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.