To hear Robert Pinsky read “Virtue,” click here. “Sweet,” the word that George Herbert repeats in each stanza of this poem, has often been used to describe the effect of Herbert’s poetry, both for the calm, benevolent character and for the delectable sound of the poems when read aloud. But as the dire, even grim meaning of “Virtue” suggests, Herbert is also a poet who thought deeply and perhaps perpetually of death and resignation. A miniature quality in the images (the rash gazer wiping his eye, the box of sweets, the dew, the coal) heightens, by contrast, the totality of “But though the whole world turn to coal.” The mingled finality and sweetness, harmony and destruction evoked by the poem all cohere in the word “closes,” which means termination–here doomsday–but also is a technical word in music: The “closes” are the sweet musical phrases.–Robert Pinsky Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die. Sweet rose, whose hue angry 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 days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.