For one of my final Houdini acts in my teaching experience last semester, I went through two emblem poems by the great seventeenth century English poet George Herbert. The first was his fantastic poem “The Altar” about which I at that time blogged. I then planned to blog once a week about a poem, but that certainly did not happen. And we arrive here, months later, on an important weekend. Having received a copy of Herbert’s beautiful poetry in the mail this very day, I am goaded on to comment briefly, I hope, on his other popular piece of emblem poetry that I taught on last semester: “Easter Wings.”
Easter Wings Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store, Though foolishly he lost the same, Decaying more and more, Till he became, Most poor: With thee 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 begin: And still with sicknesses and shame Thou didst so punish sin, That I became Most thin. With thee Let me combine, And feel this day thy victory: For, if I imp my wing on thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
As one quickly notices, like “The Altar” this poem’s shape reflects its title, creating the shapes of two sets of wings consisting of ten lines apiece. Furthermore, the shape also reflects the other aspect of Herbert’s title. The falling and rising of the meter displays to the eyes what the text further expounds upon, that is, the celebration of the Easter holiday. As our Savior was buried on Friday and rose on Sunday, so too do the poet and his readers, the speaker and the listeners, fall and rise as they experience this piece of art. The transitions are broken up into four smaller cinquains with an ababa rhyme scheme, and I will proceed to discuss the four sections.
The Fortunate Fall (lines 1-5)
The very first line of this poem establishes a situation, and that situation is the beginning of all creation when God himself declared all to be “good” or perfect. The rest of these first five lines is actually very simple to understand. After this beautiful creation, man foolishly lost the same, i.e. the wealth and store he was given. This decay we can see not only in man but in all of God’s good creation. And as life decays, so too does the length of life, both in quality and quantity. So too does Herbert have his lines shorten in their length, all the while retaining the rhyme and not diverting astray from the theme. So in these first lines, Herbert sets the stage: all of humanity is falling, decaying, due to the Fall.
The Poet’s Plea (lines 6-10)
But our poet wisely notices the downward spiral of humanity heading toward eternal decay. He see this, and he cries out to this Lord, this creator. We observe this simply because “thee” is referring to the person addressed earlier in the poem, the Lord. He recognizes that his help will best be found in the Creator of all good in this world, and he so brilliantly weaves in the analogy of a bird’s flight, fittingly the Lark which could symbolize the rise from earth to heaven or the daybreak which also brings its own symbolism. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the poem itself is still shaped like wings, and so it is only right that the poet wishes to rise with his creator as a Lark. The chosen bird is also a bird that often sings as Shakespeare says in his “Sonnet 29”: “the lark… sings hymns at heaven’s gates.”
This leads into what may be the hardest line in the poem to interpret: “Then shall the fall further the flight in me.” The paradoxical nature of the theology in this statement is climatic. As we read the poem, we too rise with the poet, but it is not until then that we can properly look back on the disaster that was the Fall and “appreciate” it if we can use that language. You cannot rise unless you fall, and the further down you see how far you have fallen, the higher then is your rise. Thus, the first ten lines of the poem eloquently express the popular notion of “the fortunate fall.” Without such a fall, we could not experience grace. Angels look upon us with wonder.
The Intimate Fall (lines 11-15)
Herbert takes this theme of a large context fall of humanity in lines 1-5 and applies it to his view of his own spiritual life. The first interesting aspect is that he is again “falling” at his birth — something that many protestants would contest is not necessarily possible with original sin. But the text itself is nearly an explication of Psalm 51:5 — “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Likewise, Herbert’s “tender age” (his youth) “began in sorrow” (or was conceived in sin, line 13). The intimate fall then being referred to is not here referring directly to his fall from grace but the natural progression of a human’s capacity for sin, very small in a baby and large in an adult. A great analogy regarding this occurs in CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace, a nuisance of a character is turned into a dragon and can only be turned back by the help of Aslan, who has to delicately scrape off the dragon skin, peeling off layers and layers. Eustace sums up the experience quite well.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off… and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.”
The interpretations of Eustace’s “smallness” and Herbert’s “thinness” can be manifold, and there is simply not enough time to comment fully on them. Best to know as a general truth that this punishment and shame we receive for our sins from our Lord makes us appear very small in comparison with such a gracious being.
The Poet’s Power (16-20)
Once again, the poet requests his much-needed help from Christ in the analogy of flight and birds. He sees his absolute inability at flying without help from Christ and states that if he but “imp” (graft, combine) his wings with Christ’s, then the affliction or punishment he received “advance the flight.” In the notes of my version of this poem, the enlightening insight on these lines is the paradox that the weaker the speaker sees his own wings, the more powerful Christ’s wings will be, and this will increase his flight. The more powerful our wings, the worse our flight, for we diminish the power of the all-powerful wings of Christ. Thus, the second set of “wings” in this poem are a fascinating display of our great need for humility to rise — a paradox we may not understand until that glorious day when we all fully rise from our graves and meet our Father in heaven.
The fantastic thing about poetry is that you can come back to it over and over again and never fully indulge in all of the intricacies. Herbert is an amazing poem, and I would encourage my cherished readers to look up a George Herbert poem this weekend and spend some time reflecting on a great pilgrim’s way of seeing our salvation. A suggestion would be Herbert’s other poem aptly titled “Easter.” In any case, I trust you will have a splendid Easter weekend celebrating the most significant of all events this world has experienced.
“Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise / without delays, / Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise / with him mayst rise: / That, as his death calcined thee to dust, / His life may make thee gold, and much more just.” — from “Easter” (George Herbert)