The Unsteady Crown: The State of the Monarchy
in Edward Herbert's Poetry of Politics
Anne B. Mangum
Edward, Lord Herbert of Chirburybrother of George Herbert, philosopher,
poet, and statesmanenjoyed a dress-circle vantage point as the Tudor
dynasty gave way to Stuart rule. As he traveled to London to claim his
throne, James I was welcomed as the "new Augustus" as well as the fulfillment
of the prophecy of the "once and future king." Soon after the coronation,
however, the severe economic depression resulting from Elizabethís long
struggles against Spanish and counter-reformation forces, along with Jamesís
reactionary philosophy of kingship quelled hopes for a stronger Parliamentary
role in government and for personal latitude in questions of religion.
James immediately reissued his treatise on kingship, True Law of Free
Monarchies, that reiterated his belief that the monarch wears his crown
by divine right and thus rules with absolute powers. During the course
of his life in the outer circles of the court of James and later Charles
I, Herbert composed three "political" poems"The State-progress of Ill,"
"Elegy for the Prince," and "Epitaph for King James"*exploring
ambivalent attitudes toward the monarchial commonwealth in Jacobean England
from the perspective of the English aristocracy. The poems attempt to resolve
the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual dilemmas produced by the all-too-obvious
discrepancy between the English conception of the ideal commonwealth and
the actual machinations of statecraft.
is at once a description of "the state progress" of evil, its regal course down the ages,
and a description of the progress of evil in and through the state . . . . The central subject,
therefore, is the nature of evil and not the evil nature of the state. (54)
The satire is organized into five logical sections: (1) the definition of Ill by its attributes (ll. 1-7); (2) the explanation of the origin, nature, and power of Ill (ll. 8-30); (3) the description of the workings of Ill in the government (ll. 31-74); (4) the picture of government (ll. 75-116); and (5) the conclusion (ll. 117-126).
The first words of the satire, "I say, tis hard to write Satyrs," are refreshingly direct, suggesting the young poet's struggle to order his subject. But order is apparent in the first line as Herbert establishes the subject, defining Ill (or evil) by its attributes; it is nebulous, swelling, and, like a flood, relentlessly overpowering: ". . . Though Ill/ Great'ned in his long course, and swelling still,/ Be like to a Deluge" (ll. 1-3). The source of evil, like the source of the Nile, is hidden, but its universal nature indicates some sort of divine origin:
'Tis doubtful in his original; this while
We may thus much on either part presume,
That what so universal are, must come
From causes great and far. (ll. 4-7).
As to have made it self, and bear the rod
Of all our punishments, as it seems, came
Into the world, to rule it, and to tame
The pride of Goodness, and though his Reign
Great in the hearts of men he doth maintain
By love, not right, he yet the tyrant here
(Though it be him we love, and God we fear)
Pretence yet wants not, that it [Ill] was before
Some part of Godhead, as Mercy, that store
For Souls gone Bankrupt, their first stock of Grace,
And that which the sinner of the last place
Shall number out, unless th' Highest will shew
Some power, not yet reveal'd to Man below. (ll. 17-30)
The progress of Ill through the ages of the world is the subject of section two: "But that I may proceed, and so go on/ To trace Ill in his first progression/ And through his secret ways . . .." (ll. 31-33). Ill remains behind the scenes, but mischief and sin have become his "Intelligencers," or secret agents. (l.38)
The intelligencer, or spy, was a well-known figure in the political intrigues and counter-intrigues of Jacobean England, and seems to have been generally viewed with anathema. The word "Intelligencers" would have suggested a concrete, stereotypical image to the poet's contemporaries.
