Wings have long intrigued religious thinkers and artists. When choosing this shape for his poem, Herbert would have been aware of the various descriptions of angels’ wings in the Bible, for example in Genesis 3:24, Exodus 37:7-9, I Kings 6:23-27, and Luke 1:78-79. However, wings have appeared in literature and philosophy even outside of the Christian context. The ancient Greek poet Simmias of Rhodes wrote a pattern poem shaped like wings. In Plato’s Phaedrus and elsewhere, the Greek god Eros is described as the “winged god.” Hermes is also described as having wings. In the Renaissance, the soul with wings was a popular image. Thanks to these various uses of wings, Herbert’s poem contains both classical and Christian meanings.
On the page, Hebert’s wings are a bit more ambiguous. In various editions, the wings have been printed in different ways and each of these changes the meaning. Most often, the poem is centered on the page so that it appears at first glance as an hourglass shrinking on both sides. To see the wing, one has to look at the image sideways or turn the book 90 degrees. While the hourglass is also a suggestive image that symbolizes time and morality, in Herbert’s own manuscripts he wrote the poem with a straight right-hand margin. In this form, only the left side of each line grows smaller and larger.
However one decides to print Herbert’s “Easter-wings,” either based on the first editions of The Temple or Herbert’s own notes, the idea of writing a poem in the shape of the thing it describes causes strong reactions. While pattern poems have been used since classical times, generations of critics, especially in the nineteenth century, ridiculed pattern poems as unserious. Fortunately, recent scholarship has begun to show that Herbert’s pattern poems were no gimmick but express his deep fascination with parallelisms and correspondences. Just as “Easter-wings” describes the life of Christ as replicated in the lives of believers, so too the outward form of the poem corresponds to its content. The pattern poem allows Hebert to distill complex theological concepts into an understandable message.