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Analysis of Poem 'The Pulley' by George Herbert

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

George Herbert

George Herbert

George Herbert and a Summary of 'The Pulley'

'The Pulley' is a short metaphysical poem that employs a conceit or extended metaphor to explore the relationship between God and humankind, within a Christian context. What makes this poem unusual is that the pulley, as per the title, is never mentioned within the poem itself.

It's only in the last line that the action of a pulley, and the completed conceit, become obvious to the reader. Humankind (man) can be raised from lower to higher, drawn to God in heaven as weariness of earthly life eventually brings about a change of direction.

Herbert also puns on the word rest, which in one sense means repose as well as the remainder. He uses the word restlessness to reinforce this—and note that the word breast contains phonetically the word rest.

The poem has two speakers, a third-person narrator and the voice of God, which dominates what are mostly iambic lines. End rhymes bring close control and familiarity.

  • The basic theme is that of realising spiritual rest, how, from the creation, life makes us weary and restless and it is only when the 'weariness' becomes too heavy the natural action of the pulley comes into play. A heavy load is lifted, the action is fine.

For George Herbert, perhaps the best known of the English devotional poets, this was very much a personal affair. His posthumously published book The Temple, from which 'The Pulley' is taken, is testament to his own spiritual challenges and poetic brilliance.

On his deathbed, in 1633, George Herbert instructed his friend Mr Duncan:

'Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it; and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies.'

George Herbert's last wish was that his poetry might help someone in a similar struggle and be useful. Nicholas Ferrar his close friend obliged and published The Temple that same year.

Coming from a wealthy family of soldiers and seafarers, George Herbert was all set up to become a courtier. But instead, under the guidance of his mother, he took to studies at Cambridge and became quite the scholar and orator. He even tried his hand at politicking, but eventually, after much heartache and deliberation, he gave himself to the church.

'yet I will labour to make it honourable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for him, that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and meek example of my dear Jesus.'

The Temple is full of poetry devoted to God with each poem holding a little bit of George Herbert's soul. It's as though he needed the poetry as a therapeutic tool to help him work out just what to do with his life.

Conceit, metaphor and pun are common in this classic collection, as is wit and wordplay—the metaphysical poet's hallmarks. Herbert creates shaped poems too that resemble on the page the poem's title. For instance, the poem 'Easter Wings' appears as a pair of stylised bird's wings. And 'The Altar' is a geometric right-angled form.

'The Pulley', with its four rhyming stanzas (pentains, each with five lines) of formal iambic trimeter and pentameter, is more conventional yet cleverly builds up a tension for the reader, reflecting the work of an actual pulley which only delivers its load in the final few lines.

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'The Pulley' by George Herbert

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Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Pulley' by George Herbert

First Stanza

This poem starts with a third person speaker declaring the Creation of man (humankind) by God. At this early stage the reader has to presume that this is the christian God of the Holy Bible, as written in the book of Genesis.

And the imagery of the glass of blessings is perhaps inspired by a verse in 1. Corinthians 10:16:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

The third line sees a switchover to the voice of God as he speaks of pouring these blessings over him, mankind, humankind. These blessings—things God creates to make humans feel contented—will come from all over the earth but be concentrated in a lifespan, for the length of time a person exists.

Second Stanza

The third person speaker takes over for this stanza. These blessings are various qualities such as strength and pleasure and wisdom and they're poured out until at the very bottom of the glass is the last remaining treasure—rest.

At this time God stops, he made a stay because what is left is something special. Christ in the new testament gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, verse 28:

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

According to most commentators this isn't physical rest but spiritual rest, available only through Christ.

Third Stanza

God speaks again, describing the effects on humankind were he to bestow (to present) this jewel—in short, humankind, people, would become complacent and apathetic towards the divine if they had already the gift of rest i.e. spiritual satisfaction and refreshment.

What would be the point of striving? The energy involved in the mechanism of the pulley would be made redundant so the relationship between humans and God would be undermined.

