George Herbert's Rhyme as Reason: An Essay on Rhyme as a Poetic Image in The Temple

by J. R. Arner

      The nature of poetry is discipline, with control of sounds, ideas, images, vocabulary formed into a line with matching rhyme. Even free verse requires a concentration of thought into a rhythmic length of line, use of specific images and words to manifest the poetic vision. Without this control and focus, writing would not be poetry. In Herbert poetry exercises discipline while it depicts the spiritual life with God. The Jordan poems express this similarity of poetry with this religious life. (Jordan (I), Jordan (II), Quidditie) Poetry is a gift offered to God and, also, the discipline to create the gift.
      Modern readers look at free verse as a symbol of freedom and independence. We see structured rhyme as restraint, even confinement. Even when we appreciate the rhyme and organization of a sonnet, some reject the cage of formality. Contrary to our sensibilities, Herbert found control in the restraint of rhymed poetry and disorder in the freedom of free verse. Rhyme, the sign of order, holds a poem together with sound. Herbert uses this image in various degrees of concerted rhyme from "The Collar" to sonnets and "Heaven" to express this idea.
      Free verse, even with the final couplet, "The Collar," demonstrates unrulely freedom, discordant rebellion in the persona and disorder in his/her life. The lack of rhyme reflects the persona's feelings and intent, until the final harmonious couplet. Where the rhyme is avoided, it illustrates discord with God or the disruptive affliction in the persona. (Discord and affliction being relative to each other, like a reversible reaction in chemistry.)
      Meaningful rhyme renege: "Deniall" contains 5 stanzas with a last line that does not rhyme. The last stanza, the sixth, pleads for order:
        O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
                                     Deferre no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
                They and my minde may chime,
                                     And mend my ryme.  - "Deniall"
In another poem rhyme holds the persona together until Grief exhausts him in its extremity:
Whose grief allows him musick and a ryme:
For mine excludes both measure, tune, and time.
                                             Alas, my God!   - "Grief"
Herbert also uses rhyme as a resolution to disorder; he uses the anticipated rhyme inside the line instead of at the end, and the word at the end does not rhyme with the stanza but with the title:
Come dearest Lord, passe not this holy season,
             My flesh and bones and joynts do pray:
And ev'n my verse, when by the ryme and reason
             The word is, Stay, sayes ever, Come.  - "Home"

      As examples of rhyme, stanza and length variety:
  1. Used as link to next stanza: Complaining, The British Church (one rhyme scheme used over 2 verses). Can this reenforce the "double moat" meaning?
  2. One rhyme scheme linked over all stanzas: Antiphon (II).
  3. Stanza variations: Even-song. Same rhyme scheme with different line lengths.
  4. 2 Verse forms in one poem (Litany-style): Business, Antiphon (I) and Love Unknown.
  5. Double poem (2 complete poems under one title): Communion, Good Friday (same rhyme scheme), An Offering (2 contrasting lyrics), Christmas (sonnet and lyric), H. Scriptures (I and II) and Love (I and II) both sonnets,
Herbert writes sonnets in 2 forms for the purpose of analysis, like an essay, for spiritual exploration and for telling a story. His dexterity within confined restriction and literary structure shows his message. Poetic discipline exhibits religious control, fitting into a meaningful, some would say rigid, form. C. S. Lewis points out that "Obedience is a dance, not a drill." Poetic form, which is confining to the novice, conveys part of the content. The genius is to use the rigidity to your advantage and invest it with grace, to move freely in the restrictive space, to dance. ("Joseph's Coat" is a sonnet except for the false step on the third line. Can this be for "my joyes to weep and griefs to sing"?)
      Some rhyme schemes communicate their own meaning:
  1. Same words used as rhyme in 3rd and 6th line, "breath" and "death," a meaningful motif in Mortification.
  2. In "The Water-course" the last rhyme is a spiritual choice.
  3. Same rhyme words used in all stanzas for Aaron. The rhyme suggests the content of each line throughout the poem.
  4. In Clasping of Hands the words "mine" and "thine" rhyme in sound until the rhyme sustains the reason.
  5. Concentrated rhyme schemes manifesting the poem's meaning: Trinitie Sunday, Heaven.]
  6. Paradise combines rhyme and pruning, as a poetic image and visual demonstration, to teach the lesson of poetry and devotion as discipline.
    I bless thee, Lord, because I GROW
    Among thy  trees, which  in a  ROW
    To  thee both  fruit  and order OW.
      Although we may see this as increasing rigidity, decreasing spontenaity, the content of the poems supports another evaluation. With these he manifests degrees of freedom and obedience. The greater the poetic discipline, the more control tends to Divine obedience and presence. For Herbert liberty and harmony oppose each other in a pendulum of man's will. License, disobedience and affliction combine. He saw observance of God's will as harmony, discipline as being one with God's plan for the universe. Every free verse or broken rhyme expects its harmonious complement. Freedom, liberty to disobey and unrhymed verse war with harmony, obedience to God's commands and closely rhymed poems. Spiritual progress requires discipline, for Herbert it is poetry.

See also the rhyme and meter of poems in a sortable table

Note on "The Collar:" Rather than "free verse," it may be an example of "scattered rhyme." Every ending has a matching rhyme somewhere in the poem. If considered, the rhyme scheme is ABCDAEFAECFGHGIIEJKEKJHLLHMBNNMDOPOP.

A link to a short essay on Rhyme and Reason by Elizabeth Knowles at

On Poetry Deniall, Dulnesse, Jordan (I), Jordan (II), Quidditie, true Hymne (Secondary references: Banquet, Flower, Forerunners, Grief, Miserie, Obedience, Praise (I), Scriptures II).

by J. R. Arner
Poetry Analysis Poetry Interpretation Exercises

The Temple Poem Index Internet Links George Herbert & The Temple Home Page