The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

“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.

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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 smell as the sweetness of the bread is compared with flowers, gums, powders, and perfumes. This smell goes beyond physical sweetness, however, and can “subdue the smell of sin.” Verse 4 then assures the reader that by assuming flesh, the Godhead has joined the physical and the spiritual and continues to impart them to believers through a heavenly meal.

Stanza 5 serves as both the climax of the first section and the transition to the second. Herbert argues that just as wood gives off a sweeter scent when the tree is cut than when it is standing whole, so God’s love is made sweeter through the sacrifice of His broken body.

The second section (stanzas 6 through 9) provides both a flashback and a projection of the future. Here Herbert explains why the sacrifice of a broken body is necessary and then rejoices in the unity of God and man that is brought about by such a sacrifice. Stanza 6 mirrors verse 5 by dealing with another type of “sweet breaking.” Herbert must break with earthly ways and reacquaint himself with his heavenly heritage. This movement from the corporeal to the ethereal can only be accomplished by breaking his willful human spirit, which, by its nature, opposes God. Thus the symbolic “breaking” of worldly desires for Herbert coincides with God’s willingness to be “broken” for humankind’s sins.

Following the biblical precedent, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12), stanzas 7 and 8 comprise the movement of sinful man back to his God. The persona gradually moves from the ground to the sky, now viewing God in shared glory rather than in a state of humiliation. The final stanza appropriately returns the reader to earth, where Herbert must continue to serve his Lord. Herbert has learned during his journey, however, and concludes the poem with a paradox resolved. Having experienced Christ’s sacrifice as well as His glory, he is unified with the Godhead and can continue “to strive in this” (life) and simultaneously “to love the strife.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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 on human flesh. Thus the God/man (Christ) is the real power and sweetness in communion, in which He gives Himself to redeem sinful man. Like “pomanders and wood,” whose scents are better when they are bruised, God’s love takes on a sweeter aroma, since he was “bruised for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53).

Thus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is translated into the symbolic breaking of the bread and the blessing of the wine. The body and blood received through the Holy Supper is efficacious in restoring fallen man momentarily to his former glory at the right hand of God. Herbert realizes that the ecstasy provided by the feast is only temporary, yet it is necessary for man’s spiritual health, his resurrection to new life on earth. Herbert ends the poem with yet another technique associated with the Metaphysicals: a pun. Utilizing the words “strive” and “strife,” he reminds his readers that the Christian life requires struggle, but as Christ overcame the strife of both death and the grave, the believer can “love the strife.” For through it, as through Holy Communion, he attains unity with the Savior and both experiences a partial resurrection now and awaits an eternal resurrection after death and the Last Judgment.

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Themes