints; also, many more of the poems are Lenten or Holy Week poems than we have recognized." External evidence for this surmise is provided by implicit biblical allusions incorporating imagery which has fixed meanings outside the immediate context of the poem, while internal evidence is provided by the strategic choice of these images in "Vertue," and the occurrence of similar words and images throughout the fabric of The Temple. The literal and metaphoric modes are not, of course, mutually exclusive, since both views derive from the same source: it is the Fall which brings the decay of nature and of earthly beauty, and hence the need for Christ to assume flesh and to die. If we see the poem in the light of Christ's death and resurrection, rather than viewing it merely as an account of nature's corruption and the survival of the upright soul, then some of its perceived difficulties and peculiarities will disappear, and its richness and pathos will be enhanced.

The poem's most suggestive line is the second, where the day is described as "the bridall of the earth and skie" (l. 2). The implications of this are clear: the earth and sky are united by the day, and not, as has been suggested, that the stanza depicts the deflowering of an innocent bride. Rather, it is the concept of marriage itself which is present: it is in the day itself that the earth and sky are joined. There is little to hinder the natural extension of this image to include the person of Christ, who, in spite of his divinity, assumes man's flesh, accomplishing in himself that which Herbert attributes to the day: the union of heaven and earth. The scriptural and patristic resonance which surrounds the notion of "bridall" is strong, including such universal commonplaces as the marriage of both the earthly church and the individual soul to Christ the divine bridegroom. That the day represents Christ is likewise a commonplace, since the sun, by its perpetual rise and fall, is a constant symbol of Christ's birth, death and resurrection, a topic most famously explored and developed in Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward" and Milton's "Nativity Ode." The first stanza may therefore contain an implicit suggestion of the Easter pattern inherent in the concept of the fall of the day and of the sun.

Other poems in The Temple, and the structure of the work itself, support this approach. "Vertue," for instance, is immediately preceded by "Lent," a fact to which I shall have occasion to return. Looking further afield, however, other poems in The Temple employ the same vocabulary and imagery to focus on the central paradox of the Easter celebration. "Sunday," for instance, which has for one of its major themes the significance of Sunday in the Easter cycle ("This day my Saviour rose" [l. 36]) opens with a line comparable to the first line of "Vertue") "O Day most calm, most bright") and Sunday is presented as "Th' indorsement of supreme delight, / Writ by a friend, and with his bloud" (ll. 3-4). Moreover, Christ is again depicted as a source of light: "The week were dark, but for thy light: / Thy torch doth show the way" (ll. 6-7). "Sunday" is concerned most centrally with the Resurrection. By implicitly invoking its first line, "Vertue" maintains the association, but shifts it from the triumph of Easter Sunday to the pathos and paradox of Good Friday. "Self-condemnation," another poem which deals with the events surrounding the Passion, sees Herbert prefiguring "the last great day" (l. 19) when the light of truth and justice "shines bright and cleare" (l. 23). In "The British church" the Word made flesh is described as "sweet and bright" (l. 3), and again, in the alchemical poem "The Elixir," God is the tincture who will make all things like unto himself, "bright and clean" (l. 16).

Following this apparent equation of Christ with the day comes the reference to dew, another scripturally charged image, in part because in the Old Testament divine visitations can be in the form of dew, a concept utilized in the celebrated anonymous fifteenth-century lyric "I sing of a maiden …" In the Bible, dew is evidence of God's grace and blessing in such texts as Genesis 27:28 ("God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth") and Deuteronomy 33:13 ("Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew …"), a correspondence which Herbert invokes in the third stanza of "Grace." Dew is the manifestation of God's word in Deuteronomy 32:2) "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew") but, most significantly, it is associated with types of Christ and with prophecy concerning his death and resurrection. Gideon learns that he is to save Israel, just as his antitype, Christ, will save mankind, when God directs the dew to cover, and then avoid, the fleece (Judges 6:36-40). In Isaiah 26:19, revitalizing dew is directly associated with the resurrection of the dead: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs …" Similarly, in Hosea 14:5-7, "I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow…. They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn." And in Micah 5:7, "the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many people as a dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass…." However, the dew in "Vertue" is not simply a possible representation of God's Word made man, or of God's blessing contained within Christ's death. The most appropriate of all biblical references is Psalms 133:3) "As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore") where the dew of Hermon is conventionally glossed as the community of saints. Here, almost certainly, is the dew which weeps for the death of Christ, who, as the second Adam, must suffer his own "fall" in order that mankind may be saved from the consequences of the first Fall.

Having used the day as one trope for Christ, Herbert employs a second in the "sweet rose" whose hue is "angrie and brave" (l. 5), a conjunction of adjectives which has perplexed and irritated many commentators. How can the reader reconcile sweetness, anger, and bravery in a flower which should represent, in the conventional interpretation of the poem, the transience of earthly beauty? I would suggest that, as with the earth and the sky, these adjectives meet in the person of Christ and his sacrifice. Although, admittedly, the majority of allusions to roses in The Temple suggest the deceptiveness of worldly beauty and its temptations, other forms of denotation are also present. "Church-rents and schismes," for instance, opens with the phrase "Brave rose" to describe the Church, Christ's bride and the antitype of the rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1). In lines 12-13 it is Christ's blood which is specifically stated to have given the rose its hue, in keeping with the traditional iconography in which the rose is not only the flower of the Virgin Mary, but also of the martyrs. At the poem's conclusion Herbert, sorrowing over a falling Church, desires "to lick up all the dew, / Which falls by night, and poure it out for you!" (ll. 29-30).

"Angrie" and "brave" are not unprecedented adjectives in The Temple. "Angrie," aside from its common dialect meaning of "inflamed," is not, perhaps, readily associated with Christ and the New Law, but Herbert employs it in "Bitter-sweet") "Ah my deare angrie Lord, / Since thou dost love, yet strike" (ll. 1-2). The "brave rose" of "Church-rents and schismes" is paralleled by an early version of "Easter" in the Williams MS, where Herbert writes that "The Sunn arising in the East…. Can not make up so brave a feast / As thy discoverie presents" (ll. 23-26), a poem which, in addition to presenting Christ as a "brave feast," reiterates, in its first stanza, the importance of the Christ/day relationship. The equation of Christ with the rose of the second stanza of "Vertue" provides a more plangent explanation of the second line, where the sight of the crucified Christ is more likely to move the gazer to tears than the commonplace (and conventionally amorous) representation of a beauty which must fade.

The emblem of the rose whose "root is ever in its grave," usually interpreted as further suggesting the inevitable decline of natural beauty, lends itself equally well to the notion of Christ's ordained destiny on earth to fulfil the predictions of the prophets, a destiny which necessarily involves his own death. Apart from the fact that Christ is conventionally the Root of Jesse and the Root of David, biblical images of the root are frequently associated with the resurrection of the dead, since, for example, though it "wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet … it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant," just as "man lieth down" until "the heavens be no more …" (Job 14:8-12). Herbert expresses similar sentiments in his poem "The Flower," where the "shrivel'd heart," renewed by grace, is likened to the flower and its root.

   Who would have thought my shrivel'd heart
   Could have recover'd greennesse? It was gone
   Quite under ground; as flowers depart
   To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
   Where they together
   All the hard weather,
   Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
                                        (ll. 8-14)

Here the heart, having suffered its own death, experiences its own resurrection, while in "Vertue" the type of this process is implied in the depiction of the Christ-rose which, its root in the grave, encompasses not only the sorrow of Christ's inevitable sacrifice, but the joy of the equally inevitable resurrection to follow.

After the "sweet day" and the "sweet rose" have exemplified Christ, and been described in suggestive detail, both are subsumed into the "sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses" (l. 9). At the beginning of this interpretation, I pointed out the significance of the placement of "Vertue," immediately following the poem "Lent." Lines 25-27 of the latter poem clearly indicate that, whatever connotations spring may carry of a natural beauty which fades, its ecclesiastical significance is highly pertinent.

   Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
   And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
   And goodnesse of the deed.
                                        (ll. 25-27)

Just as the spring marks the Annunciation and the Passion, the key images of the dew and the rose possess a dual function in designating aspects both of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation, and of Christ himself, bringing into one nexus spring, Easter, Annunciation, and Passion.

Following this series of liturgical and biblical images, however, Herbert unsettles the reader by relating spring, days, and roses to the vexed "box where sweets compacted lie." Despite critical attempts to equate this mysterious box with a box of perfumes or an anachronistic musical box, its true identity almost certainly lies within The Temple itself, this time in the poem "Ungratefulness." Here Herbert describes "two rare cabinets full of treasure" (l. 7), the first being the Trinity (the "statelier cabinet"). More importantly, though,

   all thy sweets are packt up in the other
   Thy mercies thither flock and flow:
   That as the first affrights,
   This may allure us with delights;
   Because this box we know.
                                        (ll. 19-23)

This other box is the Incarnation. I would suggest, moreover, that in "Vertue" it also signifies, by analogy, the box which contains the Communion host, types of which are the Ark of the Covenant and, in particular, the sepulchre of Christ. If this is so, then the introduction of the Eucharist) the sharing by all of the results of Christ's sacrifice) marks a shift in the poem from the specific to the general. The specific is represented by a preponderance of demonstratives ("the bridall," "the dew," "the gazer") which imply the particular ("sweet day," "sweet rose"), as do the possessives ("thy fall," "thy root"). The general, though, is inaugurated by "a box" (italics added), the introduction of the poet himself ("my musick") and the corresponding change in the refrain. Even though all must die, the reference to the Eucharist, which brings about this change, lessens potential sorrow, since, as the final stanza indicates, it also represents a release from death.

Even in Herbert's music, references to Christ's suffering and resurrection are inescapable in yet another commonplace, the comparison of the tortured Christ on the cross to a musical instrument, emitting divine melody at the hands of his tormentors, an allusion which Donne incorporates in the first stanza of "Hymne to God My God, in My Sicknesse." In "Easter" Herbert sings the praises of the risen Lord, whose "crosse taught all wood to resound his name" (l. 9), and whose "stretched sinews taught all strings, what key / Is best to celebrate this most high day" (ll. 11-12). Moreover, "since all musick is but three parts vied / And multiplied" (ll. 15-16), in the context of the poem Herbert asks the risen Christ) his "blessed Spirit") to join his "sweet art" to the music of Herbert's awakened and consorted lute and heart. "Easter" is one of several poems relevant to "Vertue" to make significant use of the word "sweet," repeated here in reference to Christ's entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: "But thou wast up by break of day, / And brought'st thy sweets along with thee" (ll. 21-22). Likewise, in "The Sacrifice," Christ comments that the ointment was "not half so sweet as my sweet sacrifice" (l. 19), and in "The Flower" the Lord's "Returns" are "sweet and clean … as the flowers in spring" (ll. 1-2). In "Faith" the incarnate Christ "sweetly took / Our flesh and frailtie, death and danger" (ll. 23-24), and, as already indicated above, the Incarnation becomes a box of sweets in "Ungratefulness." Especially remarkable, however, are "The Odour" and "The Banquet"; the most cursory reading reveals the complete domination which "sweetness" holds over them. The former is based upon 2 Corinthians 2:15-16) "For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life." Although "sweet" appears only once in the biblical text which I have proposed as central to "Vertue," it is the basis of Herbert's entire poem, as adjective, adverb, and noun, with various guises and significations. In "The Banquet," which has for its subject the bread and wine of the Eucharist (a motif clearly important for "Vertue" as an Easter poem), Herbert employs "sweet" and "sweetnesse" as part of the structural development of the first three stanzas, compares the sweetness of flowers to that of Christ's sacrifice, and dwells on the sweet taste of the Communion wine.

