The Unsteady Crown: The State of the Monarchy
in Edward Herbert's Poetry of Politics

Anne B. Mangum
Department of English & Foreign Languages
Bennett College

            Edward, Lord Herbert of Chirbury—brother of George Herbert, philosopher, poet, and statesman—enjoyed 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.
            During the early seventeenth century, the increasingly complex relationships within and among the burgeoning European nations proceeded through Machiavellian diplomacy and pragmatic alliances, and England demonstrated competent familiarity with the rules of the game. Yet the mythical Arthurian ideal was deeply ingrained in the national consciousness; citizens could not easily dismiss their desire for virtue and wisdom incarnate in the monarch. In the three poems, Edward Herbert explores the general unease over the gap between what was and what should be and the national uncertainty concerning the real forces validating the power of the crown during the years directly preceding the Regicide and Civil War.
            Scholars who have commented on these poems have generally ignored their political ideas, concentrating instead on their remarkably abstract language. Herbert's dependence on abstractions to carry his thought has earned him a reputation for obscurity that has unfortunately relegated his political insights to the cobwebb-covered closets of academe. (Grierson 2; Alvarez 39; Lee xxxvi; Benson 294; Williamson 134-37) Frank Warnke does note that Herbertís satires have historic interest (39), but adds that the poetís "besetting vices of carelessness, pedantry, and needless obscurity dominate [the satires] as they do none of his [other poems]." (52) One of the earliest charges of "obscurity" came from Herbertís long-time friend, John Donne, who reportedly remarked to the Scottish poet Drummond that he had written his own "elegy for Prince Henry, Look to me, Faith, to match Sir Ed: Herbert in obscurenesse." (Patterson 12) This often-quoted witticism has unfortunately encouraged generations of readers to regard all three of Herbert's political poems as no more than mildly interesting curiosities.
            It is not at all certain, however, that Donne meant to disparage Herbert's work. The metaphysical poems of the early seventeenth century were not, after all, addressed to the common reader, but to those sophisticated enough to appreciate their erudite conceits. That is, witty "obscureness" in the poetic practice of the seventeenth-century metaphysicals had a positive value. Herbert's poetic arguments, generally like those of Donne, are carefully crafted; the dialectical chain is skilfully forged. His ability to personify ideas renders concepts such as monarchy, freedom, tyranny, and the soul as kinetic figures on the screen of history.
            Edward Herbert used the argot of seventeenth-century politics with confidence. For most of his adult life he had served in a variety of governmental capacities. By 1601 he was living in London and was well acquainted with several eminent statesmen. Herbert sat for Merioneth in the first Stuart parliament and served as sheriff for Montgomeryshire in 1605. (Charles 37-39) Thus even before his term as English ambassador to France (1619-1624), Herbert enjoyed life near the political center, where he could not have helped noticing the sharp contrast between the cherished British ideals and the tarnished reality of English politics. Moelwyn Merchant emphasizes that in the ideal conception, governmental actions would occur in accordance with the "divine shaping" of Godís providence. The monarch was Godís surrogate on earth, and separate events were considered essential elements of an ultimately harmonic pattern. (48-49) Edward Herbert expresses his generation's conflicting attitudes about the monarchy: the roles of evil in government through the arguments of "The State-progress of Ill," and the qualities of the ideal monarch in "Elegy for the Prince," and "Epitaph for King James."
            Herbert wrote "The State-progress of Ill," his exploration of the role of evil in government, in August of 1608 when he was twenty-six. (Poems xxxi) The satire reflects a dawning awareness of the gulf between ideals the young accept a priori and reality. The subject and title of the satire, along with the poetís celebrated "obscureness," have inspired questions concerning Herbert's political loyalties. Sir Sidney Lee suggests the probability that in spite of being often disappointed in the Stuarts, Herbert remained a loyal monarchist throughout his life. (140-47) A passage from the May 1642 Journal of the House of Lords supports the opinion of Herbertís loyalty up to the dawn of the Civil War. As members debated sending the king a petition declaring that any one assisting in "warring against the Parliament" would be considered traitors, Herbert declared, "I should agree to [the petition] if I could be satisfied that the King would make War on the Parliament without Cause."
            Rather than impugning the integrity of the King in "The State-progress of Ill," Herbert subjects the myriad manifestations of evil in the workings of the State to close scrutiny; after all, in the ideal government, everything works according to the principles of divine harmony. The subject of the satire is the nature of evil—its origins and its historical progress. The philosophic question underlying the poem is whether evil does indeed serve some unknown purpose to further divine order. Merchant points out that the title of the poem:

