George Herbert: Shaped Poems

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Zahia Mustafa
Professor Miller
Sec. 2
Paper #2
Due: April 29, 2013

Exploring George Herbert’s religious poetry.

George Herbert’s style in his collection of religious poetry, The Temple, is very short, clear, concise, and gets to the point. Different from John Donne, Herbert structures his poetry around biblical metaphors and his struggle to define his relationship with God. Herbert places himself in church through many poems that are styled in an architectural form, however his emphasis is always on the soul’s inner construction. Rather than voice his fears about being saved by God or sinning as Donne had, Herbert faces his fearful behavior by focusing on his relationship with Christ. In order to do this, Herbert focuses on architectural motifs and how one’s soul is constructed to become a better person. Since Herbert is a metaphysical and religious poet, his poetry always ends with a metaphysical conceit. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor that structures the entire poem. Usually, these metaphors deal with spirituality, intellectual ideas, and are supposed to teach one to be a good, or better Christian (Miller). The metaphysical conceit is one way in which a poem is structured, formed, or as Herbert writes, is used as an architectural form. In each of his poems, Herbert has a conceit that sums up the poetry. In other words, it serves a moral and we, the readers are taught a lesson. Another way architectural structure takes place in poetry is by the use of figurative language. For example, Herbert’s poetry is written with metaphors, similes, and his poetry is usually wrapped around the AABB and ABAB rhyme scheme. We see the use of these rhyme schemes in The Altar and Easter Wings. Architectural imagery takes place in a number of Herbert’s poetry. In The Temple, the opening poem is titled The Altar and the very shape of the poem suggests an altar of worship. The poems structure is in an AABB rhyme scheme and has many metaphors. In Lines 1-4, Herbert announces in his poem his intention to build an altar to the Lord. He states “… Made of heart, and cemented with tears/As the hand thy framed; No workman’s tool hath touched the same”(1-5). This very quote gives the reference to building a relationship with God and it is given away in the poem that the altar is actually the human heart. This here is an example of the metaphysical conceit. He is using the broken altar as a metaphor for the heart and how one should sacrifice and offer himself to the lord. The altar Herbert is making to God in this poem is also made of "broken" material, not actually out of stone, but it is "Made of a heart, and cemented with tears"(2). Here, Herbert is building a sacrifice that is pleasing before God-an altar made of broken material, but the brokenness is from the soul, and the altar and offerings are of himself. We know this because he uses the first person narrative in lines 14-16. Herbert writes: “That, if I chance to hold my peace, these stones to praise thee may not cease. Oh let thy sacrifice be mine, and sanctify this altar to be thine” (14-16). His poem speaks about the internal emotions he has with God. He is comparing his cold, empty heart to a cold, hard stone. Herbert writes: “A heart alone is such a stone, as nothing but thy power doth cut”(5-8). This quote may suggest the cold and empty feeling he has because of God’s absence. He wants his heart to praise God, but feels like he cannot because he has to be part of a sacrifice as he states in lines 15-16. “Oh let thy blessed sacrifice be mine, and sanctify this altar to be thine”(15-16). Only by sacrificing his broken self will God accept and help him. However, The Altar is not the only poem in which architectural styles occur. Easter Wings, also takes on the metaphysical conceit and exhibition of architectural styles. Herbert’s poetry is meant to teach people to be good Christians, and by constructing the poem around biblical...
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