In the final stanza, images of Christ's Incarnation and death are replaced by the knowledge not only of his resurrection, but, with the continuation of the new suggestion of community which surfaced in the preceding stanza, with the guaranteed resurrection of all Christian souls. Christ's resurrection and its consequences are implicit in the entire image skein) in the day, the dew, the root, and the rose. For the country parson, the rose is a purge, one of the "home-bred medecines," in contrast to exotic spices, which he "condemns for vanities, and so shuts them out of his family." In an analogous sense, in "Providence" the "rose, besides his beautie, is a cure" (l. 78), and in its figurative sense in "Vertue," Christ's cure for the primordial sin of Adam and the contagion of eternal death. The images of the first two stanzas hence unite the whole preordained cycle of Christ's life) Annunciation, Passion, Resurrection) and the perpetual significance of his life and sacrifice is contained in the diurnal cycle and the atemporal "gazer."

The "season'd timber" of this final stanza is therefore an unmistakable reference) one is tempted to say the most explicit of the entire poem) to the cross as a synecdoche for the crucifixion and its consequences, a mercy which never fails or "gives." Moreover, it is the type of the Christian soul, tempered by suffering, which remains upright until its ultimate vindication, when the final result of Christ's suffering is made apparent and "the whole world turn[s] to coal" (l. 15).

Source: Suzanne McDonald, "George Herbert's 'Vertue': An Easter Poem?" in George Herbert Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 61-69.

Kathleen M. Swaim

In the following essay, Swaim argues that the "season'd timber" of "Virtue" is a reference to charcoal and in opposition to the coal mentioned in the poem's penultimate line.

George Herbert's much anthologized and annotated "Vertue" has been generally recognized as what Arnold Stein labels it, "one of the purest lyrics in the language," and as "Herbert's poetry at its best" in the words of Louis L. Martz. Its deliberate architecture has been much praised. For M. M. Mahood its form of three statements plus a counter-statement makes it "essentially a poem in which anticipation dominates over discovery, in which our pleasure is to find all so well expressed"; for M. L. Rosenthal and A. J. M. Smith "its four tiny prophecies" are founded upon a "process of elimination"; and more recently Barbara H. Smith has called attention to the poem's architecture as modifying the norms of closure in favor of a fourth stanza which "has the effect, entirely appropriate to its theme, of a revelation—that which is known beyond what can be demonstrated logically."

There is an exquisite shapeliness to the art and thought of this lyric, in its progression from "thou" to "all" and from "die" to "lives"; in its shift from the diurnal rhythm of stanza 1—day/night—to the eternity of its conclusion; in the major imagery development of vegetative context (earth, sun, dew), to rose (singular) and root, to roses (plural), both sweetly growing and sweetly compacted or preserved for later seasons, and to the larger vegetative category of trees, this too plural and this too preserved in the form of usable timber; and in the secondary imagery of the third lines of the stanzas, especially the "weep" and "fall" of stanza 1, the "root" and "grave" of stanza 2, the "closes" both musical and mortal of stanza 3, and the apocalyptic transformation and reversal of stanza 4. The development of size and range and the reversal of stanza 4 fill out the poem's shape. My purpose in this note is to enhance our appreciation of both Herbert's metaphysics and his graceful artistry by closely attending to the concluding conceit.

The climactic stanza of "Vertue" reads thus:

   Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
   Like season'd timber, never gives;
   But though the whole world turn to coal,
   Then chiefly lives.

F. E. Hutchinson paraphrases the meaning thus: "While the day and the rose and the spring come to a natural end, virtue alone survives the general conflagration at the end of the world, which reduces all else to 'coal' (i.e. cinder, ashes)." Several anthologists supplement this usual gloss of "coal" with a citation of II Peter 3:10, which reads in the King James Version:

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

"Coal" is sometimes amplified to "glowing coal" or "red-hot coal" or attention is called to man as "a quick coal / Of mortall fire" in Herbert's "Employment."

"Season'd timber" too has come in for a share of special attention, most frequently as a unit in the artistic structure, as for example a confined resemblance that becomes a wide-ranging metaphor or as "an arbitrary symbol" in contrast to the images of the other stanzas. In the most fully developed study of the poem, Arnold Stein reads "season'd timber" as a natural object that "achieves its purpose after death—not as a tree but as wood"; for him it is a deliberate illustrative comparison, a simile, a product of human creation, in contrast to the symbols of the earlier stanzas, but a notably limited comparison which will barely allow us to stretch our imaginations to include the possibility that "seasoned timber burns well and has a kind of second life in its coals." Such glosses on the final stanza do not allow the full meaning and thus the full shape of the poem to emerge. In the words of Helen Vendler, "The real question is not what accommodations we can make post-hoc to the image but what made Herbert think of seasoned timber in the first place, and what effect this note, sounded at this point in the poem, has on the poem as a whole."

The limitation of the verbal glosses on the fourth stanza of "Vertue" is that, although they recognize some of the meanings of coal, they do not recognize that coal may also include "charcoal," and that coal thus contains the contrast between that which fire destroys and that which fire purifies or creates. For the most part Herbert's "coal" is black carbon fuel, the non-renewable resource deposited in earth strata. Such OED meanings of "coal" as "a piece of carbon glowing without flame" and "a piece of burnt wood, etc., that still retains sufficient carbon to be capable of further combustion without flame; a charred remnant" are not wrong; they are merely not sufficient for Herbert's range of meaning. His larger climax requires a contrast with "season'd timber."

"Charcoal" captures that greater range. Charcoal too is a carbon residue resulting from the imperfect combustion of animal or vegetable matter. It is, in the OED's fourth meaning of "coal," "Fuel prepared from wood by a process of smothered combustion or 'dry distillation,' whereby the volatile constituents are driven off, and the substance reduced to a more or less pure carbon." The chief difference between "cinder" and "charcoal" is in use or intention. A cinder or ember is an accidental residue of a completed or nearly completed process, still retaining some of the heat of its combustion, but waning toward cold ashes. Charcoal, on the other hand, has been deliberately prepared through the manufacture of its imperfect combustion in order that its impurities may be removed and it may be ready to fulfill its larger destiny, of burning with not waning but enhanced intensity. Some etymologies of "charcoal" emphasize the work invested in its preparation, noting that its first syllable echoes "chore" or "char" (as in "charwoman"). Even when we turn to a strictly technical account of charcoal the details suggest meanings we may employ to explicate the spiritual thrust of Herbert's lyric. Thus before modern technology, charcoal was normally manufactured in kilns or by placing a quantity of wood upright with bottom air vents and a central air shaft, then covering the whole with moistened earth, and igniting it at the bottom. Depending upon the rate of combustion, the process reduces the wood in the ratio of two to one or even four to one, and the product itself burns at between 300 and 700 degrees, thus generating very high heats for use in metallurgy.

The vocabularies of economics, chemistry, and physics all illuminate the rightness and richness of Herbert's chosen image of "season'd timber," and the fusion of multiple layers of meaning generates and reinforces the powerfully felt climax of "Vertue." Along with distinctions of combustion, the melting away of the elements with fervent heat from II Peter 3:10 and the burning up there of the earth and human works certainly contribute to the meaning of Herbert's stanza. In the final total conflagration, only the properly prepared soul shall survive. Purified by fire, the soul's sweetness and virtue not merely survive the destruction of earthly matter, but are intensified to the point of transcendence. Then, though the whole world turn to "coal" in the sense of cinders, the soul will turn to "coal" in the sense of charcoal—then chiefly living.

Source: Kathleen M. Swaim, "The 'Season'd Timber' of Herbert's 'Vertue,'" in George Herbert Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 1982, pp. 21-25.

Helen Vendler

In the following essay, Vendler compares "Virtue" with other poets' rewrites of Herbert's original and analyzes the original in an effort to understand the pattern of Herbert's thought in writing it.

   Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
   The bridall of the earth and skie:
   The dew shall weep thy fall tonight,
   For thou must die.
   Sweet rose, whose hue, angrie and brave,
   Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
   Thy root is ever in its grave,
   And thou must die.
   Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
   A box where sweets compacted lie;
   My musick shows ye have your closes,
   And all must die.
   Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
   Like season'd timber, never gives;
   But though the whole world turn to coal,
   Then chiefly lives.

For at least one of Herbert's critics, the poem 'Vertue' is the touchstone by which one enters into Herbert's feelings and truly senses his poetry; anthologists (following Coleridge's taste) have felt the poem to be peculiarly expressive of Herbert's spirit; John Wesley adapted it for the common Christian worshipper to sing at services. Though it seems an 'easy' poem, I do not find it easy to reconstruct Herbert's process of thought in writing it. Almost every line in it surprises expectation, though few poems in English seem to unfold themselves with more impersonality, simplicity, and plainness.

When a reader attempts to imagine himself composing the poem, suddenly he finds his confidence in its simplicity quite gone. What, he wonders, led the poet to see the day as a bridal, and call the rose's hue an angry one; why did the poet gratuitously introduce a rash gazer; why should the music of the poet himself (since he has so far maintained his anonymity) provide the conclusive proof of the necessary ending of spring; and finally (a problem which has been reluctantly taken on by every critic of the poem) how did the seasoned timber make its appearance? There are other difficulties, but these perhaps first strike a reader trying to reconstruct the creation of the poem.

Critics have reached two extremes in accounting for the surprising elements in conceits. One is expressed by Dr Johnson in his suspicion that metaphysical poets were simply striving for effect, while the sympathetic extreme, in Rosemond Tuve for instance, finds conceits often appropriate granted certain special canons of decorum (the grotesque, for example, can be in certain contexts 'decorous'). But both of these solutions seem inapplicable here. The poem is really anything but flashy, so little do its rather startling conceits disturb its harmonies of tone; and since the decorum ought to be one of praise (of the limited sweetness of nature and the unlimited sweetness and virtue of the soul), that decorum supports with difficulty either the angry hue of the rose or timber-like qualities of the soul, the latter seeming so awkward in its modification of something 'sweet' as well as virtuous.

