As men, for fear the stars should sleep and nod
        And trip at night, have spheres suppli’d;
As if a star were duller than a clod,
        Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav’n they also serve,
        Divinity’s transcendent sky:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
        Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.

Could not that wisdom, which first broacht the wine,
        Have thicken’d it with definitions?
And jagg’d his seamless coat, had that been fine,
        With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
        Was clear as heav’n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
        Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray.
        Do as ye would be done unto.

O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!
        Who can these Gordion knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
        Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
        Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles, foolish man;
        Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staff of flesh, but stoutly can
        To heav’n alone both go, and lead.

George Herbert. 1633.

Herbert, like Rossetti, brings to the table a particularly Jacobean duality of light and dark, wisdom and foolishness. While this can certainly be drawn out from the canonical Scriptures themselves, Herbert’s seems here to have an extra edge, doesn’t it? There’s something more going on, particularly in the last stanza, where Herbert is effectively telling us that maps of the material world, the planets mapped by Ptolemaic epicycle tables and the Earth by globes, are irrelevant, and, by connotation, the material world itself is irrelevant. Faith goes to heaven and leads there. Yet the body and world remain, requiring some sort of spiritual journey. Is there a hint of visionary journeys here? It is very slight, if so—sub rosa, one might say. It is intriguing to think that just a few decades after John Dee’s wild blend of alchemy-magic-astrology-etc we have the display of a more orthodox sort of mysticism, quite obviously Christian, yet still bearing this strong tendency towards duality and, what?, amaterialism? immaterialism? And that this dualism is found over two centuries later expressed in strikingly similar manner by Christina Rossetti. There’s a striking continuity there, however inexplicable in terms of origins and transmission it might be.


  1. It’s always nice to see George Herbert appreciated! One of the professors at my alma mater wrote an interesting paper on him once that I ought to discuss in a post sometime!

    Mary Rickey points out with what ‘consummate tenderness, but nevertheless with bluntness, Herbert designates the reader as . . . foolish man‘ here; ‘that the reader recognizes himself as such is one of the ingredients of the success of these poems’! It’s funny because it’s true!

  2. Rickey’s close. Herbert is able to so gently rebuke because he sees himself so often, and rebukes himself, too. Had he not recognized himself as weakened by Epicycles and Spheres, there’d be no poem.

    Do bring up your professor’s paper! George Herbert repays attention.

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