Selected Poem - 'The Altar'

Although George Herbert's so-called 'pattern poems' are often used as a way of introducing his poetry to newcomers, 'The Temple' includes only two that are obviously designed as such. 'Easter Wings' is the one most frequently quoted, but 'The Altar' is better crafted and certainly of greater significance.

'The Altar'


A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A RT 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 sanctifie this A L T A R to be thine.

Commentary

The history of shaped or pattern poems goes back to at least 300 B.C., and there were classical Greek examples with which Herbert would undoubtedly have been very familiar; indeed, those depicting altars and wings probably influenced his choice. It is of interest that he uses the shape of the traditional stone altar, leading some to infer that Herbert was making a liturgical point at a time when the fabric and position of communion tables was a hot topic in the Church of England. However, it is more likely that he was merely imitating the classical tradition to display his own poetic skills.

The structure of the poem is noteworthy. It is vertically symmetrical, with the top four pairs of lines of 5,4,2 and 2 metrical feet being mirrored below (in a similar way to the 'Easter Wings' stanzas). It scans perfectly, provided the first syllable of cemented in line 2 is accented, almost certainly the way the word would have been pronounced at the time. There is also a symmetry about the capitalized words - ALTAR, HEART, SACRIFICE, ALTAR.

As usual with Herbert, the poem makes frequent allusions to the scriptures. Perhaps the most striking is in lines 3 and 4, which are a clear reference to Exodus Ch.20 v.25. - "And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it." It was believed that the use of metal tools, because of their association with weapons of war, would violate the sanctity of the stones used to build the Hebrew Temple and its altars.

 

In placing this poem right at the front of 'The Temple', Herbert is emphasising his intention to make his poetry an allegory of the structure of the church. It is no coincidence that, in the Hebrew Temple, the sacrificial altar (to which this poem clearly refers) was out in front of the sanctuary, as opposed to the incense altar which was in the sanctuary itself. Similarly, in coming to Herbert's temple, 'The Altar' is what the reader first encounters.

And all this before even considering the meaning of the poem. In Herbert's time, the heart was considered to be the seat of all emotion and so was the key to religious belief and experience. In this poem he claims that, however much man neglects to demonstrate his devotion to God ('my hard heart', 'hold my peace'), his inner being is immutably drawn to worship and praise by Christ's sacrifice upon the Cross. And of course this links the poem very neatly to the one that follows it, 'The Sacrifice'.

So this is a poem that richly repays careful study of its many facets. Academic books and papers have been written solely about these sixteen lines. It is a work that demonstrates George Herbert's rich poetic skills like few others, and no doubt he would have been justifiably proud of it. And that is probably another reason why, in 'The Temple', he put it right at the beginning of 'The Church'.

* frame - state of mind (and also perhaps a punning reference to the poem's outline)


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