Fourth Stanza

God continues and Herbert begins his punning exercises on the word rest—in this line 16 rest means the remainder, the remaining gifts of strength and wisdom and so on. But they can be kept only with repining restlessness, that is, with frayed discontent.

Humankind, man, him, may be wealthy and tired of life (the paradox) and despite lack of goodness, the weight of life's burdens will, with the action of the pulley, direct the soul back to God.

Poetical Devices/Figures of Speech

Poetic devices/figures of speech can help enrich the poetic line, bringing texture of sound and/or deepening imagery and meaning.

Alliteration

When two or more words close together begin with the same letter. For example: repining restlessness

Assonance

When two or more stressed vowels of similar sound occur close together. For example: made a way

Caesura

A natural or forced pause in a line for the reader, caused by natural wording or punctuation. For example: Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.

Inversion

When the grammar is changed to accommodate a poetic/stressed phrase. For example, here the noun and verb are altered: So both should losers be.

Metaphor

One thing replaced by another, becoming something else, suggesting similarity. For example: Bestow this jewel also on my creature, (the jewel being the gift of rest)

The whole poem is an extended metaphor (or conceit), where the pulley represents the lifting of humankind, lower to higher, up to God's breast, where spiritual rest is gained.

Paradox

When a phrase seems to contradict itself, or creates a puzzle within. For example: Let him be rich and weary, ...yet weariness/May toss him to my breast.

Repetition

Repeated use of a word or phrase to emphasise a key point, or for resonance. For example: "Let us...Let the world's riches...Yet let him keep...Let him be rich and weary...

Synecdoche

When a smaller part, often a single word, is said to represent the whole. For example: May toss him to my breast, where breast, (anatomically the chest) represents God as a whole or complete spiritual rest.

What Is the Rhyme Scheme of 'The Pulley'?

'The Pulley' has the following rhyme scheme:

ababa

In the first and second stanza, all the end rhymes are full - by/lie..stay/lay .

The fourth stanza has what for us as modern readers is a half-rhyme—rest/least/breast...but Elizabethan pronunciation of least might well have been different.

What Is the Metre of 'The Pulley'?

'The Pulley' is a formal poem with a varied metre (meter in American English). The first and fifth lines of each stanza are iambic trimeter, the second, third and fourth lines iambic pentameter.

Let's take a closer look:

When God / at first / made man,
Having / a glass / of bless / ings stand / ing by,
Let us,” / said he, / “pour on / him all / we can.
Let the / world’s rich / es, which / dispers / èd lie,
Contract / into / a span.”

The opening line is pure iambic trimeter, three iambic feet with that familiar daDUM beat.

The second line has as first foot a trochee (inverse iamb) with the stress on the first syllable, so altering the familiar beat. Iambics follow.

The third line breaks up the iambic pattern with a spondee, two stressed syllables, and two trochees in the third and fourth foot. This is the voice of God, so emphasis alters.

The fourth line has an opening trochee and a following spondee, which is a strong opening.

The fifth line reverts to the familiar iambic trimeter.

  • The second stanza has two iambic pentameter lines of eleven syllables, ending with what an unstressed feminine rhyme - pleasure/treasure.
  • The third stanza has one iambic pentameter line of eleven syllables - Nature.
  • The fourth stanza is pure iambic.

What Is the Theme of 'The Pulley'?

The main theme of 'The Pulley' is that of the restlessness of man (humankind), who is never satisfied, who struggles to be good but who can only gain true spiritual rest when "weariness/May toss him to my breast."

This last line delivers the actions of a pulley—the pulley wheel turning as one end of the rope (life's weariness, living) weighs, and the other end lightens with the return to God.

Sources

  • Nardo, Anna K. “George Herbert Pulling for Prime.” South Central Review, vol. 3, no. 4, [South Central Modern Language Association, Johns Hopkins University Press], 1986, pp. 28–42.
  • "'Use alone': Usefulness and Revision in George Herbert's The Temple", Amanda Taylor, 2013
  • St. Andrews & George Herbert – Bemerton Parish
  • George Herbert and Bemerton

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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