Through Lent with George Herbert
Wednesday after the Third Sunday of Lent
I saw the Virtues sitting hand in hand
In sev’ral ranks upon an azure throne,
Where all the beasts and fowls by their command
Presented tokens of submission.
Humility, who sat the lowest there
To execute their call,
When by the beasts their presents tendred were,
Gave them about to all.
The angry Lion did present his paw,
Which by consent was given to Mansuetude.
The fearful Hare her ears, which by their law
Humility did reach to Fortitude.
The jealous Turkey brought his coral-chain;
That went to Temperance.
On Justice was bestow’d the Foxes brain,
Killed in the way by chance.
At length the Crow bringing the Peacocks plume,
(For he would not) as they beheld the grace
Of that brave gift, each one began to fume,
And challenge it, as proper to his place,
Till they fell out: which when the beasts espied,
They leapt upon the throne
And if the Fox had liv’d to rule their side,
They had depos’d each one.
Humility, who held the plume, at this
Did weep so fast, that the tears trickling down
Spoil’d all the train: then saying, Here it is
For which ye wrangle, made them turn their frown
Against the beasts: so jointly bandying,
They drive them soon away;
And then amerc’d them, double gifts to bring
At the next Session-day.
With today’s poem we are launched into Wonderland, 250 years before Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Herbert imagines a session-day, a court sitting, in which anthropomorphic Virtues are given tokens of submission by various animals. The Virtue of Humility executes the judgment of the empaneled beings.
The Virtues and the corresponding animals are:
- Mansuetude (i.e. gentleness, meekness, docility) — the angry Lion’s paw
- Fortitude — the fearful Hare’s ears
- Temperance — the jealous Turkey’s chain (i.e. the wattle, the fleshy bit under the neck
- Justice – the Fox’s brain (cunning)
- Humility – the proud Peacock’s plume (brought by the Crow, in the Peacock’s absence)
Each of the tokens, while not always the exact opposite of the Virtue that receives it, is nevertheless some kind of appropriate gift of submission. Anger, fear, jealousy, cunning, and pride are all wounded by these judgments, which would make for a lovely allegory, only Herbert goes further. The Virtues get into an argument over the peacock’s plume, representing pride (or perhaps, beauty). They fall off the throne and the beasts, seeing their chance, jump up and try to take it for themselves. The poet notes that if the Fox had been present as something other than a dead brain they might have been successful. However, Humility, to whom the plume rightfully belongs, weeps at the fighting among the Virtues, and her tears fall upon the feathers and causes them to bleed. The Virtues, united by Humility’s tears, drive off the animals, and punish them (amerc’d) by requiring double the tokens the next time.
The image starts off in the first stanza rather amusingly, as in Aesop’s fables, but turns rather graphic withe second. These beasties are grievously harmed in their submission, which I suppose is the point. Then in the third stanza the Virtues are shown to be less than virtuous.
This is not just a paradoxical description. Herbert is here describing what 20th Century philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin called “the incommensurablity of values”. There is no obvious hierarchy of values – or virtues; thus, they can conflict with each other. In modern philosophy “freedom” and “equality” are often found to be incommensurate. Radical libertarians would prioritize freedom above other values, so that taxation is effectively a form of theft. Egalitarians would emphasise the responsibility of governments and society to decrease inequality, usually by a restriction on the freedoms of others and a redistribution of wealth. The irony of the poem is that while receiving tokens of submission the Virtues do not submit to each other. Only Humility does so, and it is only by following Humility do the Virtues overcome the threats from the animals, those bearers of other values.
I like to contrast humility and humiliation. Humiliation is what another person does to you, to make you a lesser being, making you ashamed and perhaps resentful. It is cruel and mocking. Humility, on the other hand, is a reasonable self-appreciation of who one is, with all one’s gifts and all one’s failings. Humility is not showy, but humiliation seems to draw attention to the degraded person. One can be quite confident and strong in humility, but humiliation is a crisis of one’s self-worth. Humility is focused on others, whereas humiliation is all about how low one has fallen.
Those who crucified Jesus sought to humiliate him. He was a threat to the imperial power of Rome and their collaborators among the Jewish religious leaders, and so they killed him in a long, painful process, nailing him naked on the wood of a cross. That should have ended it there – except that there was in Jesus a humility deeper and more powerful than their power to humiliate. As Paul writes in Philippians 2.5b-10:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Herbert is saying that if the virtues of gentleness, fortitude, temperance, and justice (and any other values) are to be meaningful they must submit to humility and work together, acknowledging their incommensurability. May each of us be just so.