Peter A. Gilbert’s Look at Life through the Humanities
December 24, 2007
Simple holiday wreaths made of evergreen branches make me think of a wonderful poem: “A Wreath” by George Herbert. Herbert was an Anglican priest who lived in England about the same time as Shakespeare. He wrote metaphysical poetry, poetry that emphasized wit cleverness or startling similes, rather than comparisons and images that seem natural—like love and roses, purity and fresh snow.
In high school, you may have read a poem by John Donne, another seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman, in which a man tries to seduce a woman by comparing their potential encounter to a flea that has bitten them both. It’s hard to imagine a less romantic object or argument to make his case—and that’s the poem’s charm.
Donne wrote another poem that compares two lovers saying goodbye to each other to a compass, the kind of compass with which you draw a circle. Although the lovers must part temporarily, they continue to act in sync: as the man travels around, the woman stays put at home, but leans toward the circling man. And its the woman’s standing firmly at home that causes the man’s circle of travel to stay true and not wander. These two poems are classic metaphysical poems built on an idea, a conceit, a clever and startling comparison.
Now to Herbert’s poem “A Wreath.” The poem’s wit rests in the fact that each of the poem’s twelve lines overlaps with the next line, just as the evergreen branches in a wreath overlap one another to form a circle. You’ll hear how the end of one line kind of repeats at the beginning of the next line. And the end of the poem, you guessed it, brings you back to the beginning—like a circle, a wreath, or a garland that crowns a hero.
It’s a religious poem, but one doesn’t have to be Christian to be struck by the poem’s beauty and technique. Here’s George Herbert’s “A Wreath”:
A Wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live, —
Wherein I die, not live; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee,
To Thee, who art more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know Thy ways,
Know them and practice them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.
So, because of its structure or style, the poem itself literally becomes, as the last line says, a wreath, and that wreath-poem becomes, in turn, a garland—a crown of praise. Clever indeed.
This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.