George Herbert's "The Altar"

Updated on January 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Altar"

George Herbert's "The Altar" is a "shape" poem, that is, it is placed on the page in such a way as to resemble the subject of the poem. Because the word processing system used on this site will not allow reproduction of a shape poem, I am offering a photograph of the poem as presented by the site, Christian Classics Ethereal Library:


Reading of "The Altar"


First Movement: Fallen Man's "Altar" is Broken

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch'd the same

In fallen humankind, the altar of the spine may be said to be broken because the consciousness of the ordinary human being remains separated from its Divine Origin.

The speaker in Herbert's "The Altar" acknowledges the unfortunate situation against which fallen mankind must struggle. The customary definition of "altar" is a dedicated form in a church or place of worship that focuses the worshipers attention in one central locus. An altar may take any number of forms depending on the dictates of the religion in which it is employed.

This kind of altar then becomes the literal altar in common parlance. But the origin of that specific locus called "altar" is the spine in the human body:

Altar as Metaphor

The central metaphor of all religions is the altar, the place of worship. In yoga, the altar is the spine, which is the original altar. In Lakota, the altar is also the spine, which is represented metaphorically and symbolically by the sacred pipe, or peace pipe.

Lame Deer, Lakota holy man, in Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions avers: "The pipe—that's us. Its stem is our body, our spine."

The purpose of yoga practice is to magnetize the spine; Yogananda says, "In deep meditation, the first experience of Spirit is on the altar of the spine." (my emphasis)

The "broken altar" therefore is the spine that no longer contains the accurate consciousness of the Divine, having fallen from the brain, where it originated to the coccyx where it lies dormant.

The speaker then engages the function of the "HEART." He avers that God alone created the heart in mankind and no human tools were ever employed to assist in that creation. The broken heart along with the tears of the striving devotee become the media through which the devotee now engages in order to bring about that healing of the brokenness in humankind.

Second Movement: Fallen Man's Heart of Stone

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:

In Ezekial 36:26 of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the blessed Lord reminds the exiled Israelites that He will restore to paradise those who follow his teachings. In the beautiful line, "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh," God makes this solemn promise. The hearts of fallen human beings have grown hard or like stone against their plight.

The speaker in Herbert's poem alludes to the biblical reference to the heart as a stone. He then avers that nothing can render that stone heart from its current hardened state but the blessings of the Lord. Only the Lord's power can cut through that hard stony heart.

The speaker then asserts that his own "hard heart" is doing its best to praise its maker, praying and hope that the heart severed from its Creator may be gloriously returned.

Third Movement: Fallen Man's Craving for Unity With the Creator

That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

The speaker then alludes to another biblical reference. Upon Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the crowds of his followers made jubilant noises, and some Pharisees intstructed the Christ to quiet his devotees. But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out."

Thus the speaker asserts that if by chance he could be still about his fallen situation, the very stones that presently make up this hard heart would have to cry out in praise like the crowd of devotees had to do when seeing Christ enter Jerusalem.

The speaker then offers his humble prayer that he may be once again united with the Divine. He asks that this "ALTAR," his spine be lifted and blessed with the presence of the Divine Beloved, to Which he may know again that he belongs.

George Herbert


Biographical Sketch of George Herbert

Born in Wales on April 3, 1593, George Herbert was the fifth child of ten. His father died when George was only three years old. His mother, Magdalen Newport, was a patron of the arts, whose support of John Donne's Holy Sonnets garnered for her Donne's dedication of that work. Mrs. Herbert relocated the family to England after her husband's death, where she educated and raised them as devout Anglicans.

Herbert entered Westminster at ten years of age. He later won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where one of his professors was Lancelot Andrewes, a distinguished bishop, who served on the committee responsible for translating the King James Version of the Bible.

At the early age of sixteen years, Herbert composed his two devotional sonnets, which he sent to his mother with the announcement that he was accepting the calling to become a poet. Herbert also become an accomplished musician, learning to play the lute and other instruments.

Herbert earned the B.A. degree in 1613 and then completed the M.A. in 1616. Remaining at Trinity, he became a major fellow and served as a reader in rhetoric. He was elected to a public oration position from which he represented the school at public events. He enjoyed that position so much that he quipped that it was, "the finest place in the university.”

After serving for two years as a representative to parliament, Herbert left his position as public orator in 1627, and in 1629, he married Jane Danvers. He then began serving in the Church of England. He remained as rector in Bremerton until his death. He helped build the church with his own money, while serving as preacher and writing poetry.

In addition to poetry, Herbert wrote devotional prose. His 1652 A Priest to the Temple was a manual of practical advice to country preachers. He continued to write poetry but did not seek publication. Only from his deathbed did he encourage publication of his poetry. He sent his manuscript of poems, "The Temple," to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, requesting that Ferrar release the poems only if he thought they might help "any dejected poor soul."

Herbert is one the most important and talented of the Metaphysical poets along with John Donne. His poems impart his deeply religious devotion; they are linguistically precise with a musical nimbleness that demonstrates his original employment of the poetic device known as "the conceit." About George Herbert's poetic diction, Samuel Taylor Coleridge has opined: “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected."

In March 1633, just one month shy of age forty, Herbert died of tuberculosis, after suffering the disease most of his life. . His manuscript, "The Temple," came out that same year. The Temple was so popular that by 1680, it had gone through twenty reprints.

About George Herbert, C. S. Lewis has remarked:

Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had read in conveying the very quality of life as we live it from moment to moment, but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I still would have called the "Christian mythology." The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed, "Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 3 months ago from U.S.A.

      True, Patricia. Still it's quite amazing that he produced such deeply profound and widely significant works as he did at such a young age. Sometimes it seems that back in the earlier centuries folks were much more mature at younger ages than we are now. Our culture, especially American, seems in the process of infantilizing the young, which can be seen politically by the government mandate of keeping young adults on their parents' insurance until they are 26 years old!

      Oh, well! We're talking about a highly educated man here who was also highly motivated to achieve materially, as well as extremely moved to unite his soul with his Divine Creator. I am always amazed to find folks anywhere and at any time period who seem naturally drawn to understand and worship the Lord.

      And I, too, Patricia, want to learn much more about this poet. I understand that Isaac Watts has a fine biography of him as well as others. Guess I'll have to invest some time in further research on this poet, and I definitely want to write more commentaries over his poems.

      Welcoming the Angels and sending blessings back to you . . .

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 months ago from sunny Florida

      Imagine how many more impactful works he would have composed had he not met such an early demise. I am very familiar with and have studied in depth John Donne but not so Herbert. Now I must be off to delve further into him. Thank you for the introduction.

      Angels are on the way this morning ps