There have been some post-hoc attempts to get round the seasoned timber: Arnold Stein has insisted on the formal nature of the simile, 'like season'd timber', by which, he argues, the quality compared in soul and wood is strictly limited to a fugitive resemblance, and Joseph Summers makes somewhat the same point in speaking of the 'limitation' of conceits: "'Season'd timber" is limited to its one point of resemblance of the "vertuous soul" that it "never gives".' This seems a weak acquiescence to the famous stanza. The real question is not what accommodations we can make post-hoc to the image but what made Herbert think of seasoned timber in the first place, and what effect this note, sounded at this point in the poem, has on the poem as a whole. I believe that Herbert is not arbitrary or wilful in his comparisons, that they rather tend to arise from a motive appearing perhaps sotto-voce in the development of the poem, but which helps to guide the poem from the beginning.

Mary Ellen Rickey has remarked that 'Vertue' is a carpe diem poem in reverse, quoting the precedent that A. Davenport has shown in Ovid for a conclusion in praise of virtue rather than in praise of seizing the day. However, the difference in tone between this poem and its erotic predecessors (a difference occurring not only at the end, as we shall see) seems to remove the poem almost entirely from its parent genre. That is, we would, if we were sufficiently responsive, sense from the beginning that this poem could not possibly end with a call to gather the roses of today, any more than it could end, as the passage in the Ars Amatoria does, with a total rejection of all natural solace.

The high resignation of the first stanza of 'Vertue' sets the initial theme, which, though it is ostensibly the death of a day, seems rather, metaphorically speaking, to be the immortal theme of the death of a maiden, etherealized into a virginal day. Herbert is struck, not by the sunny, earthly beauty, of the day, but by its remoteness, its spiritual stillness; it is so cool, so calm, that it seems more heavenly than earthly, an appearance which engenders Herbert's metaphor making the day a bridge to the skies; it is, in short, the most innocent and celestial of earthly beauties. We can scarcely doubt that 'bright' suggested 'bride': the Spenserian adjectives—'so cool, so calm, so bright'—could only suggest a bride, but the suggestion is abstracted into a bridal, presumably to avoid confusion of the fall of night with the marriage-bed. But the weeping dew (it is of course the falling dew, or the night-fall, which led to Herbert's invention of day-fall) reminds us of what is usually meant by the 'fall' of something innocent to which we respond by weeping—a fall into corruption, which is a premonition of the fall to death. A stanza, then, which is apparently about Time's destruction of a day is, by virtue of its metaphors, a stanza about the fall of bridal innocence. This fall has not very much to do with Time, but everything to do with intrinsic corruptibility or, to use theological terms, with sin. Herbert has seen this day-fall before, and so his verb is prophetic, not factual (a tone later imitated by Hopkins in 'Spring and Fall', with a sister-recognition of the intrinsic (and not caused by time) nature of the 'fall' we weep for). The dew is the elegist of the day, the witness and mourner of its fall in an unmixed sympathy, and therefore stands as Herbert's representative in the stanza, a helpless and grieving spectator, dwelling 'a weeping Hermit, there'. The emotions here are very pure and unalloyed, since the apparently 'natural' character of the day-fall clears the day of any logical 'guilt' in its descent into night.

If Herbert's representative in the first stanza feels only grief at vanished innocence, his representative in the second stanza is suffering from the smart of the sensual world. The hue of the rose, on which he has so rashly gazed (not glanced), irritates his tender senses and brings involuntary tears to his eye. The beauty of the rose (as Herbert will say explicitly in his poem of that name) is accompanied by qualities that make the flower physically harmful and therefore, in the emblematic universe of this poem, morally inimical to man. The weeping dew is rather a female figure, appropriate attendant to the bridal day, but the rash gazer is clearly masculine, and so is the rose, angry in hue. It is a small duel they engage in, in which the rose pricks the eye of the one so rash as to approach him. The mutually symmetrical relations between nature and the spectator in the first stanza (the falling day, the falling dew, the clear day, the clear dew) become, then, mutually antagonistic ones after a seductive beginning in the gazer's rash love; and though on the surface the hostility is quickly passed by, it is nevertheless present in the little drama of the flaunting rose, the gazer's love, and the rose's retort. Herbert immediately takes revenge on the rose in a chilling statement, not of prophecy as with the day, but of fact, in which he insists, in an image which has nothing temporal about it at all, on the simultaneous death-in-life of the rose, which is, in a sense, as much dead as alive, since its root is ever in its grave.

The Book of Thel and 'The Sick Rose' are the Blakean parallels to the first and second stanzas of 'Vertue', and we may say that Herbert's feelings are considerably more mixed in respect to aggressive passion than in respect to necessarily-vanished innocence. Or we may say that he prefers the more feminine manifestations of nature (including his own nature) to the more thorny masculine ones. There was no need to make the rose masculine (its Romance predecessors having been by gender feminine) except to insist on the principle of aggression and unexpected harm in the encounter with passion. In fact, the real question raised by the second stanza is why the rose is called 'sweet' at all. If a reader, unacquainted with the poem, were to be shown the stanza, with the first word missing ('―rose, whose hue, angry and brave', etc.) and asked to supply a plausible first word, the last adjective to come to mind, I presume, would be 'sweet'. Nothing else in the stanza supports the initial epithet, a fact especially striking because the sweetness of the 'sweet day' is so wholly borne out by the succeeding adjectives. Is, in fact, Herbert's rose sweet at all? Not, certainly by its angry hue, which is only a superior (because mobile) sort of thorn; not, certainly, by its entombed root; by its bravery, perhaps? But 'sweetness', in the conventional sense established by earlier poems on the sweet rose, and by the 'sweet' day and the 'sweet' spring here in the poem, is almost antithetical to 'bravery' in Herbert's sense. We are left with the notoriously unmentioned sweetness of the rose's perfume or nectar, what Herbert calls in another poem 'hony of roses'. No doubt this aspect of the rose is what Herbert includes in the next stanza with its 'chest of sweets', but all mention of perfume, the only thing that could make the epithet 'sweet' seem plausible, is suppressed in this second stanza. The rose, in short, is not praised as the day was.

Let us, in an apologetic experiment, rewrite the second stanza so that it becomes a 'praise' like the first, expanding its first epithet logically:

   Sweet rose, whose hue, so gently brave,
   Delights the gazer's tender eye,
   Thy root, alas, is in the grave,
   And thou must die.

The first thing necessary, in such a rewriting, is to change Herbert's bold rhythm (so noticeable after the placid sweetness in the rhythmic conduct of the first stanza, with its perfect and famous partition of stress among all the words of its first line, and its subsequent iambic regularity). The markedly irregular rhythm of Herbert's first two lines about the rose mimics the encounter of rose and rash gazer, with two head-on shocks 'hue: angry' and 'brave: bids') and one slighter one ('rash: gazer'): the subsidence of this stanza into iambic rhythm can occur only after the duel of hue and eye has ceased.

The third stanza, with its feminine rhymes, is always breaking into a dance meter, and here there is no difficulty at all about the initial epithet. Spring is indeed not only sweet but the quintessence of sweetness, at once its expansion and contraction, and Herbert's rush of responsive feeling betrays the passion underlying the poem, hitherto kept at an impersonal distance. For the first time Herbert himself enters the poem, and again he denies, as he had in the stanza on the rose, that dissolution is basically a temporal event. With the rose, death was co-temporal with life; with the spring, we discover that ending is, on this earth, of one essence with existing. It is not because music exists in time that it 'has its closes'; it is rather because the beginning seeks the end, and makes no sense without it. All unities are also separations from other things, and therefore all earthly essences, whether in life or in art, have limits.

Because 'Vertue' has been seen so often as a poem contrasting the corruptibility of the natural order with the incorruptibility of the soul, and, consequently, as a poem about nature's subjection to Time, it is worth remarking on the fate attending each of Herbert's instances. The lovely day will 'fall'—almost a gravitational matter coinciding with the setting of the sun, and implying no real change occurring in the essence of the day itself; the passionate rose lives in its own grave, and comes closest, but certainly not by a Time-process, to 'death' in our usual sense; the spring, like music, comes to a close in a 'horizontal' ending that implies neither a burial nor a fall from a height. In fact, 'death' is thrice defined in the poem, and the only grisly death (like the only equivocal 'sweetness') belongs to the rose. The day dies intact, as effortlessly as it has lived; spring, like music, has a dying fall; but these declensions are sweet ones. The poem is not occupied chiefly with the corruption of nature by Time, only with the eventual (and philosophically necessary) cessation of nature.

Similarly, though the temporal question can hardly be excluded from the poem (given the presence of some temporal words like 'tonight' or 'spring'—I except the words 'ever' and 'never' as being eternal rather than temporal), the subject of each stanza, as it appears in the two initial lines, is conceived of not temporally, but solely in spatial or visual terms. The day is a span between earth and sky; the rose sends forth its pricking hue to the gazer through the ether; the spring is a box full of days and roses. The word 'day', itself, normally a temporal one, is transformed into a spatial unit by its alliance with the word 'roses' in the phrase, 'Spring, full of … days and roses'; the oddity of the link is not seen until we create a similar pair, say, 'full of weeks and oranges', or something similar. An addition of dissimilar things tends to assimilate one of the pair to the other, and here 'day' is clearly assimilated to 'rose', since both are, in the poem, things that can be put into a box of compacted sweets. We might say, given the visual stress, that these are objects which vanish rather than events which end; the poem, once again, is concerned not with time but with cessation.

When we reach the famous final stanza, we realize that there has been an abrupt break in format. The principle of inertial movement, transferred to poetry, suggests that Herbert might have continued the poem in the strict framework of its repeated construction: 'Sweet―, thou must (or shall―'.The frame is one of direct address, coupled with prophetic statement about the future destiny of the thing addressed. If I may be forgiven another rewriting, a fourth stanza resembling the first three in syntactic form would give us something like:

   Sweet soul, thy vertue cannot rust,
   Like timber aged thou dost not give,
   And when the world will turn to dust,
   Thou'lt chiefly live.

The question I want to raise by this affront to the poem is not one of worth, but one of procedure. Why did Herbert depart from his 'Sweet X' format and his direct address? and why did he not put the future of the soul in the future tense? But I defer answers here in order to put another question.

If Herbert wanted to say that the soul was better than natural things, why did he not say that though natural things were sweet the soul was still sweeter? I again rewrite the final stanza:

   Only the sweet and vertuous soul,
   A honey'd spring perpetual gives,
   And when the whole world turns to coal,
   Then chiefly lives.

It is of course clear at once that the rewritten 'sweet' last stanza like the rewritten 'sweet' stanza on the rose earlier, is insipid in conception, and we must conclude that the smarting gazer, the angry-hued rose, and the seasoned timber have some common stiffening function in the poem. That stiffening function lies behind the pun present in the title of the poem: the rose has 'vertue' in the sense of power, and the soul must be given at least as much resistance as the world has power. The poem, then, centres on both power and sweetness.

