Faith, George Herbert, Poetry, writing -

Chasing Tradition: Herbert's Altar

George Herbert, one of the 17th century’s fine poets, came to mind today.  I recalled his poem “The Altar”, an experimental and spiritually rich arrangement of words.  Like Donne, who was a good friend of Herbert’s mother, Herbert played with impossibilities and surprised with metaphysical conceits.  I’m pulling from my own archives some poempictures I’ve done over the years, and feel inspired and inclined to build them into my writing life again.  Herbert, no doubt, is a giant whose shoulders any poet writing in the Christian tradition, stands upon (especially if that poet is fiddling with visual poetry).

“The Altar” is one poem in the vast tradition of writing by Christians, and a visual poem whose content is advanced by the intentional and thought-provoking arrangement and stylization of lines.  At university I wrote a paper about the poem.  This morning I scrounged through my notes to familiarize myself with what I wrote.  I’ve included it below.  I was pleased to revisit some of my critical analysis from the past, and am reminded of the rich and wonderful history we have in the words written down by men and women of faith over the centuries.

The Altar

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.

If you’re up for it, here’s that term paper I was referring to; what I unpacked from the poem a few years back.  The paper was written for Frances Batycki for her 17th Century Literature class.

Herbert’s Un/Hewn Altar

Herbert’s “The Altar” is written with the biblical vocabulary of paradox.  It is constructed with the “ingenious use of … theological concepts” (Baldick 134), the impossible interaction of a physical and spiritual dichotomy.  The agenda of the metaphysical language in “The Altar” is to foreground the necessary sacrifice the speaker must give to Christ.  The metaphysical language accomplishes the impossible task of constructing an altar upon which the speaker can be sanctified and offer pleasing sacrifice to Christ.

The first two lines reveal that the speaker’s way to sacrifice and sanctification is not a simple process.  The syntax of the lines is, itself, difficult:

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears.

The syntax must be unpacked to reveal the literal meaning of the lines.  The literal meaning, though, is not easily decidable; the placement of the dependent clause “Lord they servant rears” interrupts the flow of the line and confuses determinate meaning.  For instance, to syntactically correct the lines, either a comma or an article can be added.  Yet these grammatical additions create two entirely different meanings.  A comma after “Lord” will correct the apparent syntactical problem, to reveal that the speaker rears a broken altar.  Yet, if the syntax is corrected with “the” placed before “Lord,” it is the Lord himself that rears an altar, the Lord is a servant.  The syntax is ambiguous.  As a result, possible meanings materialize but seem mutually exclusive, even impossible – the speaker cannot physically construct an altar out of his heart, and the Lord cannot be servant to the speaker.  We reach an aporia: neither possibility can be accepted, and yet both are true.

Throughout the text, the poem is at play with scripture.  The word “rears” (1) has a number of possible meanings that have direct biblical implications.  Of these possibilities two are “to raise from the dead,” and, “to raise (a person) out of a certain condition” (Oxford English Dictionary online). The following biblical references are implied by these definitions: Christ’s own resurrection (Lk. 24.6), his miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11.44), and his work to sanctify and raise man from his fallen condition (1 Jn. 3.5-6). We can conclude that “Lord thy servant” (1) refers to Christ.  Furthermore, because these denotations of “rear” connect the word to Christ, we must consider Christ’s statement that he is not only a ransom for men, but that he is a servant also (Mk. 10.45).

At this point it is also important to consider the visual effect and construct of the poem.  The poem itself resembles an altar.  Two lines of ten syllables, followed by two lines of eight syllables each, overlay the center of the poem.  The center of the poem narrows into eight lines of four syllables each, which is set upon a foundation of two eight-syllable lines that, in turn, rest on two ten-syllable lines.  A syllabic chiasmus is thus attained: 10, 8, 4, 8, 10.  The altar that is the poem is a perfectly symmetrical unit.  It follows, then, that the location of “Lord thy servant” is intentional, contributing to the structural integrity of the altar.  It is placed at the utmost place of the altar’s structure: it is the capstone.  In scripture, the “stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (Mt. 21.42).  Therefore, we must not overlook, as did the Pharisees, the fact that Christ is the essential, connecting identity in the poem’s construct that bridges the text’s meaning to our understanding.

