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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #9: George Herbert

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

I have already introduced to you the word metaphysical in talking about that group of poets who frequently used word play, paradoxes and long metaphors, called conceits in their works. The word metaphysical may be broken up into two parts: meta, which is a Greek root meaning “beyond”; and physical, which refers to the world that we see. Put together, the word metaphysical means beyond the physical world. You may remember that the style of metaphysical was abstract and intellectual, not sensual. In other words, their poetry involved using metaphors and imagery that did not bring out emotion, but was purely logical.

This week I would like you to read one of my favorite metaphysical poems, “The Altar,” which was written by the clergyman poet George Herbert. Before you read the poem, though, I need to say a word about

its author, George Herbert.

Years ago, I used to frequent used book stores more often than I do now. (It is rare to find me any store nowadays.) One used book shop that I liked in particular was “The Owl,” located in Bryn Mawr on the campus of Bryn Mawr College. There I found little jewels, such as 19th-century children’s books and rare editions of hard-to-find literature. One of my “finds” was a copy of George Herbert’s most famous work, The Temple. It is a wonderful edition and in excellent condition, especially considering its age. If you would like to purchase the book yourself for future reading, Amazon is selling a hardback edition of the work.

George Herbert is just one among many literary men who were also clergymen. Born in 1593 in Wales, Herbert went to Cambridge and became a member of Parliament during the reign of James I, although he originally intended a life devoted to the ministry. It was only when James Stuart’s son Charles I came to the throne that Herbert’s interest in the ministry was renewed and eventually he took Holy Orders in the Church of England in 1630 and became an Anglican priest, working as a rector of a little parish. There he showed great sympathy for the poor and needy. A fellow metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan described him as “a most glorious saint and seer.” Henry Vaughan, in fact, attributes in part his love and devotion to God to George Herbert; he said he was the least of George Herbert’s “pious converts.” Vaughan’s works include Silex Scintillans and Mount of Olives.

Another poet that remarked on George Herbert’s spiritual influence is William Cowper. In his religious memoir, the poet William Cowper wrote that Herbert’s poems although “rough around the edges,” had a great effect on him and his conversion. He writes:

At length I met with Herbert's Poems; and gothic and uncouth as they were, I yet found in them a strain of piety which I could not but admire.

As you read Herbert’s “Altar,” notice first that the speaker focuses on something spiritual: an altar of sacrifice. Those who know the Old Testament history of the Hebrew people know that there was an elaborate ritual of sacrifices which were all a part of the temple worship. Bulls and other animals were put on the altar, slain and burnt. It was a violent and bloody affair, but typified or symbolized the need for man to make up for his sin. When John the Baptist saw Jesus in the wilderness, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” indicating that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament ritual. In its violent imagery, the Old Testament sacrifice also darkly predicted Jesus’ death on the cross. One strange aspect of the Old Testament altar, alluded to in the poem is the fact that it was built without human tools (Exodus 20:24); it was constructed merely of uncut stones and mortar. Why was this? Why couldn’t a workman craft the stone to make it more beautiful? Because it was symbolic of God’s work. Salvation is the Lord’s doing, and not our own. We cannot save ourselves, from our own sin or from death.

The conceit (or extended metaphor) in this metaphysical poem, then, is the altar, which I just explained. Some of you, however, might not know what a metaphor is. A metaphor is like a symbol in that it represent something other than what it is. A poet, for example, may mention a lion in his poem, but really be talking about bravery. Although George Herbert is talking about an altar in a poem, he is also talking about something else. What is he talking about? First, the altar represents repentance, which leads a person to go to God for mercy. A proud person wants nothing. He thinks he is self-sufficient. He does not need help from anybody, and not from God. A person who has humbled himself knows his needs, especially his need for God at the time of death. Second, the altar represents Herbert’s own repentant heart. You will notice that the poem is shaped like an altar, and, in fact, is called a shape poem. Another famous shape poem written by George Herbert is his poem titled “Easter Wings,” which is shaped like wings (see above). Although some might think that “shape poems” are gimmicky, I believe that the shapes of these two poems by George Herbert in particular add an extra dimension to the reading experience. In the poem below, the altar (Herbert’s poem) is a way for Herbert to offer up his own tears of repentance.

The Altar

by George Herbert

A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant rears,

Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:

Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;

No workman’s tool hath touched the same.

A H E A R T alone

Is such a stone,

As nothing but

Thy pow'r doth cut.

Wherefore each part

Of my hard heart

Meets in this frame,

To praise thy Name;

That, if I chance to hold my peace,

These stones to praise thee may not cease.

O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,

And sanctify this A L T A R to be thine.

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