The customary Christian view is that to the seducing sweetness of the world must be opposed a stern and resistant power of the soul. Herbert is not unwilling to see the truth of this view, but he does not wish to adopt it at the cost of placing the order of nature and the order of spirit in radical opposition to each other. He wants to attribute to the soul a sweetness too. But as we might have asked what justification there was for the epithet 'sweet' applied to the armed rose, so we may well ask what justification is offered us for calling the soul sweet. The only things we are told about it are that it 'never gives' and that it lives now but 'chiefly lives' after the Last Day. There are rather colourless phrases. Are we to conclude that Herbert is illegitimately counting on our extra-poetic assent to the soul's sweetness because we are good Anglicans? The sweetness of the rose, after all, is at least justified later in the poem by its implicit inclusion in the 'chest of sweets' of the elegiac third stanza, a ceremonial farewell to beauty paralleling the lines in 'The Forerunners':

   Lovely enchanting language, sugar cane,
   Hony of roses, whither wilt thou fly?

The soul, we think, needs its sweetness defined even more desperately, because it seems in so many ways opposed to the previous sweetness, of day, rose, and spring, found in the poem.

The soul, linked by the epithet which it shares with the other self-evidently sweet things, seems to be included as one member of the class of 'sweets'. However, it would be fatal to describe it, as I have done in rewriting the stanza, in terms of the sweetness of nectar, light, or perfume: it would then be in a natural subclass along with the day, the rose, and the spring. George Herbert Palmer, in his beautiful but sometimes misleading edition of Herbert, represents the subject of 'Vertue' as 'the perpetuity of goodness', and he adds that goodness is 'bright as the day, sweet as the rose, lovely as the spring, but excels them all in never fading'. Surely the emphasis of this paraphrase is mistaken: Herbert's poem is not one which says, 'O Vertue, thou art beautiful as the day' in the first stanza, and 'O Vertue, thou art lovely as the rose' in the second stanza, and then 'O Vertue, thou art sweet as the spring' in the third stanza. If the poem had done this, we should have no trouble in believing in the sweetness of the soul; it would have been demonstrated for us thrice over. Herbert, on the contrary, establishes first the absolute priority (in the development of the poem) of the sweetness of nature, allowing for the bitter-sweetness of the rose, and only then begins to talk of the soul. We cannot presume, as Palmer seems to do, a knowledge of the end of the poem in reading the first stanza.

The sweetness of the soul, then, is not precisely the sweetness of air, of perfume, or of nectar. What, then, is it? It is not the experienced sweetness of the felt ecstasy of the soul. That, for Herbert, is represented in 'The Banquet', where indeed the soul, to express its ecstasy, resorts to metaphors of melted sugar, sweetened wine, and the fragrance of 'flowers, and gummes, and powders', but with the qualification:

   Doubtless, neither starre nor flower
   Hath the power
   Such a sweetness to impart;
   Only God, who gives perfumes,
   Flesh assumes,
   And with it perfumes my heart.

In 'Vertue' the sweetness of the soul is not immediate or felt, but only remembered or inferred, and this memory or inference creates the pathos of the poem. It is a poem of faith, not of love. Therefore Herbert cannot say anything sweet about the soul (as Palmer implies he does): he can only say that it is sweet, and trust us to believe that he knows whereof he speaks, having so elaborately assumed his credentials as a connoisseur of sweetness by the first three stanzas. He then, without any elaboration of the adjective 'sweet', immediately begins to illustrate the virtue of the soul—the Holdfast, the staunchness, the unyieldingness of it. The anchor and the optick of 'Hope' are the emblems of this poem too, and having said so much, we are tempted once again to think that while the poem succeeds very well in realizing the beauties of spring, it succeeds less well in realizing their brother-and-antithesis, the staunch soul.

The answer to this problem lies partially in the second stanza, where a type of sweetness is shown to give a sudden smart in the 'tasting' (a meditation continued, as stated above, in 'The Rose'). Our relishing of the day and the spring is impeded only philosophically, by reflection on their brevity, but the relish of the rose is physically impeded by the after-smart—it 'biteth in the close', either visually or physiologically. If things which seem sweet are not, then things which seem not may be. If the soul is sweet, it is with a hidden sweetness rather resembling the hidden smart in the rose, an 'aftertaste' in the soul which comes on the Last Day.

In most carpe diem poems, the direct address is made by the lover to his mistress (or he may address himself and her together, as in 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'Corinna's Going A-Maying'). If instances of natural brevity are given as proof of mortality, they are given in the third person. This convention is so strong, that the thing addressed (in a poem reminding us, as 'Vertue' does, of the carpe diem genre) unconsciously becomes, whatever its logical function, the poet's 'mistress' and by extension himself, since carpe diem poems addressed to a mistress are likewise, as Marvell and Herrick saw, equally carpe diem poems addressed to oneself; the poet wants his mistress to seize the day because without her compliance he cannot seize it himself. (In the special case of the elder poet counselling the younger, the elder is regretting his own lost opportunities and therefore symbolically and a posteriori addressing himself.) In a carpe diem poem, in short, the poet might say, 'O Rose, thou shalt die', but he would be including himself or his mistress (his other self) implicitly in the statement: 'Since we are but decaying,' says Herrick. The profound object of commiseration is always really the poet himself.

The day, the rose, and the spring, then, are all figures which, to the extent to which he uses the tradition of direct address, Herbert means to represent himself: this seemingly so impersonal poem is in fact a miniature autobiography, which witnesses to the necessary cessation, in the order of Nature, of Herbert's original innocence, 'brave' passion, and rapturous youth. However, from the very beginning of the poem, the poet is also implicitly set against nature, not identifying himself in toto with it, though he certainly identifies elements of himself—his youth, his aggression, his passion—with it. The pathos of the poem comes as a result of this partial identification of himself with nature, but the strength of the poem comes from the means by which Herbert distinguishes other elements of himself from mortal nature. The day dies—but the dew of tears remains behind (with Herbert) to mourn its fall; the rose's root is in the grave even while it sends forth its angry dart—but the rash gazer, wiping his eye, remains behind (with Herbert) the wiser perhaps for his experience, to moralize on the eventual powerlessness of the rose's power; the spring dies—but Herbert's music remains behind (with Herbert) to exemplify the years that bring the philosophic mind. In each stanza, then, someone or something—the weeping dew, the rash gazer wiping his eye, a strain of music—stands outside the pictured death of nature, just as Herbert's voice, tender but stern in its prophecies, stands outside the events it foretells. This is a voice which 'never gives'. Though it yields to its own passion of regret in the rush of sensibility betrayed in 'Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses, / A box where sweets compacted lie', it checks itself, recovers its equilibrium, and reverts, with the gravity of the seasoned soul, to the undeniable necessity for musical closes.

It is truly the voice of the sweet and virtuous soul which has been speaking to us all through the poem—sweet in its instant emotion of kinship towards all other sweet things (even to the point of being hurt by its own precipitancy) and virtuous in its response to the encounters with sweetness. It loves other beings of innocent sweetness and weeps their disappearance; it chastises itself for rashness after an encounter with the bitter sweetness of passion; and it acknowledges the philosophical necessity for all sweetness' coming to an end. The sweetness of the soul, however, is rather baffled by the end of the poem. It has watched the day die, the rose wound, and the spring disappear, and has reacted virtuously; but what to do with its sweetness when the whole world turns to coal? There is nothing left for the natural sweetness of the soul to turn congenially to; springs, days, and roses are gone; it is time for it to call on its other qualities, and to be staunch, to be stoic, to be seasoned timber. No image of sweetness would do in this all-consuming end. There can be no natural appeal to sweetness in the fire which 'solvet saeclum in favilla'.

Why this energetic holocaust at the end? Herbert is perhaps cavalier, we may think, in his over-severe 'punishment' of the beautiful, in burning up, in his penultimate line, the 'little world' of his poem. It is his day and his rose and his spring which he burns to coal, deliberately. His conflagration raises the very old question of the possibility of 'natural' virtue. Is unreflecting virtue, 'innate' virtue, we might say, virtue at all? As Newman put it later on, what has gentlemanliness, or sweetness, to do with holiness? What is the relation between natural virtue and 'real' virtue? Is it possible to do good without the intention of doing good? (Such is the 'virtue' that goes forth from herbs.) Shakespeare thought a flower could be said to be, in this sense, all unconsciously 'vertuous':

   The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
   Though to itself it only live and die.

The notorious ambiguity and bitterness that surround this statement in the Sonnets betray the difficulties of founding an ethic on beauty or sweetness or 'vertue' of the natural sort.

A possible stiffening, Shakespeare thought, can be added to sweetness by way of truth:

   O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
   By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!

Herbert hints at the deceptiveness of beauty in the 'untruth' of the rose, with its root hidden in death (though it is uninvaded by Shakespeare's canker or Blake's worm). But it is not deceptiveness in worldly beauty which is Herbert's main difficulty. The day he gives us is pure truth (unlike Shakespeare's 'glorious morning' which turns false under the 'basest cloud'), and Herbert's spring is a quintessence of pure sweetness with no lilies which fester in it. For Herbert, then, beauty does not so much need the complement of truth since it is so often of itself 'true'. It rather needs two other things: strength and usefulness. Beauty, for all Herbert's passionate sensibility, seemed frail to him; its action was no stronger than a flower, a 'momentarie bloom'. It needed some admixture of the masculine. When God first poured out his blessings on man, according to 'The Pulley',' Strength first made a way; / Then beautie flow'd, then wisdom, honor, pleasure'. Perhaps this list represents Herbert's own scale of worth.

Are we convinced, then, by the end of 'Vertue', of the necessity of adding strength to sweetness, and if so, how? Herbert has regretted, in the poem, the perishing of his innocence and his passion, the passing of his springtime. If the selves of spring—the innocent self, the importunate self, the self full of 'compacted' potential—are gone, who is the Herbert who is left, and does he have any continuity with these vanished selves? The problem is one we generally think of as Wordsworthian, but it is first of all a human problem, and certainly antedated Wordsworth. Is there a natural piety binding together the past and present selves of Herbert?

The word 'sweet', applied to the soul, is the only verbal sign of identity between the later and the earlier selves. That identity is partly submerged by the dominant duties or possibilities of middle age: to be staunch, not to give in, to be useful. In youth one is beautiful, innocent, energetic, ravishing; in middle age one is to be a support, a piece of seasoned timber supporting the fabric of the world, like the just Sundays in Herbert's poem of that name:

   Sundaies the pillars are,
   On which heav'ns palace arched lies;
   The other dayes fill up the spare
   And hollow room with vanities.
   They [i.e. Sundays] are the fruitfull beds and borders
   In Gods rich garden: that is bare
   Which parts their ranks and orders.

