“The Search” is a personal meditation in which the author wonders why God appears to have forsaken him. The poem is structured into fifteen four-line stanzas. The rhythm of the poem is terse and staccato because each stanza’s first and third lines consist of eight syllables, set off by four-syllable second and fourth lines. The first and third lines rhyme with each other, as do the second and fourth. Each stanza comes to a full stop. This structure lends a tone of driving restlessness, consonant with the searching theme.
The poem is written in the first person; George Herbert speaks directly to and asks questions of God. “The Search” is one in a long collection of Herbert’s poems called The Temple. All of the poems in The Temple are religious in theme, although many have less mournful tones than that found in “The Search.” The religious feeling Herbert speaks of in his poetry is considered to be personal and genuine to his actual experience. The reader can assume that Herbert actually felt at some time the longing described in “The Search.” This fact is significant to Christian readers of Herbert, who are able to find solace and guidance in his works. Many non-Christian readers also admire Herbert’s poetry, in part because of its honesty.
Herbert begins the poem by asking, “whither art thou fled,/ My Lord, my Love?” One can assume that the speaker in the poem at one time enjoyed a closeness with a personal god. His voice is not that of a first-time searcher, questioning the existence of God. At one point in the poem he begs God to “Turn, and restore me.” He prays often, does not feel God’s presence, yet observes how elements of nature seem to be oblivious to God’s absence. The author asks if perhaps God has not created another race of humans, now favored with God’s attention, “leaving th’ old/ Unto their sinnes?” Of particular pain to the searcher is the possibility that it is God’s desire to remain distant, as opposed to this distance being the just wages of faulty individuals. Perhaps God is distant because it is his will.
Partway through the poem, the writer’s tone changes from descriptions of his pain and pining to descriptions of God’s magnificence and direct entreaties to God to make himself felt. Finally, Herbert reasons that once God does choose to return, despite the once-felt huge distance, he will be as one with God because God, in his awesome power, is the only one capable of creating the distance and of closing it.
Forms and Devices
In agreement with the religious nature of “The Search,” Herbert makes use of language familiar to many Christians through biblical allusions. The first stanza contains the line, “My searches are my daily bread,” which directly reflects the New Testament’s Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The poet implies here that his daily sustenance consists of looking for the warmth of God’s presence, which does not, for him, materialize. Later in the poem, Herbert speaks of a distance so huge that “East and West touch, the poles do kisse.” Personification of this nature, such as having two inanimate and completely separate objects, the Earth’s north and south poles, kiss each other, is a poetic device used frequently in the Bible’s Old Testament. For example, in Psalms 85:10, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
While Herbert is considered by most critics to be one of the premier Metaphysical poets in English, his use of Metaphysical conceits is not as pronounced in “The Search” as it is in some of his other works. In his poem “Love (III),” for example, he successfully compares divine love with a waiter in a tavern. This type of imaginative and unlikely comparison is peculiar to Metaphysical conceits, and Herbert excels at it. The metaphors found in “The Search” are not as single-minded or fully developed as the example from “Love (III),” but there are intriguing images of space and distance that appear and reappear through the stanzas almost like a song’s refrain. Line 5 describes the searcher’s physical attitude of prayer: “My knees pierce th’ earth, mine eies the skie.” An arc of space is created by the line from the searcher’s knees on the ground to the sky as he throws back his head in a prayerful plea. The next two stanzas reinforce the same picture of distance between the earth and sky. The poet looks to the green herbs “below” and the stars “above” to observe that God’s other creations, unlike him, are cognizant of God’s closeness. The next two stanzas again portray arcs of space, as the searcher is like an archer who “sent a sigh to seek thee out/Wing’d like an arrow; but my scout/ Returns in vain.” Later the poet laments, “Thy will such a strange distance is,/ As that to it//parallels meet.” The last two stanzas resolve the poet’s grief by closing the painful distance.
The poem’s last images are those of the precise movements of two fencers and of the movement of space between them. The poet asks when God “dost turn, and wilt be neare;/ What edge so keen/ What point so piercing can appeare/ To come between?” These lines bring to mind the thin, narrow fencer’s rapier that for all its sharpness is too dull to be able to separate God from his chosen. In contrast to the huge expanses God is capable of creating, and about which the poet has talked at length, so can God’s “nearenesse bear the bell,/ Making two one.” The phrase “bear the bell” is truly enigmatic; it may refer to an unknown Elizabethan expression. It is also possible that it refers to the two fencers’ bodies coming together against the “bellegarde,” or protective hand covering, of a fencing sword, thereby resulting in their nearness bearing “the bell,” making two one.