What are the themes of the poem "Pulley" by George Herbert?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Thematic of the poem "The Pulley," by George Herbert, are the themes of the Limits to Human Power and Man's Necessary Connection to God. 

  • Limits to Human Power

In His creation of man, God uses His force to limit man and lift him towards Himself, as in the metaphor of a pulley. By limiting man, God ensures that man will be imperfect and, therefore, strive for perfection, which is God. In this way man will recognize his limitations and extend his reach as he grasps for Heaven by grabbing the "pulley."

"But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

  • Man's Necessary Connection to God

As a narration of Creation, Herbert describes the attributes that God bestows on man. In so doing, God pauses in His distribution of treasures as the realization strikes Him as he looks at the last "jewel" that man will adore creation he sees rather than the Creator he can' see, 

“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,"
So, God retains His precious jewel of restfulness lest man abandon Him and worship Nature instead. In this way Man will always need God and turn to God in his desire for heavenly peace.
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kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The overarching theme can be stated as restlessness pulls humankind into God's arms. The premise of Herbert's poem provides an explanation for the weariness and struggles humankind faces and provides insight into the hopeful foolproof means God allows to draw humankind into his arms.

The poem explains God's perception that if the "jewel" of "rest" had been bestowed on humankind along with the "riches" of "strength," "beauty," "wisdom, honour, pleasure," then humankind would "adore" the gifts of God instead of adoring him; they would find "rest" in the "beauty" of "Nature" instead of in him.

"For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;...."

Therefore God allows humankind all the "rest" of the riches except "rest." This double use of "rest" can be confusing. In one sense it means all else, and in the other sense it means repose, peacefulness, restfulness, tranquility, even slumber. It is through withholding "rest" as restfulness and leaving humankind in a perpetual state of "restlessness" that God hopes to extend a "pulley" by which to "toss" humankind to his "breast" when "goodness" fails to move the mind and spirit of humankind God-ward.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

Other themes the poem touches on are (1) the intention of God in creating and (2) the purpose behind humankind's imprisonment in a life of weariness (Herbert's struggles seem to have been on the milder side of the spectrum as his language, "weariness" and "restlessness," doesn't seem to encompass deep life struggles). First, Herbert posits as God's intention the act of bestowing on humankind a full "glass of blessings" of the "the world’s riches." He has second thoughts, "made a stay" on his actions and, with the intent of pulling human souls to his arms, withheld "rest." Second, Herbert suggests that the reason all are bound by "weariness" is so that their hearts will respond to the pull God-ward: "If goodness lead him not, yet weariness / May toss him to my breast."

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