by Jane Blanchard

George Herbert was born into a well-to-do and well-doing family of Montgomery, Wales, in 1593. When he was three years old, his father died, leaving a wife and ten children. Herbert nevertheless received a marvelous education, including studies at Westminster School in London and at Trinity College of Cambridge University. Early in his career, he held academic appointments and even served in Parliament; but, upon the death of King James I, he took holy orders in the Church of England. After marrying Jane Danvers in 1629, Herbert became the rector of a small parish near Salisbury in Wiltshire, where he died of tuberculosis in 1633, just before his fortieth birthday.

Later that same year, Herbert’s many poems were published in a collection called The Temple. These pieces were intricate representations of religious experience, particularly Herbert’s own passionate struggle to perceive and perform God’s will. The language, meter, imagery, and layout of The Temple established Herbert as an accomplished metaphysical poet, whose work went through eight editions by 1690 and still appears in various anthologies and hymnals today. One of Herbert’s most famous and admired poems is “Easter Wings”:

Originally turned on its right side, this composition is a marvelous example of a pattern poem, also known as shaped verse, which originated in ancient times, re-emerged during the Renaissance, and continued with and beyond twentieth-century examples by e. e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and John Hollander. Obviously, the form of Herbert’s poem visually depicts its content in that the two stanzas look like sets of wings when printed on the page, but the reflective relationship between form and content works line by line as well as section by section.

“Easter Wings” is essentially a prayer incorporating praise, confession, and petition. The first word, “Lord,” establishes the direct address to God with a single strong syllable. The first stanza summarizes the creation of “man in wealth and store” before the loss of “the same” made man “Most poore,” and the decreasing length of the rhyming lines reflects this “Decaying” condition. The poet, of course, as man and of man, shares and suffers this condition and thus asks that he be able to “rise / As larks” and “sing” of God’s “victories” so that he may overcome, even regain, what has been lost so “foolishly.” It is by voicing God’s success that Herbert can achieve his own. With divine assistance he can ascend rather than descend; if truth be told, he can transcend the “fall” of man entirely. Paradoxically and alliteratively, his “flight” can and “shall” go “further” than if man had never fallen at all.

This traditional notion of the fortunate fall continues in the second stanza but becomes more personal. Here Herbert describes his own origin “in sorrow” and decline “with sicknesses and shame.” He states that the divine punishment of “sinne” made him “Most thinne,” a phrase that effectively comprises a full line in the middle of the stanza. Parallelism with the previous stanza continues in the very next line, “With thee,” which is an exact replica of what appeared earlier. At this point, the poet makes his second appeal—to “imp [or graft] his wing” with that of God so that “Affliction” can “advance” his own “flight.” With this unusual avian image, Herbert reasserts man’s dependence upon God to accomplish any “victorie,” especially any measure of health or wealth, whether material or spiritual.

 

Jane Blanchard lives and writes in Georgia.  One of her sonnets recently won the inaugural Letheon Poetry Prize.  She has two collections—Unloosed and Tides & Currents—both with Kelsay Books.

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5 Responses

  1. Amy Foreman

    Thank you, Jane, for this excellent and insightful essay on Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” Herbert has always been a favorite of mine, and this pattern poem is lovely visually and in its deeper meaning. I am also grateful to you for the explanation of “imp,”–meaning “to graft.” I had stumbled on that word before, and wondered what it meant, though the context suggests something close to “attach.” 🙂

    Reply
  2. Jenni Wyn Hyatt

    I agree with Amy, Jane. This was very interesting and informative. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. J. Simon Harris

    Thanks for writing this essay on Herbert’s classic poem. I was glad for the excuse to read this again, and you did a great job leading us through the poem with your essay. I also want to point out the rhyming and metrical structure of the poem. The syllable count goes 10-8-6-4-2-2-4-6-8-10 in each stanza, and the rhyme scheme is ABABACDCDC in each stanza, with some rhyme sounds repeated across the stanzas. The symmetry in form and content are really amazing, which is probably why this poem became so well loved. Thanks again for your essay!

    Reply
  4. Basil Drew Eceu

    1.
    It’s delightful that writers @SCP consistently bring up their literary takes, reminding us, in all this diversity, the manifold possibilities of English. Fertility, variety and musicality are excellent traits in a language; and Mr. Mantyk continues to share those lyrics and criticism that appeal to him that cross his desktop. One of those fine examples is Ms. Blanchard’s microessay on Herbert’s “Easter Wings.”

    2.
    Although upon first sight, such verbal acrobatics, like Herbert’s “pattern poetry,” seem to be restricting exercises without purpose, or even worse, mere verbal tricks, it has the becoming quality of being brief, but “Easter Wings” so appropriate for this week, has remarkable literary depth in such a short work.

    3.
    The rhyme scheme, though over burdensome—ababacdcdc—does not surprisingly detract from the meaning. It adds another one of the agreeable patterns that saturate the work.

    4.
    The “decreasing lines” Ms. Blanchard notes decrease exactly by an iamb with each passing line; and then increase as well by the same, the back and forth through the two stanzas neatly reflective; so from the beginning iambic pentametre, Herbert takes us to tetrametre, trimetre, dimetre, and monometre, and so on.

    5.
    What interests me are the quiet metrical violations in the first stanza, the final anapest in line eight (hardly worth mentioning) and the trochee placed in the middle of line ten. It is exactly here where I hear Donne (as in his songs) and Hopkins in his overly forceful, alliterative sprung rhythm.

    6.
    The beginning parallelism of “With thee” that Ms. Blanchard points out is likewise complemented by the ending repetition of “the flight in me.” Herbert’s attention to detail in his poetic prayer is certainly remarkable.

    7.
    Ms. Blanchard’s explanation of “imp,” as Ms. Foreman has noted, is “informative,” to use Ms. Hyatt’s term. I can think of no writer in the English language who has used the word “imp” as conscientiously as Herbert has in this little poem, one mark of a great poet.

    8.
    With reasoned sentences, Ms. Blanchard guides us through Herbert’s thematic ideas with the sureness of a seasoned critic.

    9.
    As Ms. Blanchard accurately points out: “The first word, “Lord,” establishes the direct address to God with a single strong syllable.” What amazes me about Herbert’s opening word, is that, although one would expect an accent there, followed by “who,” the iamb is preserved; that is sheer artistic talent on the part of Herbert.

    10.
    Pursuing so many arenas, stories and poems from around the globe from all time, one can easily lose sight of these smallest of gems, and for Ms. Blanchard’s reminder to us, I am thankful.

    Reply
  5. James Sale

    Thanks Jane, a great account of a great poem. What I like in poetry is what this poem demonstrates: a deep mimesis. We are familiar with the idea that onomatopoeia is where the sound mimics the sense, which is one example of mimesis. But here we have the shape too imitating the meaning. This is real art.

    Reply

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