George Herbert: Poems

George Herbert: Poems Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Ark (symbol)

In the poem entitled "The Priesthood’’ the speaker states that he does to dare to touch the Ark: "I dare not...put forth my hand/To hold the Ark." The Ark of the Covenant was the chest used to hold and carry around Moses's ten commandments, and has significance in the Old Testament. Herbert notices that the Ark "seems to shake" because of both old sins and new opinions. Here, Herbert implies that the Ark has remained the same although there have been changes in the Church, its structure, and its belief. Despite the Church's attempts to modify teachings, man's sinfulness has remained the same.

The Ark is used in this context as a symbol that stands for the original version of faith, which has not changed despite the influence of powerful Church figures.

Clouds (symbol)

In the poem entitled "Grief’’ the speaker addresses an unknown person, asking him to give him clouds filled with rain so he will be able to properly express his pain. The clouds are used here as a symbol for pain, used to make reference both to the tears a person may shed when they feel pain, and the lack of perspective a person has when he or she experiences pain—the way a person is unable to see clearly when it is cloudy.

Flowers and Spring (Symbol)

In the poem entitled "The Flower," the speaker discusses the presence of spring and how the changing weather and the appearance of vegetation changes one's perspective. Great attention is given to the flowers which appear during the springtime and are used in this context as the major symbol. In the context of the poem, the flowers are used to symbolize hope and rebirth—both brought forth by the spring. In particular, this poem describes a return to faith after a period of religious doubt. Therefore, the importance of spring might be further tied to the period during Easter that represents Christ's resurrection.

The Sacrament (motif)

Images of communion, bread, and wine appear throughout The Temple, and relate to the theme of divine union. In “Holy Communion,” Herbert writes,

Thou hast restor’d us to this ease'

By this thy heav’nly bloud;

Which I can go to, when I please,

And leave th’earth to their food.

He writes, here, that blood is enough to remind a man of his faith and restore his vitality. The “food” of God’s flesh in the form of bread or wafer is an added gifted. Images of corn, grapes, and wine also appear in “The Collar,” where the speaker laments he has not received an ample harvest until an inner voice reminds him that God will restore him whenever he returns to his faith.

Illness and Suffering (motif)

Along with images of religious faith are images of bodily suffering. In the five poems titled “Affliction,” the speaker laments many conditions: “Sicknesses cleave my bones; Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry vein” (Affliction (I)). These bodily illness affect his bones and veins, and moreover, torture his thoughts. However, he also recognizes that God’s life on earth in his incarnation as Christ was full of bodily suffering. Suffering and affliction are, in The Temple, one of God’s gifts. In “Affliction (V),” he writes that “shaking fastens more”: instability and pain strengthen one’s faith and resolve.