Herbert continues the metaphor and personification as he describes the work of Mischief and Sin. Fear and Shame disguise Mischief as good and Sin as pleasure, but the two are not concealed from the "Highest" and are not expiated with death: "Yet they will work/ Through after death: Nor ever come alone,/ But sudden fruitful multiply e'r done." (ll. 48-50) likewise designating their evil as "good" and "pleasure," tyrants may appear glorious. H.J.C. Grierson writes:
"doing of Good" keeps private vices in check. To the ignorant, its powers are revealed as glory,
the glory of the conqueror and ruler, and hurt, the power to punish. Yet we might have got the
rule which we apparently need to make us herd together without the evils of tyranny and
succession . . ..(212)
Herbert devotes the fourth section of the satire to explaining the arts of government, picturing the degrees of citizens through the involved image of a tableau with the different degrees of society located in their proper distances from the base. The image is at once concrete in its correspondence to a painting and abstract in the poet's insistence on universal types. But the logical development of the image is temporarily broken by the emphasis on the " Exalted Spirit," the ideal citizen:
Nobility the master-piece, in this
Serves to shew distances, while being put
'Twixt sight and vastness they seem higher, but
As they're further off, yet as those blew hills,
Which th' utmost border of a Region fills
They are great and worse parts, while in the steep
Of this great Prospective, they seem to keep
Further absent from those below, though this
Exalted Spirit that's sure a free Soul, is
A greater privilege, than to be born
At Venice, although he seek not rule, doth scorn
Subjection, but as he is flesh, and so
He is to dulness, shame, and many moe
Such properties, knows, but the Painters Art,
All in the frame is equal: . . . (ll. 81-96).
And kings ask it not so) thinks Honors are
Figures compos'd of lines irregular,
And happy-high, knows no election
Raiseth man to true Greatness, but his own. (ll.98-102)
In the brief conclusion to the satire, Herbert suggests that the current disposition of government, while not ideal, is necessary because the majority of men, unlike the "Exalted Spirit," have failed to exercise properly their reason and will. When man proved unable to govern his will, Ill came into the world, and thus men must be subject to kings. Herbert justifies this state of affairs in the final lines:
But only note, how free born man subdu'd
By his own choice, that was at first indu'd
With equal power over all, doth now submit
That infinite of Number, Spirit, Wit,
To some eight Monarchs, then why wonder men
Their rule of Horses?
The World, as in the Ark of Noah, rests,
Compos'd as then, few Men, and many Beasts. (ll. 119-126)
Herbert continues to develop the dichotomy between the monarch and ordinary men as he pays his final tribute to James I and anticipates the reign of Charles I. Irony arising from the discrepancy between qualities that are admirable in the private citizen and qualities that are admirable in the monarch pervades the "Epitaph for King James":
Unto the World that blest and quiet state
Wherein his Subjects liv'd, he seem'd to give
That peace which Christ did have, and so did live,
As once that King and Shepherd of his Sheep,
That whom God saved, here he seem'd to keep,
Till with that innocent and single heart
To better life: Great Brittain so Lament,
That Strangers more than thou may yet resent
The sad effects, and while they feel the harm
They must endure from the victorious arm
Of our King Charles, may they so long complain
That tears in them force thee to weep again.
English hopes for a strong Protestant ruler capable of resisting the increasing strength of the counter-reformation had been dashed once before, in 1612 when Henry, Prince of Wales died before he could fulfill his designated role as monarch. Edward Herbert, knight and member of parliament, added his poetic voice to the public mourning: "Must he be ever dead? Cannot we add/ Another life unto that Prince that had/ Our souls laid up in him?" (ll. 1-3) These lines set the appropriate elegiac tone of quiet regret that Herbert maintains through the conventionally structured poem. The philosophy of the elegy is almost entirely Neoplatonic. The central idea of the poem, probably more sincere than conventional because of the extreme popularity of the Prince, is that the combined loves of the people were united in the person of Prince Henry. Since the Prince was the embodiment of this harmonic love, and since through love the souls experience a reality superior to animal existence, then how, the speaker asks, can such love be extinguished?
Now when he left us, make that body move,
After his death one Age? And keep unite
For what are souls but love? Since they do know
Only for it, and can no further go.
