The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

Most of George Herbert’s poems are profoundly personal. This is not to say that they are always autobiographical, although indeed one senses the force of lived experience in his most successful poems. Yet whether or not they describe Herbert’s own experiences, they typically present an individual in the midst of...

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Most of George Herbert’s poems are profoundly personal. This is not to say that they are always autobiographical, although indeed one senses the force of lived experience in his most successful poems. Yet whether or not they describe Herbert’s own experiences, they typically present an individual in the midst of some dramatic process of meditation, analysis, worry, or wonder. “The Pulley” is a remarkable exception, structured as an explanatory tale about the creation of humankind.

Herbert does not often operate on the level of myth, but “The Pulley” owes something to the classical story of Pandora’s box. In Herbert’s version, however, it is not all the troubles of the world that are loosed upon unsuspecting humankind by an overly curious Pandora but all the “world’s riches” that are poured upon humankind by a beneficent God. In revising not only the Pandora myth but also the biblical story of Creation in Genesis, Herbert constructs a narrative that is charming and bold. The speaker imagines himself as a witness to the moment of Creation and gives an on-the-spot report of what transpired and what was on God’s mind as He both gave and withheld certain gifts.

There is a touch of humor in the poem as God not only pours blessings out of a glass on his new creation but also quizzically examines and then rationalizes his own actions. When nearly all the blessings are out—secular blessings, it seems, such as strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure—God pauses and decides to keep the one remaining treasure, “Rest.” He explains himself in direct terms, and this explanation is central to the poem: God’s purpose is not to mystify or torment but to instruct, and the story of Creation is intended to give insight into how one should lead one’s life. If humans were given everything, including “rest,” the highest jewel of all, they would become complacent and have a mistaken sense of their own self-sufficiency. They would, in short, pay devotion to “Nature, not the God of Nature.”

So it is to anticipate and correct this devotional danger that God gives all the blessings but one to humankind. In a pun that is both playful and serious and is even dizzying in its meaning and effect, God concludes by saying that while the comfort of “rest” will be withheld, all the “rest”—that is, the remainder—of the blessings will be freely given. As a result, humankind will be “rich and weary.” There is no sense of threat here, but the ending of the poem is somewhat sobering. Human’s life will be one of “repining restlessness” and “weariness.” Yet this will prove to be a way to God. Only in the last lines of the poem does Herbert provide enough information to understand why the poem is entitled “The Pulley”: Human existence involves reciprocal forces pulling or pushing against one another, but the pull to earth will be more than balanced by the pull to heaven, and as is typical in Herbert it is not one’s strength but fully acknowledged weakness, compensated for by divine strength, that sends one to God’s “breast.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

One of the great charms of “The Pulley” is its simplicity of language. There is an easygoing, conversational quality to the poem that turns a potentially overwhelming spectacle, Creation, into a comprehensible fable and similarly turns a potentially foreboding power, God, into a familiar friend. As in many other poems by Herbert, God speaks directly to humankind, and not in the form of puzzles or distant pronouncements, but in statements that are intimate, patient, and consoling. Without these latter qualities, the underlying message of the poem—that human life is invariably characterized by incessant restlessness and weariness—would not be so palatable.

The images of the poem are also simple and homely, despite the fact that the subject is potentially disturbing and complicated. God performs actions that are magical and bold: For example, in language that recalls Genesis, he commands, “Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,/ Contract into a span.” Herbert frequently plays with quick transformations of space, especially from large to small, and this sudden description of Creation as an event of tremendous concentration—the entire world, as it were, contracted into the size of a human hand, a span—is momentarily startling. Despite his astonishing power, God appears primarily as a humble artificer, working with a glass of blessings containing simple ingredients that he pours out, and there is something infinitely comforting about the fact that the divine mysteries of Creation can be understood in terms of a common tool, the pulley.

Perhaps to reinforce the consoling familiarity and simplicity of the narrative, the poem is not very adventurous technically. The four five-line stanzas uphold a regular rhyme scheme, and the few variations in the meter are not so much complicated inversions to add tension or intensity but rather (presumably) deliberate flattenings of the lines to make them sound prosaically familiar. God noticeably does not speak in elevated language. Sincerity, not sublimity or cool austerity, characterizes his style, and this makes his assurances to humankind disarming and compelling.

Beneath the simplicity of the poem’s language, though, is a level of complexity added by the wordplay. God apparently likes puns—or at least it makes perfect sense for Herbert to imagine God’s language as embodying verbal ambiguities. A pun is a perfect figure of speech to convey the simultaneous playfulness and philosophical seriousness of the theme of “rest” in “The Pulley.” This word is repeated throughout the poem not only to toy with its various meanings but also to understand fully its consequences. Peaceful “rest” is at first glance obviously a blessing, much desired by humankind, but ironically, more than any of the other blessings poured upon humankind, it has the capacity to distract humankind from its true goals, heaven and intimacy with God. For this reason, God, with great wit, allows humans to keep the remainder of the blessings, knowing that they will not afford any “rest.” True rest will come only as a result of “restlessness,” which will toss humankind upward. Herbert’s choice of a concluding word is particularly shrewd and completes the wordplay of the poem: Embedded in God’s “breast” is one’s final “rest” (a pun more obvious in the seventeenth century spelling of “breast” as “brest”).

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