Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"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:
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:
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.