The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)