The Pulley Questions and Answers
by George Herbert

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How is "The Pulley" by George Herbert a metaphysical poem?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Metaphysical poetry is known for dealing with abstract ideas and for using jarring and unusual extended metaphors. Samuel Johnson, preferring the smoothly rhyming, regular couplets of eighteenth-century verse, famously criticized the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. He wrote of their poems:

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

This is actually a fairly good description of metaphysical poetry, although since the twentieth century, critics largely have been pleased with it.

In this poem, Herbert yokes together the heterogeneous or disparate ideas of God in all his power and glory keeping his gifts in something as simple and domestic as glass--we think of a water glass. That in itself is a startling image, and like a good metaphysical poet, Herbert extends it throughout the poem. God pours his gifts on human kind as one might pour water from a glass:

Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 

In the middle of this, God decides to leave rest (as in the need for sleep or relaxation) in the bottom of the glass so that humans will run out of steam and then remember God. It is unusual to think of rest as an item in a glass.

The poem has a marked spoken quality in that God is talking to himself; the reader has the sense of eavesdropping on him. God's "learning instructs," as Johnson might say, and we are left the idea that "weariness" might in fact be a gift that tosses humankind to God's breast--a metaphor for God as comforting parent, but a jarring one because we usually think of being tired as a curse, not a gift. 

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Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Metaphysical poetry is often characterized by an extended metaphor called a conceit. In this poem, Herbert uses the metaphor of the pulley to illustrate balance in man's relationship with God. Discussing the Creation of Man (humans), God gives man strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, but withholds rest. God reasons that if He gave man everything, man would only worship his gifts and Nature (the world). By withholding rest, man can become tired, restless, or weary. This is when man will turn to God. Therefore, God's gifts make man comfortable in nature, but man's restlessness makes him reach for something spiritual. Thus, there is a balance (pulley) between the world (nature) and God. This is a balance between the physical world and the metaphysical realm. 

Many metaphysical poems deal with abstract notions, philosophical ideas, or religious matters. This poem is about the Creation and the relationship between man and God. That relationship is spiritual and therefore "above" (meta) the physical. God creates humans in such a way that they will be pulled by the world and pulled toward Himself:  

Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.
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