‘Unprofitableness’ by Henry Vaughan is an eighteen line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow a pattern of abcabc, alternating within each set of six lines, or sextet. The majority of these rhymes are very clear, but others such as that between line one and line four, and later lines thirteen and sixteen, require altered pronunciation to complete the pattern.
Vaughan is known today as a metaphysical poet. He is one of a group that worked during the 17th-century. They are best known for their original use of conceits, or comparison between very different, not traditionally related things. The ingenuity of the comparison is of greater importance than its validity. One of the most famous conceits within metaphysical poetry is in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.’ It was not until the 20th century, long after its practitioners had passed on, that metaphysical poetry found an enthusiastic audience.
In this piece the speaker is comparing himself to a flower that is not beautiful enough to be given to God. The tone is at times desperate and at others depressing. The speaker is more than eager to please his God and show his appreciation for the spring, but is unable. This leads to the speaker referring to himself as only being able to produce an “odor” or “fog.”
Summary of Unprofitableness
The poem begins with the speaker praising God and his ability to improve the speaker’s own state of being. It is clear from the start of ‘Unprofitableness’ that the narrator has a very low opinion of himself. Even by the end of the poem, when God’s light has made him infinitely better, he still isn’t good enough to bequeath one leaf or flower to a wreath in heaven.
Analysis of Unprofitableness
How rich, O Lord! how fresh thy visits are!
‘Twas but just now my bleak leaves hopeless hung
Sullied with dust and mud;
The speaker begins the poem by praising God. His feelings towards God are of the greatest importance in this text. All the following lines are dedicated to God’s light and any feelings of negativity he holds are only directed at his own ill opinion of himself.
He begins by speaking on God’s visits. They are “fresh” and revitalizing to the speaker who only flourishes in God’s light.In the second stanza the speaker’s form is introduced. He is, at least for the purposes of this text, a plant. Before God comes and sheds his light on the speaker his “bleak leaves” are hopeless.
His life is in disarray and his body exhausted. The dying leaves represent the speaker’s own state of mind. It is dark, and verging on depression. This is emphasized with line three in which the speaker states that before God visits there is “dust and mud” all over his body. He is either unwilling or unable to take care of himself.
Each snarling blast shot through me, and did share
Their youth, and beauty, cold showers nipt, and wrung
Their spiciness and blood;
In the next three lines, the speaker brings the reader back to a time right before God’s arrival. He is in the midst of one of his worst moments. The speaker is very much still the depressed plant with dirty leaves. In these lines he is suffering from the “cold showers” and the “snarling blast[s]” his environment sends to him. It is only ever temporarily that he is able to see and experience youth and beauty.” It is quickly knocked out of him by his own inescapable reality.
But since thou didst in one sweet glance survey
Their sad decays, I flourish, and once more
Breath all perfumes, and spice;
Again, in the present, God is able with “one sweet glance” to fix everything wrong with the speaker. The “sad decay” of the past is gone and in this new moment the plant-speaker is able to “flourish.” He now embodies all of the characteristics a flourishing plant should have. He is able to take in the perfumes he wasn’t before. Now there is spice where there was dust.
It is for these moments of glory that the speaker is thanking God. He feels the true power and light of the “Lord” as he relishes in the lack of “sad decay.” Due to the general tone of ‘Unprofitableness’, a reader should already expect that this sense of optimism is not going to last. The speaker’s state of mind is not strong enough to maintain this happiness and self-confidence.
I smell a dew like myrrh, and all the day
Wear in my bosom a full sun; such store
Hath one beam from thy eyes.
The speaker’s return to depression has not happened yet. In this section he continues to praise is own appearance, emotions and smells. As referenced previously, now he embodies are the best character traits of a plant, or more valid to the real world, of a man. He has taken in the sun of God and bolsters himself with the light.
In the last line, he marvels over God’s ability to improve him with a simple glance or “one beam from [his] eyes.” There is an ease in this relationship that the speaker is unable to maintain with his own soul. Without God there, this fullness in his “bosom” falls away.
But, ah, my God! what fruit hast thou of this?
What one poor leaf did ever I yet fall
To wait upon thy wreath?
Although the speaker has been improved by God he still sees himself as unworthy. He mourns his own state in the thirteenth line, asking God how he could ever want any “fruit” from a tree such as he is. No matter what changed or what kind of fullness he felt, he is still far from confident.
The fruit, or labor of his life, he sees as being unworthy. He has not produced a single leaf that God should want to take into Heaven. There is no “wreath” in which his works belong.
Thus thou all day a thankless weed dost dress,
And when th’hast done, a stench or fog is all
The odor I bequeath.
In the final four lines, the speaker’s original beliefs about himself have returned. He tells God that the light he produces and shines down upon the world is benefiting a “thankless weed.” This is how he sees himself, as someone unable to give back to his creator. In the end, all he thinks he’s able to produce is a “stench or fog” or an “odor.” These are only things he can “bequeath” to the Lord he loves so dearly.
It is important to note at the ending of the poem that he blames himself entirely for his state of being. He holds no ill will towards God that he was not made better, more successful, or more beautiful. Any failings, of which he thinks there are many, are his fault entirely.