Poet's Pick April 24
Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury: "Sonnet"
Selected by Joshua Mehigan
National Poetry Month 2015

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Joshua Mehigan's Poetry Month Pick, April 24, 2015

by Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582/3–1648)

You well compacted Groves, whose light and shade
  Mixt equally, produce nor heat, nor cold,
  Either to burn the young, or freeze the old,
But to one even temper being made,
Upon a greene embroidering through each Glade
  An Airy Silver, and a Sunny Gold,
  So cloath the poorest that they do behold
Themselves, in riches which can never fade,
  While the wind whistles, and the birds do sing,
While your twigs clip, and while the leaves do friss,
  While the fruit ripens which those trunks do bring,
  Sensless to all but love, do you not spring
Pleasure of such a kind, as truly is
A self-renewing vegetable bliss?

Made upon the Groves near Merlow Castle


* Joshua Mehigan Comments:

In fifteen years of telling people about Cherbury, I’ve only found a few professor types who already knew about him, but they weren’t exactly worked up about his poetry. Still, you find him clinging to life in anthologies, where there’ll be a footnote explaining “clip” or “friss” or both, though both are vividly intuitive. Some editors and scholars are flat out cold toward Cherbury, whose importance to them often seems to ensue from the fact that he is the older, worldlier brother of George Herbert. (His extended family tree also includes the poets Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, her brother Philip Sidney, and Lady Mary Wroth, as well as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. Cherbury was friends with Donne, Jonson, and the architect Inigo Jones and is supposed to have been good looking. He spoke Welsh, and he got into a lot of duels, or at least threatened to.)

Some editors treat Cherbury like a charming novelty, but his best poems show a poet whose imagination and sense of beauty, far from being merely charming, could seem almost a variety of high Romanticism. Beatific encounters with nature don’t usually represent sufficient grounds for a poem in English pre-Romantic poetry. You could point to pastorals or passages of longer works, but that’s not what I mean. I mean the simple affirmation of an overwhelming experience, written in a short manic burst, using a lyric form that was mostly reserved, back then, for courtly love poetry.

In this sonnet, rather than addressing his beloved or the convention of a beloved, and rather than talking directly to God like his brother, Cherbury speaks this single, brief apostrophe to a grove of fruit trees, a lawn, and the light that falls on them. The poem is almost perfectly lacking in any conflict or intellectualizable content, and it bears the lack blissfully. It’s a detailed, beautiful object, like a music box or a miniature landscape, made as a sort of emblem to evoke other beautiful objects. It can make you think of a dozen poems by Wordsworth or John Clare, or of Shelley’s Mont Blanc poem, though it’s more quickly awed into silence. Also, it does give you a few important things to think about: the list of stock contrarieties—light and shade, hot and cold, poverty and wealth—and how, in the end, they are brought into some kind of serene balance by Nature; or the prosodic and rhetorical movement; or the odd and fascinating final lines. Nothing in the poem turns out to be trivial, as you will discover if you learn to say it and then say it to yourself out loud. 

From a 21st-century perspective, the message is hardly groundbreaking. It’s true that Cherbury is 180 years ahead of the Romantics in his pure rhapsodizing about nature. But it’s also true that a paraphrase (“Wowee—trees!”) doesn’t really do justice to the experience the poem gives you if you listen closely to it. This experience comes mostly from the poem’s movement, which is a result of its many modulations of phrase, pause, and stress against its regular meter and lines. It’s a happy-making enterprise to learn your way around its little system of phrases, expertly nested from one end of the poem to the other in an expressive complexity of grammatical suspensions and resolutions that spread out against the form, or relax into agreement with it. The grammar is the pressured speech of a person who has been struck by something suddenly and has to tell you, and the phrases are laid into the hard, boxy form like the curves and lines of lawns, trees, and birdies in an ivory miniature. The poem is still powerful, and still capable, 395 years on, of a plausibly human delivery.

Few sonnets from this (or, really, any) period unfold in a single sentence with no stops. But maybe the most surprising thing about this poem’s syntax is that, if you yield to it and simply read, it doesn’t present any real difficulty. Even if you don’t always feel sure of the syntactical relations, the phrases are all of a piece, and the material itself is simple enough to help prevent misreading. The description ensures that you get a bright, clear picture of these groves. Then the propulsive syntax and enjambment actually determine the effect of these cheerful details on the reader. The meter is very regular, and the rhythm, though it’s expressively modulated, doesn’t do much to challenge the alternating flow of accented and unaccented syllables. The masterful handling of the poem’s rhythms also adds to its headlong movement. I think it’s important to recognize, as contemporary readers, that the poem’s impressive volubility and nuance evaporate if you pay too much attention to the superficial reminders of artifice: initial caps, linebreaks, indentations highlighting rhyme and meter, stanza, and sonnet form. If you’re distracted by the regular meter and line from hearing the poem’s natural rhythmic features—its shifting pauses, light beats (like “and,” in line 9) and heavy offbeats (like “Mixt,” in line 2), enjambments, and all the various combinations of these—then you might try reading the poem aloud, this way:

You well-compacted groves, whose light and shade, mixed equally, produce nor heat nor cold either to burn the young or freeze the old, but to one even temper being made, upon a green embroidering through each glade an airy silver and a sunny gold, so clothe the poorest that they do behold themselves in riches which can never fade, while the wind whistles and the birds do sing, while your twigs clip, and while the leaves do friss, while the fruit ripens which those trunks do bring, senseless to all but love, do you not spring pleasure of such a kind as truly is a self-renewing vegetable bliss?

You might be wondering by what principle, exactly, Baron Cherbury knows that a pretty grove belonging to a French duke might be considered an eternal treasure even by “the poorest,” unless possibly he asked one of the tenants compelled by the Duke de Montmorency to carry his bread and cheese when he went hunting. But unlike many aristocrats, Cherbury didn’t waste all his time playing draughts. Instead, he worked hard to distinguish himself as a diplomat, a (genuinely important) religious philosopher, and a poet, among other things. And this poem is nothing if not earnest. Even if the man was a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean he was wrong about the widespread joy many humans take in natural beauty, which seems to be reparative, and which certainly can transcend even deep human divisions. It’s hard for me not to think of Rilke, too, visited outside another European castle by a terrifying angel, and hard not to read into the poem a similar kind of manic visionary quality.

The Castle of Merlow, now Château de Mello, is used today as a venue for business conferences and seminars. The Web site promises that its central building, La Forteresse, “can accommodate your large teams for international training,” though it would probably work just as well, if, like Cherbury, you visited in order to escape the Plague. And when their business is done, the businesspeople are invited to “relax among the charm and romance” of the Orangerie, “whether in the park under the centuries-old trees or in the 500-square-meter Balnaea.” Balnaea is a chain of sports and wellness facilities.

About Joshua Mehigan:
Joshua Mehiganís second book, Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was cited as a best book of 2014 in The New York Times Book Review and The TLS. His poems have appeared in periodicals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. He teaches creative writing at the College of Staten Island, and for Brooklyn Poets, a literary nonprofit.  He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (2015) and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011).

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