by George Herbert
A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
This poem falls in the category called "shape poems" since it's shape echo's the meaning of the verse. It has been noted that it was only eighty years after Herbert's composition that Joseph Addison made the judgment that such a shape poem was "garish and silly." Yet Herbert was a man of an earlier century and really another era. Up until the sixteenth century the western European view of the world was characterized by what Michel Foucault has called the "doctrine of signatures" described below:
No wonder that Addison could not appreciate Herbert's shape poems. Addison had actually entered the eighteenth century, while Herbert's style reflected that of the sixteenth century. With such a poetic device there was a complementary resemblance between the form of the text and the theme of the poem. In The Altar there even seems to be an internal visible structure that complements the externally implied meaning. When we isolate the capitalized words from the poem we see the poetic theme in outline form.
It has been said that George Herbert's poems are actually a record of his
private devotional life. Thus the altar metaphor should provide insight to his personal
relationship to God. The most elementary Biblical definition of an altar is as follows: A
structure for offering a sacrifice to worship and serve God. To "reare" a
structure is to raise it up on end which is far more difficult when it is
"broken." This brokenness appears to be an expression of a heart felt sense of
inadequacy. In line two we learn that the metaphorical altar is actually the poet's heart.
A servant often is called upon to render service to his Lord in spite of personal pain,
and so he attends to the task with tears. Yet there is reason to believe that this servant
recognizes the need to bind together his brokenness using tears as the binding cement.
Tears are often the metaphorical binding element in personal relationships. A funeral is a
time to mourn the loss of a loved one, but also the time to cement together the lives of
those who care enough to weep with us. This calls to mind the shortest verse in the Bible
expressed at the grief of Mary for the death of her brother Lazarus. It is simply recorded
that, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Herbert, with tears like Mary,
"reares" the altar of his heart to his Lord. The tone of these introductory
lines is one of emotional brokenness.
Herbert is not a "self made man" and thus, he offered up what
God had already made.
The stone described by Herbert was a homely metaphor familiar to everyone of his time. A stone may be large or small, heavy or light, hot or cold, but whatever else it may be, it is dead. This understanding would also be true for the Old and New Testament scriptures. The Biblical view was that after The Fall, man's spiritual heart was dead like a stone. The heart was originally conceived to be alive to the will of God, but through Adam's sin it died. There is a paradox that it was with such a broken and dead stone that Herbert sought to build an altar for worship. And further, it is with the heart that God required true worship. Therefore, the heart desired by God can not be one natural to man, but one cut by the hand of God. The paradox was resolved by God as promised in the scriptures.
Only God's power can "cut" a true heart.
Brokenness of spirit is the opposite of worldly pride. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). Such a humble life will be in fullest possible submission to God. Therefore the kind of sacrifice that God desires and that which He will bless is a life in submission to the will of God. The apostle Paul explained the ultimate goal of Biblical sacrifice.
With such devotion Herbert is faithfully expectant that God will sanctify the altar of his heart. God can and will set apart a life that is in submission to Him as though it were His very own. The altar metaphor has indeed provided insight to George Herbert's personal relationship to God.
Tim Nordgren, 2-22-97