In George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley,” the pulley seems an effective image for suggesting the way God encourages man’s upward connection with, and movement toward, God.
Interestingly, the image of a pulley is never mentioned in the poem itself, only in the title. Why, then, did Herbert (who was very deliberate in the way he titled poems, as in “The Collar”) choose to call this poem “The Pulley”? He could easily have called it something like “The Glass of Gifts.” Why, then, “The Pulley”?
In Herbert’s time, the word “pulley” had a number of meanings or connotations that make it relevant to this poem. In her splendid new edition of Herbert’s poems (The English Poems of George Herbert), Helen Wilcox suggests and reports several ways in which the image of the pulley seems relevant to the poem. Among these are the following:
- A pulley is used to lift something heavy. In this case, God tries to lift man, heavy with sin.
- Paradoxically, by pulling down on the rope of a pulley, something heavy is lifted upward (in this case, symbolically, toward God). (See page 147 of the Wilcox edition)
In addition to considering these suggestions, one might also note the following relevant ideas (see The Oxford English Dictionary):
- In Herbert’s day, pulleys were often used as parts of instruments of torture. Obviously the metaphorical pulley in Herbert’s poem has precisely the opposite function.
- Pulleys were often used in Herbert’s time to transmit power and to provide guidance – two senses very relevant to this poem.
- The word “pulley” could be used not simply as a noun but also as a verb meaning “to raise or hoist.” Thus the poem’s title suggests not only a thing but also an action.
Why, then, did Herbert not spell out these meanings in his poem? Why did he give his poem a title that doesn’t seem immediately relevant to the actual phrasing of the poem? Probably Herbert wanted his readers to think – to make the connections themselves between the intriguing title and the actual poem. By encouraging people to use their God-given gift of reason, Herbert himself tried to pull them closer to God.