is a conceit in itself [and] contains a fuller implication of [Herbert's] meaning; the poem
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)
This distinction is critical to an understanding of Herbert's paradoxical thesis—that the State, although an inviting haven for evil, is necessary for social man's salvation. Mario Manlio Rossi explains that this paradox was fairly orthodox seventeenth-century political philosophy. (I, 114-125)
            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: . . . yet, as Nile,
'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).
His subject thus defined, Herbert focuses on the workings of evil in the State: "Now in this state/ Of things, what is least like Good, men hate,/ Since 'twill be the less sin. I do see/ Some Ill requir'd that one poison might free/ The other; so States, to their Greatness, find/ No faults requir'd but their own, and bind/ The rest." (ll. 7-13) Some evil then is antidotal to greater "poison" in the functions of State; the evil of government is necessary to counteract the greater evil in the body politic. The poet candidly concedes that this justification is "mysterious still," and expands his logical development by speculating about the origin of evil and the source of its power over men: This Ill having some Attributes of God,
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 thought of the passage depends on personification for coherence. Ill is a universal monarch with all the attendant power of majesty. In its creative, punitive, and governing powers, Ill partakes of divine nature; it endures not through divine right, however, but through human folly. Moore Smith notes that Ill "claims a partly divine character (like Mercy which in itself is conditioned by sin)."(Poems 143) Ill thus operates in the world as a tyrannical minister of vengeance. Merchant notes that the administration of justice, often in the form of vengeance to evil-doers, was a "familiar function of the state in Jacobean drama, in which the tyrant is frequently 'the scourge and wrath of God." (54-55) But states must balance vengeance with its counterpart—mercy. Herbert uses the language of commerce and law to describe mercy as a "store" or storehouse for "Bankrupt" souls. Mercy is the first "stock of Grace" for souls overcome by sin. Thus Herbert establishes his subject, the evil inherent in governments, and defines it by attributes and origin. With the linking of Ill and mercy, the first section of the satire closes with the hint of the checks and balances that characterize an ultimately harmonious government within an harmonious universe.
            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: Ill in the individual is Sin prompted by Pleasure, in the State it is Mischief which "veil'd" under
"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)
This paradox poses the question that Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists had frequently explored: what is to be done about the anointed ruler who is unfit to reign? The country suffers under injustice, but to depose the legitimate monarch is treason. Herbert seems firmly on the side of the monarchy, anticipating his defense of the crown in 1642: ". . . now we cannot spare,/ (And not be worse)/ Kings, on those terms they are,/ No more than we could spare (and have been sav'd)/ Original sin." (ll. 69-72) The speaker seems to conclude that in spite of numerous abuses, the monarchy is as necessary for the commonwealth as is original sin for salvation.
            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: State, a proportion'd colour'd table, is,
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).
Franke Warnke points out that the allusion to Venice takes its meaning from La Boetheís contention that the Venetians were the freest, and thus the happiest, of all citizens, a notion that had received wide circulation in French intellectual circles of the later sixteenth century. (45) Herbert's concentration on the freedom of the "Exalted Spirit" may suggest criticism of the aristocracy and the monarchy. The speaker, however, does not place this ideal citizen within any specific rank; he seems rather to be a universal ideal outside the limits of degree or position: As he gives poor, for God's sake, (though they
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)
The poet contrasts these qualities to the hypocrisy of "sugred Divines" (l. 103) and those "whose harder minds Religion/Cannot invade" (ll. 111-112). The ideal man is distinguished by his free soul, his proper use of free will.
            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:                                                     I will
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)
Monarchial power may be excessive, but Herbertís speaker clearly finds it to be necessary because of the self-subjection of private citizens.
            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": Here lyes King James, who did so propagate
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.
