Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Sacred Poets > The metaphysical fashion
  His constructive ability Crashaw’s relation to Herbert  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

II. The Sacred Poets.

§ 4. The metaphysical fashion.


A more serious defect of taste he shares with the poets whom Johnson styled “metaphysical.” The fantastic conceits which fashion approved in secular poetry are drawn into the service of Christian piety; as Chudleigh wrote of Donne’s use of wit in his Divine Poems:
       
He did not banish, but transplanted it.
There is more regard for the quaintness and unexpectedness of a simile than for its beauty or fitness. Johnson’s criticism is at least sometimes justified in Herbert’s case, that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Things great and small are grouped in incongruous, and even unpleasant, association. It was an article of Herbert’s creed that “nothing can be so mean” but that it can be ennobled to bright and clean uses, and he was justified in his use of illustrations from common life, folk-lore and the medicinal and chemical knowledge which had great fascination for seventeenth century writers. The candle’s snuff, the bias of the bowls, the tuning of an instrument, a blunted knife and cold hands that “are angrie with the fire,” are successful and popular elucidations of his thought. But the perils of falling into prosiness or bathos beset his path. The fine theme in Providence that “man is the world’s high priest” cannot recover its dignity after such a playful extravagance as this:
       
Most things move th’ underjaw; the Crocodile not.
Most things sleep lying; th’ Elephant leans or stands.
The Psalmist is responsible for the saying, “Put Thou my tears into Thy bottle,” but Herbert must add, “As we have boxes for the poor.” Far worse than mere absurdity or prosiness is the intolerable conceit which ends The Dawning, where the “sad heart” is bidden to dry his tears in Christ’s burial-linen. Such instances, though they are rare in Herbert, compare with Crashaw’s excesses in The Weeper. Both poets, too, draw from the senses of smell and taste images which make a modern reader, rightly or wrongly, ill at ease. “This broth of smells, that feeds and fats my minde,” in The Odour, is nearly as unpleasing as Crashaw’s “brisk cherub,” that sips of the Magdalene’s tears, till
       
his song
Tasts of this Breakfast all day long.
But, despite these temptations to over-daring and tasteless conceits, Herbert got more good than harm from the metaphysical fashion. His interest in thought and in recondite illustration saves him from being thin or facile. He far more often errs by trying to pack too much into small compass, or by being too ingenious, than by working a single thought threadbare, as his successors and imitators often do. A fine instance of his power of concentrated thought is his poem Man. And if he is sometimes too artificial, there is no lack of emotional quality in Herbert at his best. There are poems in many different keys like Throw away thy rod, Antiphon and The Collar, which are all tremulous with feeling.
  8
  It remains to notice The Church Porch, in which Herbert meets the young gallant on his own ground, and avoids the higher arguments that belong to The Church. The well-bred, well-informed man of the world, who knows “the ways of learning, honour, pleasure,” gives his good-tempered counsels with many a shrewd hit, but without malice. The collector of Outlandish Proverbs is the right man to coin these terse maxims of mother-wit. There is no English book of wisdom which holds its own so well; it is kept from cynicism by its humour, and from going out of date by its writer’s knowledge of the world.   9

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  His constructive ability Crashaw’s relation to Herbert  
 
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