George Herbert

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Can you explain the poem "Prayer" by George Herbert?

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In "Prayer," Herbert juxtaposes a series of images and allusions to spirituality and the Christian Church. Beginning with the first line, the "banquet" implies a feast which has a variety of different foods. This could apply to a number of Biblical allusions, one being the Last Supper, where the bread and wine symbolized an agreement (covenant) between Jesus and humanity. In the second line, "God's (apostrophe is implied) breath in man returning to his birth" refers to God breathing life into the first man, Adam. 

These ideas of the covenant and breathing indicate a dialogue and an ebb and flow between God and humanity. From heaven down to Earth, God breathed life into man. In response, in 'prayer,' man speaks back to God by praying. The prayer itself is the "soul in paraphrase," the "heart in pilgrimage." The one praying is essentially speaking to God via his/her soul. 

The Christian plummet establishes a link between heaven and earth as if an anchor was dropped from heaven to earth. 

The connection between life and creation has an etymological link: respiration and inspiration. As God breathed life into humanity, when we pray, it is as if we are continuing a cycle of breath (inspiration/respiration), a circularity that is like a dialogue. In times of pleading or frustration, our prayers are like "reversed thunder" or "engines" against God. The spear in Christ's side is similar to a prayer said in pain or frustration. Both symbolize and give voice to suffering. 

Prayer can also give voice to peace and bliss. We can condense the creation of the world, which took six days, into the praying of an hour. Likewise, a prayer can be about the joy inspired by heaven and/or the creation of the Earth. 

In the next lines, in comparison, people are often socially categorized by how they dress; but in heaven, all are equal and therefore dressed "ordinary" and this indicates that everyone is equal. 

Like the circular connection between God and humanity, via inspiration and the analogous respiration, the final lines of the poem establish a connection between things near and far. Exotic images like the bird of paradise and the land of spices, although far away are understood. Church bells are heard beyond the stars. Prayer, the soul's blood, is heard beyond the physical body. Prayer is essentially a vehicle between humanity and God. In this poem, Herbert illustrates how prayer metaphysically connects the earthly and the heavenly. 

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