Pillars are here identified with the fruit which follows the springtime of blossoms; to be useful or fruitful is the function of the seasoned soul. But as it would be presumptuous to attribute fruit to oneself, Herbert forbears to attribute to himself in 'Vertue' anything but staunchness.

Two things survive Herbert's holocaust of his blossoms and his spring days: the 'vertuous soul', of course, exemplified not only in the last stanza but in the voice which speaks the entire poem and expresses its final attitudes toward day, rose, and spring; but also, the order of music, which Herbert distinctly separates from the perishing order of natural decay. Its logical function is superior to the function of natural order, and its harmony allows it a spirituality near to the soul's own. 'My music'—it is all that the speaker of the poem tells about his present self, that he has music. Each purely natural element in the poem is characterized by one deathlike attributed noun: the day by 'thy fall'; the rose by 'thy root … in its grave'; the spring by 'your closes'. The poet alone has a 'living' attributed noun: 'my music'. That music is part of the continuity of sweetness, contributing its sweetness to the virtuous soul, linking age and youth, and binding each to each.

If we now return to the earlier question of direct address, we realize that Herbert's delicacy forbids his making a blunt aposstrophe to the virtuous soul. 'But thou, O soul'—it would seem his own soul he was invoking, and though he can tell us he has music, he will not tell us that he has a virtuous soul. On the other hand, neither will he use the usual form for abstract philosophical generalization: he will not say 'Onely the sweet and vertuous soul … never gives.' It seems that the indefinite article in such a case points usually to the speaker's having a particular case potentially in mind: that the indefinite article, in brief, attributes a superior reality-value to the illustration. The reality-value of the soul is also increased by the reiteration of the epithet 'sweet', which links it to those supremely real examples of sweetness we have already been given in the poem, and which compares the soul, under that rubric, with the day, the rose, and the spring. It is true that the poem exists primarily to differentiate the soul from these, that the poem is, as Rosemond Tuve says, a 'definition by differences'—but the soul would not need differentiation unless at first blush it looked to belong to the same order as the day, the rose, and the spring. What do we use differentia for if not to distinguish similar things? For this reason the soul must co-exist with its companions. It may indeed chiefly live after the last Day, but it certainly also lives a life of sweetness, like its companions, now. When Wesley rewrote the poem into a hymn, he not only effaced Herbert's metaphor of timber, with its attributions of staunchness and usefulness, but he also virtually effaced the soul from existence in natural life, as Elsie Leach has remarked, quoting Wesley's final stanza:

   Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
   When nature all in ruins lies,
   When earth and heaven a period find,
   Begins a life that never dies.

The firmness of the soul which, though subjected to the hammer-blows of life and death, never gives, is marked by Herbert's strong reversion to trochaic meter in his last stanza. If we cut the feet in iambics, the sense is badly served: 'A sweet / and ver- / tuous soul / like sea- / son'd tim- / ber nev- / er gives.' The more 'natural' way to read these lines is in trochaics, where the words fit easily into the feet: 'Onely a / sweet and / vertuous / soul like / season'd / timber / never / gives.' The repeated strokes and lifts show the firmness of the staunch soul under attack. The tone in Herbert's last stanza, then, is not triumphant as we might have expected, but rather grave and judicious, largely on account of the limiting word 'chiefly'. Wesley's version is a far more triumphant 'religious' paean, and shows us strongly, by its contrast with Herbert, how careful Herbert was to express dogma only in so far as he could make it real in his own feelings and therefore in a poem. The distinction between the hymn writer, versifying doctrine, and the poet, expressing feeling, is nowhere clearer than in Wesley's revisions of Herbert.

'Vertue' does not go on to the time when the intrinsic sweetness of the soul, so followed in life by the natural sweetness which it must see die around it, will find a correspondence in heavenly sweetness. We end in the deprivations of judgement, with the soul sternly more alive, but lonely in its solitary immunity to fire, its strength taking precedence, visibly, over its sweetness. We are accustomed to poems ending in stoicism; we know them well in Wordsworth. What Wordsworth could not write of was the recovered sweetness of the redeemed soul. Herbert could not write of it in this poem, either, but he is the author of the most exquisite poem in English expressing the state in which faith and hope, the necessary virtues of middle and old age, are dissolved, and pure sweetness returns and remains: 'Love bade me enter…. So I did sit and eat.' To write of the hoped-for future in the past tense, as Herbert does in 'Love', is only possible to a poet of a changeable temperament, who has already had the experience which he hopes to have again. If Herbert had not known so naturally the sweetness of the day, the rose, and the spring, and the different-but-similar sweetness of his own music and his own soul, he could not have imagined, in 'Love', the sweetness which, after the fire of the Last Day, should incorporate them all in a final banquet.

Source: Helen Vendler, "George Herbert's 'Vertue,'" in Ariel, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1970, pp. 54-70.


Eliot, T. S. "The Metaphysical Poets," in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2d ed., edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, p. 1062.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "English Literature: Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wooton," in The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1833–1836, Vol. 1, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 337.

Fraser, Russell, "George Herbert's Poetry," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 95, No. 4, Fall 1987, p. 560.

Herbert, George, "The Collar," in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2d ed., edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, p. 857.

――――――, "Virtue," in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2d ed., edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, p. 852.

Walton, Izaak, "The Life of Mr. George Herbert," in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2d ed., edited by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, p. 281.

Further Reading

Dreiser, Theodore, An American Tragedy, Signet Classic, 2000.

Dreiser's 1925 novel, which traces the rise and fall of a poor boy striving to attain a position in the upper reaches of society, shows the struggle between the dazzling effects of transitory things upon the character of a young man who has lost a sense of eternally determined virtue.

Kushner, Tony, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Theatre Communications Group, 1993–1994.

In his two-part, six-hour-long drama, Kushner shows the effect of AIDS on his characters' sense of the value of the transient world: AIDS makes that world more desirable and natural phenomena all the more ravishing. He also confronts a search for an eternal meaning beyond transitory experience, with insight into the value of life itself.

Ruskin, John, "The White-Thorn Blossom," in The Genius of John Ruskin, edited by John D. Rosenberg, Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Ruskin's essay, written in 1871, discusses the destruction of England's green world, which he sees as representing the permanence of natural values, by the overwhelming force of the Industrial Revolution.

Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, translated by Joel Carmichael, Bantam Books, 1978.

Tolstoy's great nineteenth-century Russian novel, which first appeared in its completed form in 1878, counterpoises a consciousness of the world's attractions with a sense of their inadequacy and an intimation of something eternal.

Wilder, Thornton, Our Town, in A Treasury of the Theatre: From Henrik Ibsen to Eugene Ionesco, 3d college ed., edited by John Gassner, Simon and Schuster, 1960.

In this play, set in a small New Hampshire town in the early twentieth century, Wilder focuses on the value of transient experiences, the futility of trying to hold on to these experiences, and the importance of living life to the fullest.


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A habitual, well-established, readiness or disposition of man's powers directing them to some specific goodness of act.

Scripture. There is no Hebrew term in the Old Testament (OT) that expresses the general notion of virtue. The word edāq [symbol omitted] is used in reference to a righteous act (Gn 15.6; Dt 6.25; 24.13; Ps 106.13). In the Septuagint the Greek term ρετή, which like the Latin virtus, denotes manliness, is found in 2 Mc 6.3; 10,28; 15.12, 17 having the sense of valor or constancy. In Wisdom it is used in reference to virtue generally (4.1; 5.13) and is applied to temperance, prudence, justice, and courage (8.7). In the New Testament (NT) ρετή signifies virtue as moral goodness in Phil 4.8 and 2 Pt 1.5.

In the OT use of justice-judgment (edeq-mišpāt ), fidelity-goodness ('[symbol omitted]met-esed ), goodness-tenderness (esed-raăm[symbol omitted]m ), there is progress from legalistic righteousness in actions to interior moral attitudes [see J. Guillet, Themes of the Bible (Notre Dame, IN 1960) ch. 23]. The NT instructions on the virtues of the Christian life manifest the morality of the New Law as interior above all, springing from interior grace and charity and other God-given sources of life according to the gospel (L. Pirot, Dictionnaire de la Bible, "Grace").

Fathers. While the apologists spoke of various Christian virtues (Aristides, Patrologia Graeca, 96:1121; Theophilus of Antioch, Patrologia Graeca, 6:1141; Minucius Felix, Patrologia Latina, 3:337,349; Tertullian Patrologia Latina, 1:307, 456459, 471, 534; Origen, Patrologia Graeca, 11:957), Lactantius was the first to formulate a general concept of Christian virtue. He adopted the etymology of Cicero, deriving virtus from vir, and showed against the Stoics that it consists not in mere knowledge but in the willing of good Patrologia Latina (6:650651). St. Ambrose designated as cardinal the four virtues already singled out by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, namely, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance (Patrologia Latina, 14:280282). He also stressed the connection of the virtues (ibid. ).

St. Augustine's contribution to the development of the concept was of major importance. He gave two principal definitions of virtue. One was from Cicerovirtus est animi habitus, naturae modo et rationi consentaneus (De Inventione 2.53); so conceived, virtue is a fixed disposition of soul, making connatural the response to what is right (PL 40:20). According to the second definition, virtue is the art of living rightly and in a proper manner, and this is a frequently recurrent thought in St. Augustine (e.g., Patrologia Latina 41:128; 42:1267). Rectitude of life, however, is to be conceived in reference to eternal happiness (Patrologia Latina 42: 1267). True virtue must be supernatural in its finality (Patrologia Latina 41:656; 33:670), and against the Pelagians, St. Augustine made it clear that virtue comes only with God's grace (Patrologia Latina 41:656; 44: 762; 32:1267; 32:598). He enumerated the four cardinal virtues (Patrologia Latina 41:127; 40:2021) and called attention to the connection of the virtues (Patrologia Latina 42:927).

St. Gregory the Great assigned preeminent places among the virtues to faith, hope, and charity (Patrologia Latina 75:544, 594) and made them the foundations of the spiritual life (Patrologia Latina 76:106869), without which salvation is impossible (Patrologia Latina 76:975). He also pointed to the four cardinal virtues and their connection (Patrologia Latina 75:692; 76:808809). And his emphasis on humility in the practical life of virtue is noteworthy (Patrologia Latina 75:100103, 27, 7678, 443444).

From these indications it is evident that in Christian thought virtue came to be understood as a stable disposition tion of soul. Christian virtues are an endowment coming from God with his grace and are in strict dependence on charity. The primacy of faith, hope, and charity; the cardinal virtues; and the connection of the virtues are universally accepted points of doctrine.

