George Herbert – “The Altar”

George Herbert seemed to be set to have a brilliant political career: he was a kind of spokesman for the Cambridge University, an MP , wrote Latin poetry and seemed to be a bit of a careerist. But then the king died, the people in power changed, and Herbert took holy orders and became the rector of a tiny parish (about 200 people all in all) in rural Wiltshire. He destroyed all his secular poetry in English and he gave the manuscript of his collection of religious poems, The Temple, on his deathbed to his friend, Nicholas Ferrars, the leader of a religious community in Little Gidding (many centuries later commemorated by T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets). He told Ferrars to read it and publish it only if he thought it could help any other dejected poor soul, and otherwise to burn it. The poems, which could have been destroyed forever had Ferrars been less sensitive a critic, are extraordinarily crafted. Many of them, like “The Altar”, are shaped poems, in which the graphic design of the poem resembles the thing it describes. So “The Altar” is shaped like an altar, with two longer lines at the beginning, two lines which are two syllable shorter and then several short ones, resembling the supporting pillar, and then again two longer ones, and two even longer ones, resembling the altar’s base. But the altar Herbert describes is not the physical altar in the church but the altar of his heart. In the Old Testament God tells Moses to build him an altar of rough stones, not hewn by human hand, and similarly the human heart cannot be cut by any hand but God’s. In another reference to the Bible, even if the speaker remains silent, his heart will speak (recalling Luke 19:40 “if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out”. In the last lines (the base of the altar) the speaker expresses his hope that Christ’s sacrifice be his and sanctifies the altar of his heart.

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