This past week I completed the teaching portion of my student teaching experience (I now observe) with a week of Renaissance Poetry, ending with George Herbert’s emblem poetry. The week was an enlightening one for me as were the first 14 weeks of my experience (as well as the current 16th). I discovered, as was my preconceived notion, that most students dislike and misunderstand poetry. Like everything else in life, the best tastes are acquired tastes. Poetry is certainly acquired. No one sits down there first time through usually appreciates what a poet is saying. It takes practice and a certain learned skill to read poetry well. Now, I began the week teaching the students meter and introduced them to those lovely iambs and trochees, tetrameters and pentameters. I was my usual giddy self and everyone else was asleep, but I learned at least that writing poetry takes far more skill than reading it, and meter plays a role. I thus decided to end the week and my teaching experience with George Herbert’s emblem poetry which exemplifies the difficulty of meter. CS Lewis was a big fan of Herbert as well, so I felt it tied nicely with everything else I stand for. I have decided since that I need more poetry in my life — both in reading and writing. Therefore, this fickle blog will now (hopefully) have a short weekly post on interesting and fantastic poems that I find throughout the toilsome quest that is life. I begin with George Herbert’s “The Altar.”

The Altar

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,

Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:

Whose parts are as they hand did frame;

No workman’s tool hath touched the same.

A HEART alone

Is such a stone,

As nothing but

Thy power 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.

Oh let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,

And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

The first thing we usually try to do with poetry is figure out exactly what it is saying. However, the first thing we must do with this poem is figure out what the meter is. Now, meter being a stressed and unstressed syllable coupled together, one discovers that this poem is indeed an interesting poem. Herbert begins in iambic (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed) pentameter, flowing into iambic tetrameter before an octave consisting of iambic dimeter. He then transitions out of the octave in reverse order as he began: tetrameter to pentameter. But what one initially notices before even that is the shape of the poem (what may be hard to see in this post): an altar. Herbert strategically placed the words in such a way so as to create a design that presents his subject matter, all the while keeping the rhyme and meaning intact. It is a phenomenal piece of work no doubt, and now that we have our rhythm, we can began our explication.

The First Quatrain: 

The poem commences with our speaker presenting to his Lord a broken altar which he describes as consisting of a heart, joined together with his tears. This particular broken altar, or heart, was made by his Lord and “no workman’s tool” helped out in the process. Herbert is here alluding to the biblical account in Exodus 20:25 where the Lord has Moses build the altar with stones untouched by any tool. It also echoes Psalm 51:17 in which King David states “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (I got those references from the Norton addition in which I found the poem.) The quatrain leaves us hanging here though, for the break from line 4 to line 5 is significant enough in this design that the reader plunges head first into the octave. What is presented in these first four lines is going to set the tone for the whole poem because it quite literally pops out at the reader. And we notice that the speaker is offering his Lord his broken and contrite heart, which ironically was created by that Lord.

The Octave

But Herbert leaves off this idea of presenting an altar to the Lord for just a moment and focuses on the heart almost as if he placed this dialogue specifically in the middle of the poem on purpose (for the heart is in roughly in the same position in the body). This heart Herbert speaks of is only such a stone as could be cut or created by the power of the Lord and because of this, each part of our hard hearts are formed together for one specific purpose: praising the Creator’s name. The octave has such a beautiful flow to it when considering the short meter. Whereas the opening four lines were slower due to their length, the octave speeds the reader up, pushing him hastily down to the climax of the eight lines: praising God. And if this heart functions in no other capacity but to praise God’s name, the altar spoken of in the preceding quatrain is presented to the Lord for his praise. Much like we plunge into the octave, Herbert also leads us into the final four lines of the poem with a simple use of punctuation (grammar matters!). The colon at the end of the speedy octave tells the reader that the next two lines will compliment the octave. We will be discussing this idea of praising the Lord in the final four lines.

The Final Quatrain

As if speaking in an aside, Herbert explains (in yet another biblical allusion) that even if he was to keep silent in his praise for God the stones would cry out. This is taken specifically from Luke 19:40 in which Christ proclaims the same thing. Herbert aptly ends this poem in tones of praise. He once again directs his speech specifically to the Lord and pleads that he allow his (the Lord’s) blessed sacrifice to be his (the speaker’s). God’s blessed sacrifice refers to his own death on the cross, and that sacrifice becoming ours can sanctify (or make pure) our broken altar’s.

Just like the best literature is that which gives glory to the Author of our lives, so too the best poetry our world has ever experienced is religious poetry directed at praising our Great Redeemer. Herbert’s poems do just that. They represent a broken pilgrim who has been on a hard journey experiencing much pain due to his sin. I encourage you, dear reader, to take the initiative to read more poetry. At first it will be tedious and difficult, but I promise the rewards will be highly beneficial. As for me, the plan is to have a weekly post over a poem which may turn into a monthly post, but I suppose we set our bars high at first until we discover that we are completely inadequate and proceed to lower it so low to the ground that we can easily advance and feel good about ourselves. This is the American way.


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