Scholastics. The scholastic milieu sheds light on the significance of St. Thomas Aquinas's development of the notion of virtue. Two principal streams of thought, from which gradually more precise notions emerged, have been discerned (see O. Lottin, Psychologie et morale,3.2:99150). The first of these was Augustinian. Out of St. Augustine's treatment of virtue, Peter Lombard formulated the following definition: Bona qualitas mentis, qua recte vivitur et qua nullus male utitur, quam Deus in homine operetur. (4 Sent.; ed. Quaracchi, 1:444445). By this he meant only supernatural virtue and the virtues he held to be identical with grace. They were exclusively the work of God moving the will through them as forms supernaturalizing man's actions.

The other stream was Aristotelian. Through the commentaries of Boethius (In Categ. Aristotle; Patrologia Latina 24: 242243) Aristotle's notion of virtue as a fixed disposition of soul, a habit of choosing that observes the just mean in actions, was introduced. Boethius himself principally stressed the notion of habit as a deep-rooted condition (ξις), rather than a simple disposition readily subject to change (διάθεσις). Abelard relied on this in his definition of virtue as habitus animi optimus (Patrologia Latina 188:1651). From the interplay of this with the Lombardian definition certain important problems and distinctions emerged.

In the teaching of both Simon of Tournai and William of Auxerre the difference between natural and supernatural virtue was elaborated in the light of the two earlier definitions. For the first, the definition of virtue applied to both "political virtues" and "catholic virtues" (see Lottin, opere citato 374375). William of Auxerre, surpassing his predecessors in his systematization of virtue, stated that the last phrase of the Lombardian definition distinguished supernatural virtueshe called them "theological"from natural or political virtues. The first God alone causes in man; the second are caused by man's own actions [Summa Aurea (ed. Pads 1550) fol. 128v129r].

St. Thomas Aquinas. By the time of St. Thomas, then, the process of Christian thought had applied the concept of habit in the analysis of the nature of virtue. This made it possible to distinguish clearly between natural and supernatural virtues. Aided by the possession of the complete text of Aristotle's Ethics, St. Thomas proceeded to elaborate a complete synthesis of virtue. According to his definition, virtue is a good operative habit, or a habit that is good and productive of good (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 56.13). The English "habit" does not give satisfactory expression to the meaning of the Latin habitus, and is acceptable only when understood as a transliteration retaining the sense of the Latin term. As habit, virtue is the adaptation of those faculties involved in actions under the control of man's deliberative will. Involved in the notion of habit is its employability at will (cf. Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 50.5), and this is important. Thus understood, habits are called "operative"; they are modifications of man's powers by which these are readied and adapted to specifically human action. On the one hand, human powers are not identical with their activities or their objectives; they are potential and perfectible. On the other, these powers are under man's control and can be directed. He has choices to make and must shape his activities toward his chosen objectives. Operative habits are the set or modification given to his powers that make possible the ready and easy performance of actions leading to those objectives. Virtue as habit, then, is not the approval given an action after it has been performed, but the source of action, a modification over and above the unqualified faculty, inclining it toward its full realization in action.

Virtue is a good habit. Because man directs his activities toward objectives to be realized, and these objectives are in conformity or opposition with the authentic finality of his nature, his actions can be good or bad. But just as his objectives measure the moral value of his activities, so they measure the value of the habits that are the sources of his actions. If these habits give a bent toward truly human goals, then they are good and are called virtues; otherwise they are bad, and are called vices.

Distinction of Virtues. Besides differing from evil habits, virtues differ also among themselves. The powers of man that are perfected by virtuous habits all have their proper spheres of operation. A habit perfecting one operative power differs from a habit perfecting another. But differentiation is possible also within the same general sphere of operation. Differences of object call for differences of adaptation in a power. Any action is obviously what it is, and is distinguished from other kinds of action, because of its reference to some particular object. Thus actions are said to be "specified" by their objects. For the same reason, the virtues, as habits ordered to operation, are specified by the diversity of their objects. When there are different objects, different human values, specific kinds or dimensions of goodness, to be realized in human action, a diversity of virtue is necessary to equip man to achieve them.

Subject of Virtue. The power or faculty that is perfected by a virtue is called its subject. Those powers whose activities are fixed and determined by nature are not susceptible to development by habit. They have no need to be adapted to their proper activity. Thus the powers exercised in the purely biological processes of physical life and the sensory powers, which react spontaneously to their proper stimuli, provide no scope for virtue. Only those powers in which originates activity that is the expression of man's controlled selfrealizationactivity that is humanly determinablecan be the subjects of virtue. The emotive powers, the sensitive appetites, are thus determinable. Although they are concerned with what is agreeable or disagreeable to man's bodily nature, the emotions and the emotive faculties are subject to control by reason and will. One has some choice as to whether he reacts in a purely instinctual way or in a manner consonant with his total welfare as man. This determinability makes virtue necessary if the faculty is to respond regularly and dependably as it should.

Because they correspond to the spiritual nature of the soul, intelligence and will have an orientation that is not determined to a single objective but to truth and goodness in general. However, these powers are perfected by being properly determined with respect to the concrete objects of understanding and volition. The modifications of mind and will effected in the process are virtues if they do in fact relate man reasonably to reality. The idea of virtue is realized only imperfectly in the arts and sciences, whose subject is the intelligence, because through them a man becomes learned or skilled, but not necessarily a better man; they make a man good, but only in a qualified sense. The intellectual virtue of prudence, however, is a virtue in the full sense, because it has as its subject matter the acts of the moral virtues; and through its association with these it becomes a readiness not only to judge soundly but also to act rightly. The will has no need to be regulated by virtue so far as the pursuit of its own good is concerned. Its inherent and innate direction is sufficient to assure that. However, a man's will is less satisfactorily disposed by nature to pursue goods not immediately and obviously identifiable with his own or to pursue a good that transcends the natural order of things. For these effects the will needs to be perfected by the virtue of justice and its allied virtues and by the supernatural and infused virtues.

Acquired Virtues. Virtues are not natural in the sense that they are innate. Inbred characteristics of temperament, even of body, may favor the development of virtue, but they may also lead to vice. Virtue in the natural order can exist only in consequence of deliberate, human activity. In the basic orientation of the mind toward truth and of the will toward the good, there is a certain inclination in the direction of virtue, but it is only through activity that virtue actually comes into being. Human or moral action inevitably results in the formation either of virtue or of vice. Acting modifies the powers of action. The original indetermination of the operative faculties is affected by the kind of activities exercised. Habits are generated and developed, and these are either good or bad, virtues or vices, depending on the kind of action that brings them into being. The development of virtue, then, is not incidental to human activity, but one of two necessary alternatives. But the dynamics of the development of virtue and vice differ in one important respect. Just as a man cannot perform a good act without intending its moral goodness, so neither can he develop virtues without intending this. On the other hand, just as one sins without intending the moral evil as such, but simply by failing to attend to the true human value in a given situation, so he acquires vice not by setting out to do so, but by failing to develop his powers according to their interrelated human value.

Infused Virtues. That certain permanent principles of actions are divinely infused as a concomitant endowment of grace is Catholic teaching. In addition to the scriptural evidence already cited, the gradual pronouncements of the Church are worthy of note. The letter of Innocent III, Majores Ecclesiae causas, to the bishop of Arles in 1201 recognized the distinction between having the virtues of faith, hope and charity and putting them to actual use (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symolorum 780). This position was developed from the doctrine of Peter Lombard and by the middle of the 13th century was commonly accepted by theologians (cf. A. Michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15:276162). The Council of Vienne in 1312 stated as more probable the opinion that Baptism confers on both adults and infants "informing grace and the virtues" (Enchiridion symolorum 904). More positively, it is clear from the Council of Trent that justification includes the reception of grace and gifts, righteousness brings with it faith, hope, and charity. These are said to be "infused"; with respect to charity especially the terms "diffused" and "inhering" are used (Enchiridion symolorum 152930; 1561). The preparatory discussions reveal that although there was reluctance to employ the technical term habit, there was nevertheless an intention of indicating through the terms used that the gifts bestowed are not passing acts but permanent endowments. Faith's character as an abiding interior gift is brought out by the teaching that it remains even when grace is lost (Enchiridion symolorum 1579). Finally, Vatican Council I explicitly described faith as a supernatural virtue (Enchiridion symolorum 3008).

That these infused endowments are best described as true virtues is theologically certain. There is not, however, unanimity of opinion with regard to the identification of the infused virtues: some theologians include moral virtues among their number, and some do not. The most notable dissent from the more common opinion that there are infused moral virtues was that of Duns Scotus (Quaestiones in Librum III Sententiarum, 36.28; ed. Vivès, 15.701). He insisted that through charity and faith the acquired moral virtues receives a direction as to mode, mean, and end that makes infused moral virtues superfluous. This position has its modern defenders [P. De Voogt, "Y-a-t-il des vertus morales infuses?" Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 10 (1933) 3:232242;O. Lottin, Principes de morale 2 (Louvain 1947) 213225].

In Thomistic thought the supernatural life that man enjoys by grace, while transcending the forces of his nature, is not to be conceived as something alien. It does not consist in a transient and periodic divine intervention; rather the soul and its powers receive abiding sources for living the new life of grace. The soul itself is elevated and transformed by sanctifying grace, so as to become a partaker in God's own nature. Just as in its natural vitality the soul is the source of activity, but through the mediation of its powers, so the activities of the supernatural life come from sanctifying grace through the mediation of the infused virtues. These virtues enable a man to walk in a way corresponding to the life of grace" (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 110.3). The parallel with man's natural dynamism is extended with regard to the infused virtues in particular. As the natural virtues are rooted in the natural orientation toward human fulfillment, so the theological virtues emanate from grace as adaptations of man toward his supernatural destiny. Parallel to the primary truths of reason in the natural order, there is faith putting man's mind in contact with the truth of his supernatural end. The will is naturally the appetite for perfection; the will is oriented toward eternal life by hope pointing it toward God, and by charity transforming it so that the love of God becomes connatural (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 62.3). The acquired moral virtues are developed by acts conformed to the direction included in man's primitive natural knowledge and the natural bent of the will. Similarly, God causes moral virtues corresponding to the new life bestowed by grace and the theological virtues. For even as the life of grace is from God, so the sources of a proportionate right conduct can come only from God. These moral virtues, then, are also infused.

Comparison of Natural and Supernatural Virtues. The term virtue is analogical when applied to natural and supernatural habits. Acquired virtues, developed by repeated acts, are modifications of the innate resources of man's faculties, making it second nature for the powers to operate in the most fruitful way. When they are deeply ingrained the possibility of deflection from the best use of the powers is diminished, but is not entirely removed. The infused virtues, however, have a different history. They are immediately caused by God. In this they resemble undeveloped powers of action, conferring simply the capacity, the posse, for supernatural activity. Yet they are habits because through them the powers are true principles of a new kind of activity. The infused virtues do not from the outset bestow the facility characteristic of the acquired virtues, nor do they remove dispositions contrary to their own direction. Yet in themselves, because they are graces, they are sufficient principles for virtuous action at all times, not just most of the time, as is the case with the acquired virtues (St. Thomas, De virt. in comm 10 ad 14). Further, the acquired virtues make man good in regard to his natural fulfillment; the infused, with regard to his supernatural destiny. Thus the notion of virtue as a habit making man good is diversely verified of each. Only the infused virtues perfect man in regard to the actual goal of human life, which is eternal happiness, and thus they only make man good in an unqualified sense, for supernatural happiness is the actual purpose of all human life (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 65.2).

