George Herbert – “Redemption”, “Easter”, “Easter Wings”

In “Redemption” the speaker puts himself in the position of the tenant who is dissatisfied with his lease and goes to his landlord to renegotiate the terms. But when he seeks him in heaven, he learns that the lord has gone to look at the land he “dearly bought”. He goes back to earth and seeks his lord in the places you normally associate with great people, like courts, theatres and parks, but he finds him among thieves. In the final two lines of the sonnet, summing up the whole poem, the lord says “your suit is granted” and dies. The allegory is quite clear: the renegotiation of the lease means the change from the Old Testament law to the New Testament, and the rest of the story is the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. The word “redemption” means literally “buying back” (as in “owners redeemed their mortgage”), so the whole financial/religious allegory is tied quite neatly.

“Easter” consists of two parts: in the first part the speaker exhorts himself to sing a song praising Christ’s resurrection, and the second part is this song. The poem starts with the words “rise, heart”, and explores the parallel between the rising of the heart and the rising of Jesus. The second stanza starts with “awake, my lute” and it is worth remembering that Herbert was a keen and very proficient lute player. In the stanza the wood of the lute is compared to the wood of the cross, which taught “all wood to resound his name”, and its strings to the stretched sinews of Jesus. So now the heart and the lute unite in singing the praise of the resurrected Jesus, but since all harmonies are based on the triad, the Holy Spirit will take the part of the third voice, supplementing all the defects of the song. “The Song” begins with the speaker saying that although he prepared flowers and boughs to greet the resurrected Jesus, he was up at dawn and brought his own sweet flowers with him. The light of the sun and the perfumes of the east cannot contend with what Jesus brings. The Easter day is actually the only day of the year, because Jesus is the only sun.

“Easter Wings” is another shape poem, in which the lines get gradually shorter and longer again, to form the silhouette of the wings. But it’s not only the graphic shape of the poem – the words themselves express the idea of man being shrunk by sin and then growing back through Jesus’s sacrifice. The first stanza is about man in general, the second stanza about the particular predicament of the speaker. God created man to live a happy life, but through his sin the man became “most poor” – this is where the line is the shortest. In the gradually growing lines, the speaker asks God to let him rise like a lark and sing the praises of the Easter day. In the second stanza the speaker describes how God punished his sins with sicknesses and shame “that I became/most thin” (I can’t help remembering that Herbert did die of TB at a fairly young age) but if he “imps” his wing on God’s, his affliction will make him fly higher. “Imping” is a falconry term, meaning that if a bird broke or damaged one of its feathers, the falconer cut it and replaced it with a new one. Herbert must have been a keen falconer in his more secular youth, because I remember he used falconry terms also in some other poems such as “The Pearl”. So I guess the whole metaphor means his sin, signified by his broken wing, is going to make him rise even higher spiritually, because he is supported by God’s grace. After all, the Gospel says “likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7).


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