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George Herbert's "The Altar"

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

Introduction and Text of "The Altar"

George Herbert, one of the greatest Metaphysical poets, was essentially a mystic poet as well. He understood the fundamental nature of the concept of "fallen humanity." His poem, "The Altar," is one of his most explicit statements regarding that fallen nature and humankind’s desire to rise above the suffering involved in having lost the paradise of eternal God-awareness.

This spiritually inspired cry to God, "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"

Commentary

According to the "Father of Yoga in the West," Paramahansa Yogananda, "The Spine and the brain are the altars of God." George Herbert’s "The Altar" exemplifies the Western religious mystic who reflects the same the concept taught by the Eastern yogi mystic.

First Movement: The Broken Altar

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 sustains 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: 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 Ezekiel 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.

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

Third Movement: Craving Unity

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 instructed 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" (Luke 19:40).

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 the 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.

Sources


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is a "conceit" as used in the poem "The Altar"?

Answer: The literary device known as the "conceit" is similar to a metaphor, comparing two things that are vastly different.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 11, 2017:

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 . . .

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 11, 2017:

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

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