I have always loved the poetry of George Herbert. When I was eighteen I was given a copy of The Metaphysical Poets, a Penguin paperback, with its fine introduction by the eminent scholar Dame Helen Gardner. I still have the book, well thumbed and rather worse for wear, but a testimony to those faithful companions, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, and Vaughan, who have traveled with me over the years.
But it is to my fellow Welshman, George Herbert, that I return again and again. I well remember turning the pages of that book and there, on page 121, I saw “Easter Wings.” You can’t miss it because of its shape. It actually looks like what the poet is trying to describe. In the early editions, the lines were printed vertically, to represent the shape of wings on the page. To get this effect, try turning this page ninety degrees, half close your eyes, and there are two birds flying upward with outstretched wings!
The poem is a good example of a “shape” or “pattern”
poem, adopted from the ancient Greeks, in which the shape mirrors the theme: and what more glorious theme than Easter! Each of the two stanzas represents first a dying or a falling, and then a rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problem caused by human sin, and the bottom half reflects the hope made possible by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
With Thee O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Helen Gardner wrote that “the quintessence or soul of a metaphysical poem is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience.” I wonder what “moment of experience” caused Herbert to write this personal and moving prayer to God. Herbert lived for three years as rector of the tiny village of Bemerton, just across the water meadows from Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral where I was ordained. I like to imagine him walking out one crisp Easter morning, summoned by the bells of the cathedral, raising his eyes to that great spire reaching into the heavens, and seeing countless birds swooping and gliding and soaring in delight. With his heart filled with joy, it seems that in this poem he too longs to rise up like those birds, and take flight with the risen Christ.
Herbert’s hand-corrected manuscript of the poem, owned by the Dr. Williams Trust and Library in London.
The first stanza speaks of how we were created by God and given every good thing: “Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store.” But through the fall of man all these good things were lost and decayed, “‘Till he became Most poore.” The lines of the stanza mirror this loss by “decaying” in length.
But there is hope, and in the rising part of the stanza, Herbert writes lyrically of his desire to rise with Christ: “With Thee O let me rise, As larks, harmoniously, and sing this day Thy victories.” In the last line, the alliteration of “Then shall the fall further the flight in me” expresses the paradox that if humankind had not fallen, then we would never have had the wonderful gift of the coming of Christ to redeem us. This paradox is often called the felix culpa or the “happy fault,” words which are traditionally sung at the Exsultet on Easter morning, printed on page 13 of this Cowley.
The second stanza is even more personal and autobiographical. He remembers with sorrow and shame some of his earlier life, perhaps something of what he describes so painfully in his poem “Affliction.” It was an experience which meant, “That I became Most thinne.”
But all is redeemed in the glorious rising part of this second stanza. He prays that his earlier suffering may help him fly even higher, because of the “victorie” of Christ over sin and death at Easter. “For if I imp my wing on Thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is a technical term taken from falconry, meaning to graft feathers onto a damaged wing to restore a bird’s power of flight. Herbert is asking that his damaged wing be repaired by grafting it onto Christ’s, and that together they may rise and soar up to eternal life. There is such a sense of soaring joy here, and perhaps Herbert had in mind the passage from Isaiah 40: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is a poem which has delighted me for many years, with its joyful and exuberant celebration of Easter, and I shall always be grateful for the companionship of George Herbert, parish priest, poet, and in the words of his fellow writer Henry Vaughan, “a most glorious saint and seer.