“The Altar” is a pattern poem, also known as a “hieroglyphic” poem. These are poems shaped like the thing they describe: in this case, an altar. The first known pattern poems were written in Ancient Greek between 325 BCE and 200 CE. While other English poets have produced pattern poems, George Herbert is most strongly associated with this genre. Besides "The Altar," Herbert also wrote "Easter Wings," shaped like a pair of wings. Herbert was a strongly religious poet who wrote mainly devotional verse on theological topics.
"The Altar" was included in Herbert’s only book of poetry, The Temple, published after his death in 1633. The Temple is split into three sections: “The Church-Porch,” “The Church,” and “The Church Militant.” The sections move from the exterior of a church to its interior and from there to the human community of the church. “The Altar” is the first poem of “The Church” section. Fittingly, it focuses on this central item of church furniture.
In this poem, Herbert gives new meaning to the kind of altar used for sacrifices, sanctifications, and other rituals. Not only is the poem itself shaped like an altar, in the poem the speaker describes his heart as an altar. He begins the poem by humbly offering his heart-altar to God. He then reflects on human weakness, describing his altar as "broken." He then asks God to bless the sacrifice of his heart and accept it as "thine." He offers his life and his heart to God.