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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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"Easter Wings" is a famous example of a genre of poetry called the pattern poem. This kind of poem is also known as a shape poem, concrete poem, or carmen figuratum (Latin for "shaped song"). As the name suggests, the varying length of the poem's lines creates a visual pattern or shape for the poem. The poem, in essence, becomes a picture or representation of the poem's theme, as well as simply a poem on the page.

In "Easter Wings," as the title mirrors, the words of the poem create a visual image of two pairs of wings (particularly in the original publication of the poem, in which the lines were printed vertically). These wings, as they narrow and grow fuller again, reinforce the meaning the poem communicates. For example, each of the two stanzas narrows at the point in the center of the stanza where the individual is furthest from God's grace. In stanza one, this occurs in the following lines:

Most poore:
With thee . . .

The speaker represents humankind falling away from God, and as humanity becomes furthest from God, the poem itself thins almost to nothing, each line becoming a mere two words.

This pattern is repeated in the second stanza. Here the speaker's sin is visually depicted as a fading away in another set of two-word lines:

Most thinne.
With thee . . .

The pattern of the poem reinforces the theme that humans are diminished and become almost nothing without a strong relationship with God. We waste away without God's love and presence in our lives. Likewise, the poem both states and shows that we expand and reach our fullness as we connect or reconnect with God and sing his praises.

However, this is also a metaphysical poem. In the famous words of Samuel Johnson, who coined the term metaphysical,

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together . . .

The metaphysical poets worked with expressing complex, philosophical, and seemingly contradictory ideas. This, too, can be seen in "Easter Wings." It is not a simple pious poem about coming to God and all becoming good and sweet. In the fullest lines, we humans come to God in affliction and pain, and that very pain, brought on by sin, will—when linked to God's grace—lead us to greater fullness. This idea is expressed in the last line of the poem's first stanza:

Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

This means that, when the speaker is able to reconnect with God, his experience of the fall (referring to either his own sin or original sin in Eden—or both simultaneously) will make his eventual ascension all the more ecstatic.

Herbert expresses a similar idea in the poem's final two lines:

For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

This is a classic example of metaphysical paradox: the bad becomes good when joined with divine grace. This paradox is both mysterious and, as the shape of the poem allows, palpable.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is presented as the means by which humankind overcomes sin and attains freedom. The poem consists of two ten-line stanzas of varying line lengths, which in their printed form on the page resemble the wings of a bird.

The poem is addressed directly to God or Christ (“Lord”). The first stanza begins by emphasizing how complete humankind was when first created by God. People had “wealth and store,” meaning that they were created in the image of God and were meant to preside over the natural world, which existed only to serve them. They had everything they needed, in abundance.

In line 2, the poet points out that humankind lost its wealth. This is a reference to the Fall of Man described in the book of Genesis, a doctrine that is an essential part of the Christian faith. This line also emphasizes that the Fall was the result of human foolishness, a reference to Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s instructions not to eat of the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. The blame for humanity’s loss of its original “wealth” therefore lies not with God but with people. As a result of the Fall, as line 3 shows, the human condition deteriorated. Humans “fell” further and further into sin, continually “decaying” from their original purity, until they reached the lowest point in their fortunes (“Most poore”).

In line 6, the poet begins his request that he may be allowed to rise again with the resurrected Christ, who was sent by God to save humanity. The reference is to the Christian belief that after Christ had been crucified, he rose from the dead three days later. The poet asks that he may rise like a lark and sing of how Christ has vanquished death. The last line of the first stanza, “Then shall the fall further the flight in me,” refers to the Christian notion of the Fortunate Fall. If it had not been for the Fall, there would have been no need for salvation, and so no need for the incarnation of Christ as human. Because of the greatness of the Redeemer, humans are therefore better off than they would have been had they not sinned.

Stanza 1 began with a general statement about humans’ first disobedience; in stanza 2, the poet makes this statement personal. Like all men, the poet was born into sin, so even as a child his life was full of sorrow. God punished him with sickness and shame for his sins until he became “most thinne.” The two-word line 15—“Most thinne”—parallels the “Most poore” of stanza 1, but it is applied to the personal life of the poet rather than to humankind as a whole. As in stanza 1, the lines then get longer, and the poet requests that he be allowed to join with Christ and so participate in Christ’s victory over death. To convey this idea he uses a term from falconry; to “imp” means to engraft feathers in the damaged wing of a bird to enable it to fly again. If the poet is able to “imp” his “wing” with that of God, “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” This line is similar in meaning to the final line of stanza 1. The poet says that all his sufferings will have had a purpose and will even have advanced his spiritual progress.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

“Easter Wings” is in the tradition of pattern poetry, also known as shaped verse, in which the lines are arranged on the printed page so that they in some way illustrate the subject of the poem. Herbert wrote other pattern poems, including “The Altar,” in which the printed words are shaped like an altar. The device has been used by many other poets, including such modern poets as Dylan Thomas in “Vision and Prayer.”

Since “Easter Wings” is set in the spring and contains a simile in which human spiritual freedom is compared to the lark singing in the morning, the arrangement of each stanza in the shape of two wings of a bird is thematically appropriate. The poet gains another thematic resonance from this pattern because the shorter lines refer to humanity’s most cramped, afflicted state. Just as humanity has squandered its wealth, the poet too has only the fewest of words at his disposal and must make whole lines out of “Most poore” and “Most thinne.” Then the lines lengthen as the wings begin to beat and the soul expands in freedom, like the wider wingspan of a bird in flight.

In early editions of The Temple, the lines of “Easter Wings” were arranged vertically rather than horizontally on the page. When this is done, the pattern of birds’ wings becomes even more visually striking since the words cannot be read; the pattern is all the reader sees.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is the same in both stanzas and can be represented as ababacdcdc. This means that line 1 rhymes with lines 3 and 5 (a); line 2 rhymes with line 4 (b); line 6 rhymes with lines 8 and 10 (c); and line 7 rhymes with line 9 (d). The enclosing of the poem in this regular rhyme scheme conveys a sense of structure and order and reinforces the idea that the universe and humankind are under divine protection, even though humans have sinned and suffered. The splitting of the rhymes into the two distinct halves of the stanza is appropriate for the theme, since the first half of each stanza describes humanity’s sin and loss and the second half describes salvation through Christ.

In the last line of each stanza the poet also makes use of alliteration to drive home the idea of the Fortunate Fall. In the last line of stanza 1, the triple repetition of the consonant f in “fall further the flight,” reinforces the meaning by linking the fall to the redemption through Christ; the latter would not have been possible without the former. A similar idea is conveyed in the last line of the poem, in the alliteration of the two consonants fl contained in “affliction” and “flight”; this creates at the level of sound the link between suffering and liberation that the sense of the line conveys.

The inspiration for much of the imagery of “Easter Wings” is biblical. The central image, of the soul compared to a bird ascending in flight, has several examples in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 for example, reads, “They that wait upon the Lordshall mount up with wings as eagles”; Malachi 4:2 states, “unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”