The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Banquet” first appeared in a posthumous collection of George Herbert’s work published as The Temple. Divided into three parts (the church porch, the church, and the church militant), The Temple was designed by Herbert to reflect the structure of the Old Testament tabernacle (the outer porch, the Holy Room, and the Holy of Holies). This tripartite division also yields numerical significance as the symbol of the triune God.

As a religious meditation, “The Banquet” appears in the section labeled “The Church” as a method of preparation for Holy Communion, in which earthly and heavenly elements are combined into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The poem can be roughly divided into two parts. Stanzas 1 through 5 focus on the present, in this case the immediate joys of celebrating the sacrament. In keeping with this pattern, the initial verse contains an allusion to Solomon’s Song of Songs and welcomes the spiritual cheer provided by the Holy Supper in the way one might welcome a lover. In stanza 2, Herbert goes on to compare the divine sweetness of the wine to a sugared liquor; specifically, he envisions a star melted in the liquid, a combination of heaven and the fruit of earth. This metaphor involves sight as well as taste, perhaps suggesting that in the sacrament an earthly sense (taste) is transformed into a heavenly vision (sight).

Stanzas 3 and 4 shift the emphasis to a sense of...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps more than other poets of his time, Herbert is known for building the meanings of his poems into the external structure of the work. Although “The Banquet” does not reveal its meaning directly through shape, Herbert has experimented with both rhyme and meter to emphasize religious symbolism. The rhyme pattern is aabccb, which suggests the idea of the Trinity (three persons, one God). Moreover, the syllabic structure of the verses is 7-3-7-7-3-7. Once again, the three is Trinitarian, while the seven, another holy number, has often been seen as an archetypal image for the joining of God (three) and man (four for the four corners of the earth). Together they form ten, the number of completeness, while the nine stanzas that compose the poem represent a perfect square of three.

In addition to numeric devices, “The Banquet” relies heavily on metaphor, drawing direct comparisons of two dissimilar things. The metaphysical technique of “conceit” climaxes in verse 5 as Herbert unites several spiritual ideas with the physical concept of sweetness. Earthly taste (sugar) melts into a heavenly vision (star). The metaphors of stanzas 2 and 3 continue this theme of unification as the sweetness of the Host (bread) is compared to the fragrance of “flowers, and gums, and powders.” Both star and flower suggest the image of Christ (the star of Bethlehem and the Rose of Sharon) and imply the spiritual and physical oneness created by God putting...

(The entire section is 447 words.)