A BIRD IS A POEM IS AN ALTAR: The Elegant “Pattern Poetry” of George Herbert

George Herbert (1593 – 1633) was a Welsh poet, orator and Anglican priest.  He was wealthy, artistic and talented, and enjoyed prominence at Cambridge University and, later, in the British Parliament.

Herbert had long been attracted to the priesthood, though; and in his late 30s he refocused his attention on God and was ordained in the Church of England.  He served a rural parish in Wiltshire, southwest of London, in 1630.  During his brief ministry, he wrote unique and deeply spiritual poems, including his hauntingly beautiful “pattern poems.”

Sadly, though, he contracted tuberculosis and died only three years after his ordination.  On his deathbed, he gave the collection of his poems to another priest, Nicholas Ferrar, and granted permission for their publication.

Herbert’s collected works were published in 1633 in a volume titled “The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations.”  Some were written in Greek or in Latin.  Some were used as hymns, and of these the English poet and songwriter William Cowper said, “I found in them a strain of piety which I could not help but admire.”

Herbert’s poetry was characterized by intricate rhyme schemes and deep devotion.  Among the most interesting of the poems are those which Herbert called “pattern poems”—poems in which the words themselves formed a shape.  His “Easter Wings,” for example, is meant to be both heard and seen—the poem was printed across two pages of a book, and the varying line lengths helped to create an image of two birds flying with their wings outspread:


My favorite, though, is his most famous work, “The Altar.” The poem itself takes the shape of an altar; but he writes, not just of an earthly altar of wood or stone, but of the heart—a spiritual altar.  To be a true altar, Herbert shows us, the heart must be carved and shaped.  The new heart, the “altar” heart, touched and formed, comes alive—and like the stones mentioned by Jesus in Luke 19:40, awakened hearts cry out.

The parallels continue:  The “heart as altar” must have a sacrifice.  When the heart yields to the transforming power of God’s love, a sort of death occurs.  American poet Ivan Granger, in a commentary on “The Altar,” notes,

It is the death of selfish will, the death of numbness and retraction in the stone heart….  It is the blood of this compassionate awareness that is the heart’s “sacrifice,” anointing it, awakening it, and consecrating it.  That is what truly transforms the heart into an altar.

Read George Herbert’s fervent poem here:

THE ALTAR

A broken ALTAR, 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 HEART 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 SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.


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