There is further diversity, which is obvious if the acquired virtues are compared with the theological. None of the acquired virtues has the transcendent direction of the theological virtues, which unite man to God as an object known in the knower and an object loved in the lover (cf. Summa Theologiae 1a, 8.2). Through faith, hope, and charity man literally shares in God's own knowledge and love of Himself (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 110.4). Thus they totally transcend all human virtue and belong to man as he is a partaker in the divine life (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 58.3 ad 3). The rejection of the uniqueness of this order to God apparently led L. Molina (Concordia 38) and in later times L. Billot [De virtutibus infusis (Rome 1928) 5057] to speak of acquired habits of faith, hope, and charity, supernaturalized only by the influence of actual grace.

The difference between acquired and infused moral virtues is less immediately evident. The general sphere of human conduct, their "matter," is the same for both. But the kind of action appropriate to a man transformed by grace is quite different from what would be expected of him on a purely natural plane. The activities of his emotive powers, his relationships with other men, even his moral decisions have not only a higher purpose but an inherently diverse specification, a proper value. The dimension of goodness specifying the acquired virtues is, in general, the "operability" of actions and emotions by man simply as human; in the case of the infused virtues, it is their operability in reference to man as made a son of God by divine grace. As the moral values differ, so too do the virtues specified by them.

Interrelation of Natural and Infused Virtues. It has been noted that some have denied the necessity of infused moral virtues. The opposite extreme of opinion holds that man in sanctifying grace has no natural but only infused virtues [cf. È. H. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York 1956) 337348]. For those who take the commoner view that there is a place for both natural and infused virtues in the man in grace, the interrelation of the two is developed particularly in connection with the explanation of what happens when there is an increase in facility in the practice of the infused virtues. [See A. F. Coerver, The Quality of Facility in the Moral Virtues (Washington 1946) 3572; J. Harvey, "The Nature of the Infused Moral Virtues," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America (1955) 172217; G. Klubertanz, "Une théorie sur les vertus morales naturelles et surnaturelles," Revue Thomiste 59 (Paris 1959) 565575].

It was to men without grace that the medieval authom, St. Thomas included, ascribed natural virtues. Aquinas held that such virtues do not perfect a man simply speaking, but only with reference to ends in some particular sphere (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 65.2). In view of his complete teaching on the need for grace for total and effective moral rectification even with respect to natural moral goods (cf. Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 109.24, 8), it would seem impossible for man without grace to acquire all the moral virtues. The good habits developed in some particular area would be accompanied by moral deviation in other areas. The fundamental moral choice of God the author of creation as supreme end would lie beyond the range of man's natural abilities. His good habits, then, would not be virtues simply speaking.

It has been suggested that man in grace has need of acquired moral virtues to regulate himself with respect to natural moral values, such, for example, as the payment of debts of justice. But to see acquired virtues as necessary for this purpose seems to imply an artificial dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural life. In every concrete human act the ultimate end of charity itself is in fact involved, and that not merely as directing extrinsically an act of acquired virtue to its own end. The interior value of any act is modified, and its object determined, in accord with charity. When a debt of justice is paid, for example, it is an act measured by the exigencies not only of "right reason," but of charity as well. It is significant that St. Thomas, seeing a specific moral value in the objects of human activity consequent upon the supernatural life of grace, required supernatural moral virtues proportionate to those values. That such activity is commanded by charity and directed by faith is not enough. The powers proximately engaged must also be rightly disposed to respond to the supernatural dimensions of their objects (De virt. in comm. 10. ad 5, ad 10). It does not seem reasonable, therefore, either to allow the acquired virtues to supplant the infused or to see them as functioning in unrelated coordination, as though attending to moral values not accounted for by infused virtues.

The infused virtues are like powers or faculties in that they bestow the basic capacity for their acts; yet they are habits because the powers of man operate through them. In the man in grace, these virtues are the sole principles by which his faculties function in the good moral life. There are no moral virtues acquired from activities based on purely natural sources and motivation. The action of a man in grace through the infused virtues does two things. It merits an increase of the virtue. This increase comes directly from God, and it corresponds to the increase in charity; it takes the form of a fuller possession of the virtues in their essential nature as formal principles of supernatural activity. The other result of virtuous activity is a modification of the faculties themselves. By the repetition of acts the faculties become psychologically accustomed to them. The autonomous response of the faculties to their own unqualified objects is lessened; impediments to their acting in accord with the life of grace are diminished; they become more amenable to what is required by the infused virtues. These dispositions are not the product of the natural energies of the faculties, but are strictly the effect of the supernatural actions produced through the infused virtues. They can be termed simply the increased subjection of the faculties to the infused virtues. As long as man remains in grace, they belong to the infused virtues as their secondary element. If grace is lost, and with it the virtues, the modifications remain, but separated from the formal principles of supernatural action. But they do not become acquired virtues in a proper sense of the term, because they were not acquired by natural activity.

Connection of the Virtues. Even in the sphere of their own activities the moral virtues are interconnected. Prudence is the link that binds them together. The virtues of the will and the emotive powers are exercised in the making of concrete moral choices. Although the virtues themselves dispose the appetitive faculties to seek true moral values in their own sphere, the actual choices depend upon the concrete determination of what the good is in each case. The determination of what should be chosen is the work of prudence, and hence if prudence is defective a man cannot be perfectly just, temperate, or courageous. On the other hand, prudence presupposes a satisfactory disposition of the appetites with regard to the goals of human conduct, because man's moral decisions involve affective knowledge; they are judgments to which assent is given on the basis of appetitive dispositions. Thus, unless a man's appetites are rectified by the moral virtues, prudence cannot make right moral decisions (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 65.1).

The moral virtues are also connected in charity. Right moral decisions cannot be made unless the will is habitually conformed to God as loved above all by charity. Nor is it on prudence alone that charity exercises its influence. The totality of charity's love for God also measures the moral values in all other areas of human concern (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 23.7,8; 24.12), so that upon charity depends the very specification of the infused moral virtues. This is seen most clearly in such virtues as patience (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 136.3), humility (ibid. 161), virginity (ibid. 152), Christian magnanimity (ibid. 129), but it is also verified in so primary a virtue as temperance (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 63.4 and ad 2). The objects of all the infused moral virtues are measured according to the totality of charity's act of the love of God (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 24.12; 1a2ae, 71.4).

As to the connection of the theological virtues, it is Catholic teaching, declared by the Council of Trent, that even with the loss of grace through mortal sin, faith may remain (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symolorum 1578). It is the common teaching of theologians that hope may remain as well. But if grace and charity are lost, neither faith nor hope remain as perfect virtues. The perfect work of faith requires the right adherence of the will to the object of assent, and this adherence is by charity. Faith without love is called "unformed" (informis ); it is neither salutary nor effective of true Christian living. Hope aspires to eternal life, but with God's help to enable man to merit it, and this presuppose charity, the source of meritorious activity (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 65.4). Charity itself presupposes faith and hope; faith, to put before man's mind the object of charity's love; hope, to bestow upon man the will to enter charity's union of friendship with God (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 65.6).

Right Mean of Virtue. Virtues are sources of actions in conformity with the true objectives of human life. These objectives are thus the measure according to which an act is good or bad. Deviations can be by way of excess or defect, and hence conformity is said to be a "mean" between extremes. All the virtues consist in a mean in the sense that all are causative of acts that are good and thus conform to their measure. Among the moral virtues, prudence achieves this mean by directing toward concrete, balanced choice; the other moral virtues, by being the habitual conformity of the appetites toward the mean dictated by prudence. As sources of good actions, some virtues are themselves essentially midway between two vices of excess and defect, but this is not always the case. Virtue's mean may be simply a"mean of reason," as when the moral good in an object is determined simply in reference to the subjective dispositions of the virtuous person. In the sphere of justice, however, the mean of virtue demands also that the real reference of actions to other persons be respected. Thus the mean of virtue here includes a "real mean," that is determined by objective and exterior considerations. The acts of the theological virtues have God as their object and measure, and these acts are more perfect according as they tend toward a more complete and intense union with Him. Thus one cannot love God, or believe Him, or trust in Him, too much. Only in the sense that the acts of these virtues may be exercised in unsuitable circumstances, or are directed to what is not properly embraced in the object of the virtue, can they be said to be excessive. Thus presumption appears to be an excess of hope. But it is not; the presumptuous man does not put his trust in God or rely upon His promises; on the contrary, he puts his trust in what God has not promised.

Bibliography: Basic works. thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 4970, see esp. tr. by r. bernard, La Vertu, 2 v. (Paris 193335); De virt. in comm.; De virt. card.; De carit.; De spe; In 2 eth; La Prudence (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 4756), tr. and ed. t. h. deman (2d ed. Paris 1949). p. bonnetain, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 3:7011319. t. deman and f. de lanversin, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed., m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 1:137166. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 15.2:273999. Hist. works. a. landgraf, "Die Erkenntnis der heiligmachenden Gnade in der Frühscholastik," Scholastik 3 (1928) 2864; "Studien zur Erkenntnis des Übernatürlichen in der Frühscholastik," ibid. 4 (1929) 137, 189220, 352389. o. lottin, "Les Premières définitions et classifications des vertus au moyen âge," Psychologie et morale aux XII e et XIII e siècles, 6 v. in 8 (Louvain 194260) 3.1:99150; "Les Vertus cardinales et leurs ramifications chez les théologiens de 1230 à 1250," ibid. 3.1:153194; "La Connexion des vertus chez Saint Thomas d'Aquin et ses prédécesseurs," ibid. 3.1:197252; "Les Vertus morales infuses pendent la séconde moitié du XIIIe siècle," ibid. 3.2:459535; "La Connexion des vertus morales acquises de Saint Thomas d'Aquin à Jean Duns Scot, ibid. 4.2:552663; "Les Vertus morales infuses au début du XIVe siècle," ibid. 4.2:739807. Doctrinal works. l. billot, De virtutibus infusis (5th ed. Rome 1928). bonaventure, Commentarius in 2 libri sententiarum 27, dubium 2, in Opera omnia, ed. d. fleming, 10 v. (Quaracchi-Florence 18821902) 2:670671. g. bullet, Vertus morales infuses et vertus morales acquises selon Saint Thomas d'Aquin (Fribourg 1958). r. f. coerver, The Quality of Facility in the Moral Virtues (Washington 1946). r. a. gauthier, Magnanimité (Paris 1951). t. graf, De subiecto psychico gratiae et virtutum secundum doctrinam scholasticorum usque at medium saeculum XIV, 2 v. (St. Anselm 2, 3, 4; Rome 193435). a. graham, The Love of God (New York 1939). a. m. henry, ed., Man and His Happiness, tr. c. miltner (Theology Library 3; Chicago 1956). r. garrigou-lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation, tr. t. doyle (St. Louis 1937); The Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. m. t. doyle, 2 v. (St. Louis 194748). o. lottin, Principes de morale, 2 v. (Louvain 1947) v.2. p. lumbreras, De habitibus et virtutibus in communi (Rome 1950); "Notes on the Connexion of the Virtues," Thomist 11 (1948) 218240. c. mazzella, De virtutibus infusis (3d ed. Rome 1884). j. m. parent, "Les Venus morales infuses dans la vie chrétienne," Theologie (Ottawa-Montreal 1944) 179223. p. p. parente, The Ascetical Life (rev. ed. St. Louis 1955). a. royo, The Theology of Christian Perfection, ed. and tr. j. aumann (Dubuque 1962). c. sheedy, The Christian Virtues (2d ed. Notre Dame, IN 1956). g. c. meilaender, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Notre Dame 1984). a. c. macintyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame 1981); Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago 1999). j. porter, The Recovery of Virtue: The Relevance of Aquinas for Christian Ethics (Louisville 1990). r. cessario, Moral Virtue and Theological Ethics (Notre Dame 1991). s. pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, tr. m. t. noble (Washington, DC 1995)

