George Herbert, the seventeenth century poet and author, lived and wrote at the dawn of an age of reason, when the English people were students of both the sciences, such as chemistry and physics, and of religion. This was a time when "Clergymen were authorities on all matters, bishops designed flying boats, lawyers knew the fine points of theology, [and] physicians wrote exquisite lyrics and impassioned prose" (Witherspoon 298). In such a time, a literary work would quickly be forgotten if it could not inspire interest. Thus it is, perhaps, that Herbert wrote some of his most strongly religious poems, such as "Easter Wings" and "The Altar," with such an eye-catching and unique style of construction. In "Easter Wings," Herbert uses a highly uncommon form, both in appearance and mechanics, to draw attention to a simple and otherwise familiar religious subject. The very pattern, language, and shape all serve to emphasis the common content of the poem.
"Easter Wings" is, in essence, a poem in the style of simple confessional prayer: it first admits the faults of man, and then exhorts God to allow the confessor redemption and the chance to become uplifted again. The pattern Herbert uses, and repeats in each stanza, reflects this progression of the prayer. Each stanza is divided into two parts of equal length, one for the admission, the next for the exhortation. For each of the lines, as the plight of man is described, the length of that line is decreased, until the turning of the stanza, which comes at the midpoint of the pattern. Then, as the poem extols the uplifting power of God and the effects of joining with Him, the lines increase in length again, returning to their i...
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...ords. The content of the poem is held in its very shape.
In order to make interesting a simple devotional poem on a common theme, George Herbert successfully used many creative and innovative devices in "Easter Wings" in such a way that the form of the poem amplifies its content. Through repetitive and representative patterning, high and lyrical language, and a most uncommon shaping of each verse, he managed to create a poem which not only stood out in the transitional seventeenth century, but which also remains wholly notable and instantly intriguing even today. Moreover, the strengths of Herbert's "Easter Wings" will most probably keep the poem eye-catching far into the future, whether its content is popular at the time or not.
Alexander Witherspoon, ed. College Survey of English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1951
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