James I's most distinctive quality was his love of peace, but Herbertís speaker seems anxious for the more decisive "victorious arm" of Charles I. The argument of the poem is embodied in the image suggested by "the victorious arm/Of our King Charles," suggesting the desirability of an active versus a passive king. Thus the poem is more an admonition to the new king than a lament for the old. Charles was, after all, King by default.
            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?                                     Could not our love,
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).
Lines 5 and 6 suggest the emblem of the frame of the world in the "frame" (body) of the Prince. Through this suggested emblem, Herbert establishes the cosmic implications of the death.
            The lines following this first section refer to a particular political event:                                         Or how is fate
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).
Moore Smith has noted that "one man's private hate" refers to Ravaillac's assassination of Henry IV. (Poems 150), but Herbert's choice of diction, "one man's" and "Kingdoms," eludes regional or temporal placement; such tragedies have happened before, and will happen again. The logical function of the allusion is to provide a contrast that emphasizes the inequitable nature of Fate in allowing individual hatred to outweigh the love of the multitude who "would give thousands of lives for one."
            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: Do we then dye in him, only as we
May in the worlds harmonique body see
An universally diffused soul
Move in the parts which moves not in the whole? (ll. 19-22)
The equation of the Prince and the world-soul provokes the question: Do we, the parts, also die with him, the whole? Herbert carries the logical implications further: So though we rest with him, we do appear
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)
This imagery is rich in the accretion of of meaning attached to the ideas of autumn and spring. Autumn returns the gifts of spring in harvests; spring quickens roots and seeds that have lain dormant through the winter. The life-death-life cycle of the parts united in the whole is eternal. Elaborating upon this conception of the unity of parts, Herbert reaches an unexpectedly pragmatic conclusion: Since by this love we now have such abode
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)
Because the people's souls are inextricably bound up in the Prince, his virtue absolves their mortal imperfections as they enjoy an expanded realm "with him in Heaven," while he simultaneously remains on earth through their memories. These memories inspire virtue, and thus the death results in practical benefit for the State.
            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: We then are dead, for what doth now remain
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).
Death has efficiently consumed the parts along with the whole of the world-soul. The image of "our Mothers womb" refers again to the regeneration of the earth as well as to the gestation of each man, but in this section the image holds no promise—earthly existence is sterile and barren. Herbert's final resolution, however, is antithetical to these lines of despair:                                         Or should we proceed
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 figure of the Prince as the repository of all virtue and love unifies the poem. The souls of the people are united in their love for him; as parts of the harmonic universe, each individual endures in celestial bliss with the Prince, and the Prince lives on earth in memories that shall be renewed through successive generations.
            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.

Works Cited

        primary source:

Edward Herbert. Poems. Ed. with Critical Introduction G.C. Moore Smith.
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.
        secondary sources: Alvarez, A. The School of Donne. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.                     Benson, Arthur. "A Jacobean Courtier." Fortnightly Review XLlX (1887-8): 294.

                    Charles, Amy M. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Grierson, H.J.C. "Review of G. C. Moore Smithís edition of Poems."
        Modern Language Review. 2 (April 1926): 212.

Lee, Sir Sidney, ed. "Introduction." The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury Written by Himself.
        Continuation by Sir Sidney Lee. London: Routledge, 1906.

Merchant, Moelwyn. "Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Seventeenth-Century Historical Writing."
        The Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1956.

Patterson, R.F. Ben Jonson's Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden.
        London: Blackie and Son Ltd., 1924.

Rossi, Mario Manlio. La Vita, le opere, i tempi di Edwardo Herbert di Cherbury. 3 vols.
        Florence: G.C. Sansoni, 1947.

                    Warnke, Frank. "This Metaphysique Lord."
                           Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1954.

                    Williamson, George. The Donne Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1930.

Text copyright ©1999 Anne B. Mangum. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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