[t. c. o'brien]


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VIRTUE. Virtue refers to a valued human characteristic or to excellence, or to the sum of such qualities. Hence, the term has an inherently normative or evaluative connotation, since it selects out forms of knowledge and action that are approved and commended. The notion of virtue in Western thought stems from the Greek word arete as translated into the Latin virtus. The concept has a long history in Europe and was widely employed in a number of contextssocial and political as well as moralduring the early modern period.

In its earliest Greek expressions, "virtue" denoted the superlative prowess of the heroic warrior and thus possessed both highly individualistic and gendered implications. Although the latter never fully disappeared (hence the etymological connection between virtue and virility, both derived from the root vir, 'man'), the former was subsumed into the communal sphere with the rise of the classical polis. Virtue and the virtues came to be regarded in the city-states of the ancient world as coordinate with the laws and customs of a given community. Thinkers as diverse as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle agreed that the moral character of the individual constituted a microcosm of the political character of the city. The Greeks commonly identified four so-called cardinal virtuescourage, wisdom, justice, and temperancealthough they also upheld the worthiness of many other qualities.

The ancient Romans and the European Christians generally embraced both the private and the public aspects of virtue. The popularity of philosophical schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism among cultivated Romans and the other-worldliness and asceticism of Christianity tended to locate forms of virtue in the individual and to promote the priority of personal happiness over public good. Yet the Romans (particularly in the period of the Republic) also hailed the sacrifices of leaders and fellow citizens who were motivated by purely civic goals. Likewise, medieval Christians expected that government would be conducted by rulers whose actions fully accorded with standards of earthly rectitude, justice primary among them. To the list of cardinal virtues came to be added the so-called Christian or theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The conventional wisdom about the fate of virtue in modern Europe charts an arc of its repoliticization during the Renaissance (in the guise of so-called civic humanism), followed by a period of redefinition and disappearance from the public sphere occasioned by the Protestant Reformation, the emergence of liberalism, the rise of commercial society, and the spread of Enlightenment values. This interpretation requires some qualification, however, inasmuch as the process was less one of straightforward decline than of complex transformation.

The association of the Renaissance itself (especially in Italy) with the glorification of civic-minded virtuethe ethos of sacrifice for the sake of one's fellow citizens and cityshared by members of a community (the so-called "civic humanism" thesis pioneered by Hans Baron) has come under serious and deserved challenge. While it is true that many of the greatest humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries embraced citizenship as the fullest expression of a virtuous human life, taking the Roman statesman-orator Cicero as their exemplar, others adopted alternative views. Praise of Caesar and the Roman Empire, and hence devaluation of civic virtue, was quite common among leading humanists. A further group of Renaissance thinkers maintained a more orthodox Christian account of virtue as essentially a mark of God's grace or a trait that demonstrated one's worthiness for salvation. Moreover, there was nothing essentially urban about the idea of public virtue as the foundation for a good state; such a view was as widespread at the courts of territorial monarchs as in the cities of the Italian peninsula. Conceptions of virtue in Renaissance thought simply lacked the uniformity implied by the civic humanism thesis as commonly stated.

Early modern Europe witnessed numerous attempts to redefine, challenge, or criticize both conventional public and private ideals of virtue. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), who enjoys an infamous reputation for his attack on virtue, especially in its standard classical and Christian versions. In his Il principe (15131514; The prince), Machiavelli argues that virtue as taught by ancient philosophers and preached from pulpits is very often incompatible with effective use of political power. A ruler who seeks to govern according to the cardinal and theological virtues will lose his office, since others who are prepared to employ tactics that lack moral sanction will oust him in their own quest for position and glory. Machiavelli peppers his little book with tales of virtuous magistrates who have been ruined and vicious ones who have succeeded. According to Machiavelli, the only assurance that the prince can overcome the vicissitudes of politics is a readiness to act in a manner inconsistent with virtue when circumstances require it. The Machiavellian ruler is not above counseling murder, deception, manipulation, and nearly every other mode of conventionally immoral conduct, if these acts prove efficient in maintaining hold on the levers of power. Machiavelli calls this moral flexibility virtù (the standard Italian word for 'virtue'), thus apparently turning the conventional discourse of ethics on its head.

Yet Machiavelli is not guilty of "teaching evil," despite the accusation made against him. In fact, his conception of virtù suggests that the ruler should always act according to commonplace virtue whenever he can do so without undermining his own power. Conventionally evil means should only be used when absolutely necessary, and even then the prince must do his best to ensure that people do not perceive him to be acting immorally, lest his reputation be harmed. Moreover, Machiavelli seems to think that this advice pertains only in the case of holders of public office; Machiavellian virtù is, one might say, a distinctively political way of acting, not to be commended to private persons in their interactions with one another. Nor ought it be forgotten that in his own political loyalties and other political writings, Machiavelli stood for a republican conception of civic virtue that lauded the sacrifice of personal goals and desires for the sake of attaining the communal glory of one's city.

Machiavelli was not alone among early modern European authors in reformulating ideas about virtue inherited from the classical and Christian past. For example, many humanists posed questions about the connection between virtue and nobility as it had customarily been conceived. In this period, as in early times, blood and birth were regarded as bestowing nobility upon an individual, and nobility in turn qualified a person to wield power and rule over natural inferiors. But humanist writers proposed that virtue alone prepared men for political office, since those who were most virtuous were most likely to act for the common good. Hence, it was the virtuous who possessed true nobility (vera nobilitas), and virtue was by no means coextensive with paternity and landed wealth. In Italy and even more noticeably in northern Europe, invocations of virtue could easily be translated into challenges to the cherished principle that some people were "naturally born" to rule.

Another modification of traditional conceptions of virtue came with the continuing commercialization of European economic relations and social values. Whereas for the ancient philosophers and medieval Christian theologians the private accumulation of liquid wealth had been widely viewed as incompatible with virtue, early modern authors began to reevaluate this doctrine. Some thinkers, such as the Italian civic humanists Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444) and Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (13801459), contended that citizens should proudly acknowledge industriousness and self-acquired possessions as the foundation of morality and the greatness of their cities. Other authors went further. The Dutch-born Bernard de Mandeville (16701733) proposed in his Fable of the Bees (1714/1729) the famous principle that private vices yield public goods, which is to say that the pursuit of personal gain, and indeed the desire for comfort and luxury, lead directly to the enrichment of society as a whole and the consequent benefit of all its members.

In spite of recent claims that the Enlightenment project of grounding morality on human reason alone led to the erosion of virtue-based ethics, thinkers of the eighteenth century continued to uphold virtue as central to the worthwhile human life. The central document of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie (17511758) compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, treated virtue as an indwelling sense given to all members of mankind universally and without exception and thus invariable in its content across time and place. While the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; Discourse on the origins of inequality) and the Émile (1762) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) seem to treat the conventional virtues as affectations imposed artificially and detrimentally upon naturally good humanity, their author still insisted upon virtue as indispensable for a free society. Using language that any civic republican might endorse, Rousseau stipulated in Discours sur l'économie politique (1755; A discourse on political economy) that virtue is realized when citizens conform their particular wills to the determinations of the general will. While the discourse of virtue may have been further transformed during the early Enlightenment, it by no means disappeared.

See also Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Political Philosophy ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .


Primary Sources

Kohl, Benjamin G., and Ronald G. Witt, eds. The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society. Philadelphia, 1978.

Kraye, Jill, ed. Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts. Vol. 2, Political Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses. Edited by G. D. H. Cole. Revised by J. H. Brumfitt, and John C. Hall. New York, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1966.

Burtt, Shelley. Virtue Transformed: Political Argument in England, 16881740. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Hankins, James, ed. Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind., 1984.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987.

Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics. Vol. 2, Renaissance Virtues. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Cary J. Nederman


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vir·tue / ˈvərch/ • n. 1. behavior showing high moral standards: paragons of virtue. ∎  a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person: patience is a virtue. ∎  a good or useful quality of a thing: Mike was extolling the virtues of the car| there's no virtue in suffering in silence. ∎ archaic virginity or chastity, esp. of a woman. 2. (virtues) (in traditional Christian angelology) the seventh highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy.PHRASES: by (or in) virtue of because or as a result of.make a virtue of derive benefit or advantage from submitting to (an unwelcome obligation or unavoidable circumstance).DERIVATIVES: vir·tue·less adj.


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virtue a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person; the important virtues are traditionally the four cardinal virtues (see cardinal2), justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, valued by the classical philosophers and adopted by the scholastic philosophers, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, enumerated by St Paul.
virtue is its own reward proverbial saying, early 16th century; meaning that the satisfaction of knowing that one has observed appropriate moral standards should be all that is sought. The saying is found earlier in Latin, in the works of the Roman poet Ovid (43 bc–ad c.17).

See also cardinal virtues at cardinal2.


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virtue †power, influence; efficacy, conformity to moral principles; excellence XIII; (arch.) high merit or accomplishment XIV; †valour. — (O)F. vertu = It. virtù :- L. virtūs, -tūt- valour, worth, merit, moral perfection, f. vir man (see VIRILE).
So virtual †effective XIV; that is so in essence or effect XVII (whence virtually XV). — medL. virtuālis; see -AL1. virtuoso XVII. — It. — late L. virtuōsus (whence, through (O)F. vertueux, virtuous †valiant XIII; righteous XIV).