Superliminare & The Altar

Through Lent With George Herbert
(Saturday after Ash Wednesday)

Lintel 2


Thou, whom the former precepts have
Sprinkled and taught, how to behave
Thyself in church; approach, and taste
The churches mystical repast.

Avoid, profaneness; come not here:
Nothing but holy, pure, and clear,
Or that which groaneth to be so,
May at his peril further go.

Superliminare is the Latin word for what in English we call a lintel. A lintel is the structure above a door or a window. In Latin super means “above” and “liminare” means “door”. Lintels can be very plain, as in the picture above. They are structural, maintaining the weight of what is above it and distributing it to the walls. Doors and windows built without lintels may contribute to cracks or the catastrophic failure of the walls. It may be part of the door frame, or immediately above it. In the picture above it is made of wood, which is pretty common in this part of Greece. It may also be of stone, or these days, concrete or steel.

Lintels may also be decorated. In the picture below the lintel of the door into the Vaishnavite Temple is particularly ornate.


Lakshmi Narasimha temple in Vignasante, Tumkur district, Karnataka state, India. It was built in 1286 CE during the rule of the Hoysala Empire King Narasimha III.

They may also have writing on them. It may simply be the year it is built, or the name of the family, or perhaps a motto or a coat of arms. It may also be a warning. Perhaps the best known warning on a lintel is that in Dante’s Inferno Canto III.  The poet passes through the Gate of Hell on which is inscribed (translation by John Ciardi):

I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way to a forsaken people,
I am the way into eternal sorrow.

Sacred justice moved my architect ,
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
Primordial love, and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear
Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Well, that’s pretty bleak, but Herbert can be, too. His liminal poem is both encouragement and admonition.In two simple AABB verses he encourages those who live a disciplined life to come in and read and enjoy a mystical meal. Those who are profane – unholy, stained, murky, and whiny – may only bring down condemnation upon themselves, their sins crying out an indictment. As I stated yesterday, Herbert takes poetry seriously. Long before Stanley Fish described Reader-Response Criticism Herbert expects the reader to be truly engaged in mind, body, and soul.

The Altar
The Altar

This poem begins The Church. As is obvious from the above, it’s fun for typesetters. It uses a method Herbert uses in other poems, in that he uses text to literally construct a picture, which serves as a metaphor.

The altar in the poem is neither a stone altar of the Israelites (or the altar in the Jerusalem Temple) nor the Lord’s Table. Perhaps the placement of the poem here is meant to parallel the way in which the stone altar of the ancient Israelites were in front of the Temple proper, or the manner in which medieval church buildings were all oriented on the old stone altars. In all probability the old stone altars had been removed in Herbert’s time, and a plain wooden table would have been used for the Lord’s Supper.

The altar is made of the poet’s heart (which, when we read it, is our heart). The altar is broken and repaired. The heart is the seat of the person’s soul, and not just a pump for sending blood around the body. It has been made and unmade by God, but repaired by tears of contrition and regret. Thus the altar is fit to sing God’s praises, and the poet/reader bids God to accept such praises as a sacrifice, and that the altar belong to God. As the prayer after communion in the Book of Common Prayer puts it,

accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving . . . And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee . . .

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
This entry was posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Superliminare & The Altar

  1. Keith Bryant says:

    Bruce, I really like the way you weave analysis of the poem’s structure with that of content. I’m interested in the 2nd poem because I thought that the intentional placement of a poem’s lines on a page to enhance or impart meaning was a 20th century device.

    • Bruce Bryant-Scott says:

      Hi Keith. According to the commentary, George Puttenham, the presumed author of the influential “The Arte of English Poesie” (1589), has a whole section devoted to such figurative poems. Indeed, he pretty much describes the structure of Herbert’s “Altar”. So, no, not new in the 20th century.

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