It’s time to look at some poetry again, this time a true classic by Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633). He is one of the metaphysical poets, born and raised in England. He originally wanted to become a priest, but became the University of Cambridge’s Public Orator (think of this as like a spokesperson) instead, attracting the attention of King James I and even serving in Parliament for a while. After the king’s death, he did become a priest in the Church of England.
George’s work is influenced by his peer John Donne – he was a family friend and George’s godfather. George wrote poetry in English, Latin and Greek – mostly religious works that include puns and wordplay and are visually created in such a manner to add meaning to the poems. For this blogpost, I have chosen “Easter Wings”, one of his most famous poems. It was published posthumously in the collection The Temple in 1633.
And before you read this poem, just look at it! Look at how beautiful it is!
(George Herbert, XX)
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Since I studied this poem at university, I can tell you it is written in a pattern poetry called ‘ascarmen figuration’, or ‘shaped verse’. This just means the words and lines are arranged on the form a visual image (in this case the wings of an angel to offer a thematic view of the human state). As Herbert progresses from the first stanza to the second, the nature of man also progresses from God’s creation and the gifts provided therein to the fall of man and the required acceptance of Christ.
When we look at the rhyme scheme, Herbert uses ‘ababcdcd’ in both stanzas, which offers structure to the poem. This also underscores the imagery of the story: even with man’s fall from grace, God still keeps balance and order within the universe and eventually brings man back to Him. You will also notice that most lines stand on their own because of the punctuation that Herbert uses and capitalising the first letter of each line. And it goes even further than that:
- the middle four lines of each stanza have a specific number of syllables: four syllables in lines 4 and 7, and two syllables in lines 5 and 6
- there are ten syllables in each first and last line of the two stanzas
- in both stanza, each line is shortened by two syllables going to the next line
So the syllabic pattern of the poem goes: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 – in both stanzas. This specific meter structures the poem also auditorily. It creates a flow in the way the poem sounds, also mimicking the wings which are represented visually.