Sense is the Soul of Beasts, because none can
Proceed so far as t' understand like Man:
And if souls be more where they love, then where
They animate, why did it not appear
In keeping him alive: (ll. 3-13).
The lines following this first section refer to a particular political event:
Equal to us, when one man's private hate
May ruine Kingdoms, when he will expose
Himself to certain death, and yet all those
Not keep alive this Prince, who now is gone,
Whose loves would give thousands of lives for one: (ll. 13-18).
In the second movement of the elegy, Herbert returns to the cosmic correspondence set forth in the introductory section and analyzes the possible consequences of the premise that the Prince embodied the combined souls of his people:
May in the worlds harmonique body see
An universally diffused soul
Move in the parts which moves not in the whole? (ll. 19-22)
To live and stir a while, as if he were
Still quick'ning us? Or do (perchance) we live
And know it not? See we not Autumn give
Back to the earth again what it receiv'd
In th' early Spring? And may not we deceiv'd
Think that those powers are dead, which do but sleep,
And the world's soul doth reunited keep?
And though this Autumn gave, what never more
Any Spring can unto the world restore,
May we not be deceiv'd, and think we know
Our selves for dead? (ll. 23-34)
With him in Heaven as we had here, before
He left us dead. Nor shall we question more,
Whether the Soul of man be memory,
As Plato thought: We and posterity
Shall celebrate his name, and vertuous grow,
Only in memory that he was so;
And on those terms we may yet seem to live,
Because he lived once, though we shall strive
To sigh away this seeming life so fast,
As if with us 'twere not already past. (ll. 39-50)
The future benefit to the State, however, provides cold comfort for the speaker's personal grief. In an abrupt shift of thought, the poet returns to the despair of the opening lines of the elegy:
To please us more, or what can we call pain,
Diff'rence in life and death, but to partake
Nor joy, nor pain? Oh death, could'st not fulfill
Thy rage against us no way;, but to kill
This Prince, in whom we liv'd? that so we all
Might perish by thy hand at once, and fall
Under his ruine, thenceforth though we should
Do all the actions that the living would,
Yet we shall not remember that we live,
No more then when our Mothers womb did give
That life we felt not: (ll. 51-63).
To such a wonder, that the dead should breed,
It should be wrought to keep that memory,
Which being his, can, therefore, never dy. (ll. 63-66)
The "Elegy for the Prince" expresses the perfect relationship between citizens and royalty, but Prince Henryís untimely death nullified hopes for an ideal king. The admonition to Charles I to be strong in the national interest in "Elegy for King James" seems a forlorn hope in a "second-best" candidate.
Edward Herbert's personal association with the Stuart family and first-hand knowledge of state affairs supplied the poet with ideas and images for these poems. The "Elegy for the Prince" and the "Epitaph for King James" represent his direct poetic statements on the royal family. The "Elegy" focuses on the genuine affection the English felt for Prince Henry as well as on their shared loss from his untimely death. The "Epitaph" praises James I's peaceful reign, while exhorting Charles I to be a more forceful leader. "The State-progress of Ill" satirically examines the history of evil within the State.
Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1923. The canon established by G.C. Moore
Smith includes seventy-two English poems; references to Herbert's poems
in this study are to this edition.
Charles, Amy M. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.
Modern Language Review. 2 (April 1926): 212.
Lee, Sir Sidney, ed. "Introduction."
The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury Written by Himself.
Merchant, Moelwyn. "Lord Herbert of
Cherbury and Seventeenth-Century Historical Writing."
Patterson, R.F. Ben Jonson's Conversations
with William Drummond of Hawthornden.
Rossi, Mario Manlio. La Vita, le
opere, i tempi di Edwardo Herbert di Cherbury. 3 vols.
Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1954.
Williamson, George. The Donne Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard
Text copyright ©1999 Anne B. Mangum. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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