April 25, 2008

Poetry Friday: Poetic Virtue and Dr. Hardcastle

A man once said that conservation was a sign of "personal virtue," and when he said this, 'virtue' quickly lost points for some -- and gained points for others. It's an old-fashioned word, virtue is, and seems to imply in modern times a sort of do-gooder attitude of scrupulous perfectionism. But once upon a time, a virtuous person was merely one of the best sort -- thoughtful and helpful and not given to excess -- the kind of person everyone wanted to have around.

I remember my high school English teacher Dr. Hardcastle reciting this poem from memory with perfect, crisp diction. (Sweet day! So cool, so calm, so bright! was actually a line he was apt to declaim on nice mornings, when the rest of us were gazing longingly out of the windows.) He taught us that George Herbert had been a priest, and this poem part of a liturgical tradition. Knowing this, it is easier to see the poem as both a celebration of seasons and consonants, as well as a dark reminder of a priest's ever present knowledge of judgment and death. It is balanced in contrasts: dawn and dusk, blooming and withering, sweet spring, and its close, a soul and its 'vertuous' reward - life, when all else may be turned to coal.

Dr. Hardcastle was in his early sixties when he was my teacher in high school, and I expect that the fatal refrain of this poem has come to him. Still, every new, dew-bright day in Spring reminds me of this poem, and of him -- a virtuous man gone to his reward, as they say, whatever that might be.

The Temple (1633), by George Herbert:


Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                        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.

Poetry Friday graces the blog of The Miss Rumphius Effect today; gather round and bring your verses.


Andromeda Jazmon said...

What a lovely first line. And perfect for reciting to a drowsy class trapped inside the window. I think I can put that to use. Gorgeous photo too!

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the photo. Wow.

Thanks for this poem, and your thoughtful set-up. Your words about your teacher make me a little teary.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing like a teacher recting poetry as part of everyday life to get a girl started on the right path, is there? Sweet day...

Saints and Spinners said...

I really like this one. Life is beautiful-- and we must die. Yup.

Sara said...

Even his name sounds poetic. How wonderful to have a teacher like that, one whose voice can be remembered, even years later. It's what they say AND how they say it, isn't it?

eisha said...

That is a very quotable first line. It's perfect for a day like today. And I agree - the photo is divine.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I've always liked that poem, but had forgotten about it--thanks for bringing it back to mind! I think I appreciate it more now, too...

SIGH. No time for Poetry Friday this week. And I was even working on a poem of my own that I was hoping to post, but I haven't had time to finish it.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...


Anonymous said...

I wasn't familiar with that poem. Thank you for sharing it, and the story, and the beautiful photo.

Elaine Magliaro said...

I'd echo what Liz said.

I can't remember any of my high school English teachers reciting poetry. I wish I had some who did.

Karen Edmisten said...

Great poem and post. Love the memories of your wonderful Dr. Hardcastle. And that photo is amazing.