Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Pair of Herberts

{Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, by Isaac Oliver}

John Stubbs's John Donne: The Restless Self, about which I've written before, includes a brief sketch of Sir Edward Herbert, brother of Donne's fellow poet George Herbert and son of Donne's friend Magadalen Herbert, that I think you'll enjoy.

Though sickly in his youth, by adulthood Sir Edward
had grown into the complete Renaissance man--swordsman, scholar, poet and courtier, the last a role he sniffed at with the right kind of elegant disdain.
He quickly became known for his overdeveloped sense of honor--and his perpetual readiness to avenge perceived slights with violence. Say Stubbs,
He once chased a French cavalier across the countryside for playfully running off with a lady's ribbon, then took it as a personal affront when the rattled Frenchman tried returning the trifle without admitting first that he had been made to give it back.
In an incident with shades of some other scenes of inappropriately glimpsed nudity that I've written about before, Herbert inadvertently (he claimed) wandered into the bedchamber of a Lady Ayres one day and "sawe her through the Courtaines lying upon her bed," pining away at a miniature of him. Sir John Ayres, hearing of this, accused Sir Edward of "whoring" with his wife--and, accompanied by a group of swordsmen, set upon him in London one night.

Sir Edward presumably was glad at the chance to fight, and maybe even was glad to be outnumbered five-to-one. What better way to prove his honor? Stubbs gives us the blow-by-blow:
Ayres and his team were instantly repelled and quickly appalled. Herbert broke his sword with the first stroke, but still fought all of them off with just the stump of the blade. A friendly passer-by, Sir Henry Carew, decently pulled a dagger from Herbert's ribs so that he could go and knock Ayres down for a third time. With the hirelings vanquished and the jealous husband on the ground, Herbert straddled him, hacking furiously: "when kneeling on the Ground and bestriding him I struck at him in fowre seurall places and did almost cut off his left hand," he reported.

But even that wasn't enough for Herbert. Healing quickly from his injuries,
he offered to meet Ayres at a time of his choosing to finish the affair like gentlemen.

{George Herbert, by Robert White (1674)}

Oddly enough, Sir Edward's brother George is a relatively serene figure. He spent much of his life, apparently contentedly, as a country priest, and his poetry, Stubbs notes,
is the unique record of someone finding sufficiency in life as a soul, and a soul, moreover, that could genuinely get on with God.
Even a nonbeliever like me can discern the quiet confidence underlying Herbert's rushing tumble of metaphor in this poem:
Prayer (I)

Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earht;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days' world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

And then there's Herbert's argument for straightforward truths, cleanly expressed, in "Jordan":

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

What an odd house the Herberts' must have been, to have produced both Sir Edward, with his prickly honor that perpetually needed to be defended, and the clear-eyed, confident belief of George. So far, I've not been able to learn anything about their other eight siblings, but it does make me wonder just what they were like.

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