“Easter Wings” is perhaps 17th-century English poet George Herbert’s most beloved poem. It is famous for its shape: the words on the page are arranged like a pair of wings. Besides “Easter Wings,” Herbert is also well-known for a second pattern-poem, “The Altar,” which is also shaped like the object the poem describes.
Herbert was a politician and devout man who spent the last years of his life as an Anglican priest in a small country church in England. He was a writer of devotional poetry, meaning poetry that explores religious themes. “Easter Wings” was included in his only book of poetry, The Temple, which was published in 1633. The Temple follows a very specific plan. It is split into three sections: “The Church-Porch,” “The Church,” and “The Church Militant.” These sections move from the exterior of a church to its interior and from there to the human community of the church. “Easter Wings” is included with the poems in “The Church.” It comes directly after the poems “Good Friday,” “Easter,” and others that thematize the events of Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). In this way, in Hebert’s design for his book the poem “Easter Wings” is located spatially at the heart of the church building and temporally in the most important week of the church calendar.
Each stanza of the poem is shaped like a wing. The first describes the history of humanity according to Christian theology. God created human beings in happiness and abundance, but they were punished for sin and thus expelled from paradise. The second stanza describes the personal history of one man, the speaker, who also moved from childhood innocence to sin and suffering. Both stanzas end with a direct address to God, pleading for humanity and the individual to follow Jesus Christ in the resurrection from death that is commemorated on Easter. Just as Jesus is understood to have returned to the Kingdom of Heaven, Herbert imagines himself and all of humanity sprouting spiritual wings to join God.