Identify one seeming contradiction between Herbert’s different metaphors for prayer. What does this indicate about the nature of prayer?
Herbert provides more metaphors for prayer than there are lines in his sonnet, and some of them are seemingly contradictory: for example, he calls prayer both “the milky way” and a “man well drest.” The milky way is the entire galaxy, something utterly huge and beyond human understanding. A well-dressed man, by contrast, is something that anyone can see on a Sunday at church. He is human, even if dressed in nicer-than-usual clothing. Throughout the poem, Herbert suggests that prayer defies easy definition, and this paradox proves it. However, it also says something about the nature of prayer: while prayer is easy to find, and to do, it is difficult to understand the vast, otherworldly power of prayer.
Explain Herbert’s view of the relationship between God and man based on this poem.
Throughout this poem, Herbert stresses that prayer allows for a direct, reciprocal connection between God and man. Through prayer, man returns “God’s breath,” the very thing that gave him his own, mortal breath. In addition, prayer allows man a direct understanding of God: it is a “plummet,” a tool for measuring both heaven and earth; it allows man to “paraphrase” his very soul. However, prayer’s power should not only inspire joy and understanding, but also “fear”: it is a tool for fighting against sinners. When Herbert arrives at the final definition of prayer as “something understood,” this understanding contains all at once an understanding of the self; an understanding of God, and an understanding of God’s absolute power.