Today’s poem comes from George Herbert‘s collection, The Temple.
Born into a wealthy family and receiving a good education in rhetoric, languages, and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert (1593-1633) was popular. He served in Parliament briefly and was noticed by King James I. But Herbert died when he was not quite 40 years old, and this collection of his poems, The Temple, was only published after his death. It shows his emotional, spiritual, and mental wrestle with his faith. When the manuscript was sent to the printer, Nicholas Ferrar, Herbert is said to have explained, “he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master.” Herbert also instructed Ferrar, the printer, to print the poems if they might be of some help to another spiritual seeker; otherwise he should burn them. Clearly, Ferrar deemed the poems useful.
Architectural themes run throughout The Temple, and the main section of the sequence starts off with this poem: “The Altar,” comparing an altar of stone to the altar of the speaker’s heart. As you can also see, Herbert makes the physical structure obvious by shaping the poem as an altar. But he doesn’t just make the words in to that shape. He adjusts the length of the rhymed lines to match the varying lengths of the lines as they outline the shape of the altar. Put another way, the middle lines are much shorter, more compact rhymes because they have to be a skinnier shape.
I thought “The Altar” would be appropriate for this day when Jesus is said to have cleansed the temple in Jerusalem and cast out the money changers.
A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.