Through Lent With George Herbert
In The Altar George Herbert uses the layout of the poem to reinforce the idea in the text – the poem speaks of an altar, and it looks like an old pagan altar. Here are two more famous examples of these shape poems, both of which are called Easter Wings (and which some critics consider to be one poem). Apparently the use of such an image went back to one Simmias of Rhodes, who wrote in Greek and lived around 300 BCE; it is probable that Herbert knew his work, for he was a classically trained Englishman who wrote poetry in Greek and Latin. Here the two poems each consist of ten lines in the rhyme scheme ABABACDCDC. The shape is created by the fall and rise of syllables in each verse: ten in line one, eight in line two, six in line three, four in line four, then just two in line five. Then in reverse order, two, four six, eight, and finally ten in line ten.
(Wednesday after the First Sunday of Lent)
Building on the simile in line eight of Easter Wings (1), the wings have been identified by Joan Bennett in 1962 as “the rise and fall of a lark’s songs and flight.” It is probably more than that. C. C. Brown and W. P. Ingolds, in an article from 19721 go beyond Bennett to suggest that the key text behind the poems is Malachi 4.2:
But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
This was read in ancient Judaism as a reference to the Messiah, and so for Christians is a reference to Jesus. Brown and Ingold also connect these wings with that of the two cherubim that sit on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Cherubs seem to come in pairs (Cherubim is the plural of Cherub in Hebrew), and the authors of the article note many instances of that in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Two of these instances is the story of the resurrection in the Gospels according to Luke and John. Mark and Matthew each have one angel showing up, but in Luke 24.1-9 we read:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Likewise in John 20.11-13:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
I suspect that the presence of two angels at the resurrection is of greater significance to Herbert than the passage from Malachi. Now to the poems themselves.
Addressing God as Lord, the first Easter Wings describes in its first half, as the syllables descend from ten to two, the Fall of Humanity, alluding to the story in Genesis. But if there is a Fall, there is an ascent, which begins with the words “With thee”, two small but powerful words, pregnant with possibility. The seventh line, “O let me rise” signifies the beginning of the ascent. The simile to larks, both flying and singing, is made in the next line, and the final line refers to the felix culpa, that the further the fall the higher the ascent by the believer in Christ.
The second Easter Wings seems more personal. He starts by saying, “My tender age in sorrow did begin”, which may be a conventional reference to original sin, but perhaps is also a reference to his father’s death when Herbert was only three. We cannot tell when Herbert wrote his poems with any accuracy, but as a young man Herbert contracted tuberculosis, which contributed to his early death. Thus the words, “that I became/most thin” sound like a small self-portrait, ghastly and powerful in its economy of language. Again, line six begins the second half, the ascent, with the words, “With thee”, for only with God in Christ can the ascent take place.
The word “imp” in line nine is archaic and obsolete, but is taken from falconry. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it means:
To engraft feathers in the wing of a bird, so as to make good losses or deficiencies, and thus restore or improve the powers of flight; hence, allusively, with reference to ‘taking higher flights’, enlarging one’s powers, and the like.
It is apparently derived from the Greek, ἔμϕυτος, ἔμϕυτον “implanted”, “engrafted”. The speaker in the poem can only rise “if I imp my wing on” that of the resurrected Christ. Again, the theme of felix culpa emerges, and all of Christ’s sufferings – and the poet’s “sickness and shame/ thou didst to punish sin” – serve to “advance the flight in me.”
Just as two cherubim were set to guard Eden, but now announce Christ’s resurrection, so these two poems stand in Herbert’s The Temple to announce Fall and Flight. They are the wings of angels, but also the wings of sinner and redeemer.
1. C. C. Brown and W. P. Ingolds (“George Herbert’s Easter-Wings” Huntington Library Quarterly Vol. 35, No. 2 (Feb., 1972), pp. 131-142)