The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century broke away from the Elizabethan poets. Elizabethan poetry is characterized by regular meters and rhyme schemes, as well as easily accessible metaphors: a lover's eyes are often likened to bright stars, her lips to cherries, or her hair to gold wires. The poetry is smooth and easy, not jagged and startling.
The metaphysicals, in contrast, use startling, unusual metaphors and break up meter and rhyme in order to create an effect or make a point.
Herbert, an Anglican priest, focuses on his faith and his struggles with his faith, writing poetry about religion that experiments with form and meter. He is gentler and less startling than a metaphysical poet like John Donne, but he can nevertheless extend an unusual metaphor in a way that makes a reader think. For example, in his poem "The Windows," Herbert likens a priest to a piece of glass through with God's light shines through. He initially calls the preacher "a brittle crazy glass," a kind of startling wording you would not likely find in Elizabethan poetry, and then extends the metaphor to show how God's word shining through the preacher causes his brittle glass to become softer, more colorful, and more beautiful.
In a poem like "The Collar," Herbert shows his metaphysical qualities by using a jagged meter in lines that vary sharply in length, reflecting the speaker's uneasy state of mind:
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears
Herbert is probably best known for his shape poems, such as "Easter Wings," in which the shape of the poem on the page reflects its subject matter, the line lengths varying to form the shape. This kind of experimentation and playfulness is typical of the metaphysicals.
Herbert, as a religious man, uses the characteristics of metaphysical poetry to attract readers' attention so that they think about God and their faith in fresh ways.
Because none of his secular poems survived, George Herbert is best known for his single volume of poetry, The Temple. This volume contains a long prefatory poem, The Church-Porch, and a long concluding poem, Church Militant, which together contain 177 short lyrics among which are sonnets, songs, hymns, laments, meditative poems, dialogue poems, acrostic poems, emblematic poems, and more. Herbert himself describes the collection as
a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul.
Herbert is rightly considered a prefiguration of the ideal Restoration clergyman. That is, Herbert is well-born, socially responsible, educated, devout, and worldly-wise. From reading his poetry, it is evident that Herbert displays a knowledge of the world as well as both the pains and delights of spiritual life. As is done in metaphysical poetry, for which he is known, Herbert mixes puns with paradoxes (e.g. "Contract into a span"—from "The Pulley").
In The Temple, Herbert writes emblem poems, poems that collapse picture and poem into one. For example, "The Altar" is in the shape of a side view of an altar. One odd mixture of things in this poem is that of "A broken altar.../Made of heart and cemented with tears."
Another emblem poem is "Easter Wings," which is in the shape of two wings. Interestingly, the lines that increase and decrease in length create the illusion of flight.
George Herbert's poetry demonstrates above all his devotion to God and his desire to know his place in the world with sin redeemed by Christ. He is indeed a metaphysical poet because he employs argumentative structure, a dramatic mode of writing, realism, and wit.
George Herbert chose at Cambridge to devote his poetry to God and seemed to adjust easily to a religious life after leaving a court life. His poetry expresses the notion that one feels God's presence or one doesn't, propounding the theologically arguable concept that one cannot reason with God. His poetry is an extension of his sermons and seeks to instruct by example rather than by precept. He writes about his personal struggles in order that others may follow his example and thus overcome their struggles. His struggles are not on the same order of Donne's, his fellow religious poet, however, being less desperate and less personal.
Herbert's approach to poetry writing is a more commonplace approach than an intellectual one. He uses common everyday domestic metaphors and imagery along with conceits (elaborate, intellectually original metaphors, short or extended), which are important in his poetry. The questions that Herbert explores, which constitute an extension to his sermons, are often resolved with a device he innovated: two quiet lines that convey a resolution founded in emotion and that may or may not answer the question(s) raised in the poem. The function of extending his sermons determines the his poetic style, in large part.