“The Altar,” by George Herbert (1593-1633), literally holds an important place in the poet’s body of work. After Herbert’s death, his surviving English poems were published in a collection called The Temple. The collection is divided into three parts: a long poem titled “The Church Porch”; a very lengthy middle section titled “The Church,” which consists of shorter lyrics, including some of Herbert’s most famous poems; and a final long poem titled “The Church Militant.” “The Altar” is the first poem to appear in the “The Church.”
“The Altar” is often called a “hieroglyphic” poem because it is written in the shape of what it describes. (“Easter Wings” is another such work.) Herbert himself did not use the term, an invention of later critics. However, the term is helpful, since it implies that for Herbert everything—including the shapes of poems—can be imbued with religious meaning. Herbert is above all a Christian poet, and this poem reflects his intention to communicate Christian truths through his poetry.
The poem is full of allusions to the Bible, as Helen Wilcox shows in her splendid annotated edition of Herbert’s poetry. She notes:
Two biblical passages lie behind [the opening two] lines (and the rest of the poem): Deuteronomy xxvii 2-6, where the Jews are instructed to "build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones" on "the day when ye shall pass into Jordan," and Psalms li 17: "The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise."
These are just two of the many ways in which the poem echoes the Bible, as do almost all of Herbert’s poems. Only someone who knows the Bible well will appreciate the full richness of meaning implied in his works.
Nevertheless, the poem also can be read and appreciated even without extensive knowledge of scripture. Notice, for instance, that the speaker places the word “Lord” directly in the center of line 1, with the altar on one side of the word and the speaker (“thy servant”) on the other. The altar is “broken,” not only because God commanded that altars be pieced together from found stones, rather than carved from a solid block of stone or made from finished stones, but also because the altar, which is made by a human, is therefore necessarily imperfect. The altar is “broken,” just as all sinful human beings are inevitably broken: The nature of the altar reflects the nature of the human who builds it. The “ALTAR” the poet constructs is not made of literal stones but of the human “heart”: the poem...
(The entire section is 1096 words.)