“Easter-wings” is a pattern poem. Its two stanzas are shaped like a pair of wings, which mirror the Resurrection that is celebrated by Christians during the Easter holiday. In the first stanza, the speaker summarizes the Christian narrative of humanity’s expulsion from Paradise due to sin. He then turns to the sufferings and trials given by God as punishment. From there he alludes to the possibility of mankind’s redemption alongside Christ. The second stanza narrates the individual speaker’s descent into sin, and his hopes for being uplifted through faith in God. In this way, each “wing” or stanza of the poem moves from low to high, from debased to redeemed. The image of flight, echoing both the movement of birds (“let me rise / As larks”) and Christ’s ascent to heaven, foreshadows what the speaker pleads God to bestow on both humanity and himself: resurrection and the victory of life over death. The poem suggests that only after suffering the lowest depths of pain and despair can one rise up to the heights. The wings on the page become a symbol of hope.
The shape of the poem mirrors its message. In each of the two wing-shaped stanzas, the story can be tracked through the length of the lines. When the lines are longest, at the beginning and the end of each stanza, the story is most hopeful. The thinnest lines represent the depth of the speaker’s despair.
The poem begins with a long address to God beginning with the word “Lord.” The speaker then interrupts his plea to God by describing the latter as the creator of “man,” meaning both humanity and the first man, Adam. Though human life began in a state of carefree abundance in the Garden of Eden, God ceased his generosity when people began to sin. Contrasting the “wealth” of man’s early state to the “poor” post-Paradise situation, the lines of the poem shorten as man’s status decreases. Yet once things reach their nadir or lowest point, and the lines of the poem are a mere two syllables, the fortunes of man begin to increase again. The speaker resumes his address by asking to rise with God the same way that larks fly—a rich symbol that stands for rebirth, Christ’s ascension during the Resurrection, as well as the poet as a singer of songs. The speaker then asks to sing the victories of God, most specifically the victory of life over death represented by Christ’s Easter rising. The first stanza ends with a powerful line that makes us reassess everything that came before. “Shall the fall further flight” means that the fall from God’s grace is, paradoxically, the exact thing that will allow humanity to soar. This builds on the theological concept of felix culpa, Latin for “fortunate fall.” The idea is that the Fall was a good thing, because it paved the way for Christ’s resurrection, which will redeem mankind. Hebert again plays with the more common meaning of “fall,” as describing a movement downward, by ending the poem with images of rising upward.
The second stanza parallels the first in meaning and shape. The long lines represent fullness and spiritual heights while the short lines represent the depths of despair experienced as a punishment for sin. If the first stanza followed humanity’s difficult but justified journey from high to low back to high, here the story follows the perspective of the individual speaker. Even at a “tender” or young age, the speaker experienced sorrow. If the first man, Adam started life in joy and abundance, everyone who came after started at a lower point. However, as the lines shorten, the speaker’s state gets even worse. He experiences “sickness and shame,” which are God’s punishment for sin. His low spiritual standing is mirrored by his poor health, most specifically his sickly thinness. After reaching his lowest point, the speaker again addresses God. He asks to join with God and not only to “sing” about the victory of Christ’s resurrection but to partake in it; he wants to “feel” it. Using a technical term from the practice of falconry, the speaker asks to “imp” his wing to God’s: in other words, the speaker is a feather and wants to be fastened to God’s wing so he can rise up. The poem then ends with another reference to the idea of felix culpa. In a parallel formulation to the end of the first stanza, the second stanza end with a declaration that “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” Pain and suffering have taught the speaker how to fly.
This short poem is filled with complex parallel and symmetrical structures. First, the two wings mirror each other in the way they are laid out on the page. Then there is the parallel biography of the speaker and humanity as a whole. Both stanzas have the same structure of moving high-low-high along with the diminishing and increasing length of the lines. Finally, many of the lines parallel each other structurally and grammatically. The lowest point in stanza one describes humanity at its “Most poore” while the equivalent point in stanza two talks about the speaker as “most thinne.” Similarly, the first appeal to God is “O let me rise” while the second is “Let me combine.” Through all of these parallelisms, the poem suggests that the fate of man as a whole mirrors the fate of the individual man who is speaking. Each individual life mirrors the story of humanity. Similarly, the poem’s message is that both humanity and each individual human can use their fallen state to be resurrected—if only they model themselves on Christ and tie themselves to God. The happiest fate for man is to be a feather on God’s wing.