If Christ is the textual capstone, it is important to consider the foundation the poem is built upon.  The speaker’s final rhyming couplet, the foundation on which the poem as altar is set, is a request:

O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

In his address of Christ, the speaker asks to receive Christ’s atoning sacrifice so that his altar can be sanctified to Christ.  The speaker and Christ, then, are involved in an interchange: an exchange of sacrifice for sacrifice.  As the speaker accepts the sacrifice of Christ, he creates a place of sacrifice within himself.  His altar “made of a heart” (2) becomes the place of sacrifice.  The chiasmus allows the interchange of sacrifice and sanctification to take place.  The center, four-syllable lines are a pivot point on which the capstone and the foundation of the poem come together: the sacrifice that Christ requires of the speaker’s heart can only be made when Christ’s sacrifice is received within the speaker’s heart.

The speaker blends the language of the physical and spiritual with his description of the heart.  The heart that is a “broken altar” (1) and is “cemented with tears” (2) is defined by conflicting metaphors.  Cement implies stability, strength, and that which endures, whereas tears imply things that move, flow, and result from emotional or spiritual tenderness and pain.  The binary pair “hard: soft” that “cements” and “tears” present, concurs with the sacrifice of Christ.  In order to be the definitive “SACRIFICE” (15), Christ required the strength of “an indestructible life” (Heb. 7.16) and the emotional tenderness to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15.15).

The use of “cements” and “tears” to describe the heart, reveals the complexity the heart must attain to be an acceptable altar of sacrifice.  The speaker’s heart, like Christ’s sacrifice, requires a duality lest it become “a stone” (6).  Its parts must be only what Christ’s hands “frame” (3).  Therefore, it must be fixed concretely by determination to allow Christ to frame, but be soft enough to be moldable.  The word “frame” denotes, among other things, “make,” “create,” and “write” (OED online).  The speaker’s heart must be created, formed, and written by Christ.  These definitions are consistent with the prophecy that Christ’s sacrifice fulfills: the resultant inscription of the law, that is, “love the Lord with all your heart” (Deut. 10.12), on the heart (Jer. 31.33).  The sacrifice, then, is spiritual and not physical.  Christ prepares, or “rears,” the speaker’s heart as an altar for sacrifice by writing a law of love onto the speaker’s heart.  The spiritual implication parallels the biblical transition (Old Testament to New) of the law being physically written from Moses’ tablets of stone (Ex. 24.12) to the law being spiritually inscribed on the heart (Heb. 8.13).

At once we are drawn via the central lines to the pivotal point of the poem – the poem’s very heart.  The speaker has revealed that left alone, a heart is only “a stone” (6) and states that only Christ’s power “doth cut … [his] hard heart” (8-10).  Once more, the speaker foregrounds that his heart must undergo a shaping at the hand of Christ.  The statement he follows this observation with reveals why the center structure of the poem is able to stand firmly on the altar’s foundation and hold the capstone in place.  The center “frame” (11) of the poem is where the speaker meets to worship Christ (12).  We must note that it is the speaker who now “frames,” or writes, not Christ.  The final four-syllable line is attached to the poem’s foundation, and once again, line placement is intentional.  The placement of the line makes clear the essential requirement that allows a “broken” (1) heart to stand on the necessary foundation of Christ’s sacrifice: praise.  The line itself, then, is a trope: the capstone that is Christ can be placed on the altar of the heart because the altar is sanctified through the praise and honor of Christ’s name, an event mutually dependent upon Christ’s own sacrifice.

All at once, the speaker’s heart can meet the necessary requirement of sanctification and become an altar.  The word “frame” (11) gives the poem sudden depth and clarity: the heart of the poem and the heart of the speaker have come together to “praise [Christ’s] name” (12).  The poem is revealed as an altar itself, not simply a physical entity consisting of syllables, words, and phrases, but an individual example of a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13.15).  As a result, the speaker reiterates the biblical definition of true sacrifice: “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15.22).  Christ requires a spiritual act, not a physical act of sacrifice from the speaker.  And so, the speaker’s obedience is marked by a heart that is not “hewn” (Ex. 20.25).  Instead, the altar is “broken” (1).  His heart is not an ornate self-creation that brings attention to the speaker, but is revealed and framed as an altar broken by humility for sacrifice through obedience and the praise of Christ’s name.

The speaker has written an altar to Christ.  Upon his altar, praise can be offered as a sacrifice that is set apart or sanctified for Christ alone.  The speaker’s language is hewn with the biblical vocabulary of paradox, language that translates physical constructs into spiritual reality.  The speaker’s own sacrifice is dependent on the sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice that not only demands praise, but also renders praise acceptable.


Works Cited

  • Baldick, Chris.  Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms.  1990  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Herbert, George.  “The Altar.”  The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth Century Verse & Prose.  Eds. Alan Redrum, Joseph Black and Holly Faith Nelson.  Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.  363.
  •  Oxford English Dictionary.  Available
  • The Harper Study Bible. 1964. Ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991.

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