A summary of a classic short George Herbert poem, by Dr Oliver Tearle
George Herbert (1593-1633) was one of the greatest devotional poets of his age – indeed, of any age. As well as famous poems such as the justly celebrated poem of religious doubt and personal freedom, ‘The Collar’, Herbert wrote many other great poems about God. ‘A Wreath’ is not perhaps among his most famous poems, so some remarks about its meaning might help here.
A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise,
Of praise deservèd, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live,—
Wherein I die, not live ; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee,
To Thee, who art more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know Thy ways,
Know them and practise them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.
Since the poem is about a wreath, Herbert creatively suggests the shape of a wreath through the rhyme scheme of his poem. The progression of its lines, and its rhyme scheme, both reflect the wreath’s circularity, a symbol of totality and connection. So the movement from one line to next forms a chain: the first line ends with talk of ‘deservèd praise’, so the second line begins by talking about ‘praise deservèd’; this second line in turn ends ‘unto Thee I give’, leading into the third line which begins ‘I give to Thee’; and so on, until we end up where we started, with ‘a crown of praise’ returning us to the first line of the poem, ‘A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise’.
This circularity – suggesting the circular wreath itself – is also reflected in the rhyme scheme. The first and last lines of the poem end with the word ‘praise’; the second and second-from-last lines end with ‘give’; the third and third-from-last lines end with ‘ways’, and so on. The one complication to this is the middle section, which takes the form of a quatrain rhyming ‘straight’, ‘Thee’, ‘deceit’, and ‘simplicity’, possibly suggesting the more elaborate design of an ornamental bow tying the wreath together.
‘A Wreath’ demonstrates George Herbert’s extraordinary technical proficiency as a poet, his sophisticated use of rhyme and poetic syntax, and his ability to reflect his religious devotion through powerful language and an extended ‘conceit’ or metaphor – here, that of the wreath.
Continue to explore the world of seventeenth-century poetry with our analysis of Donne’s seduction lyric ‘The Flea’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.