It’s Easter, the Sunday of Sundays, and I bring you a George Herbert poem for meditation. The form and simplistic style of “Easter Wings” can encourage a quick reading, but don’t make this mistake. Herbert packs a lot of imagery and theology into this tiny package.
by George Herbert
My tender age in sorrow did begine:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
This poem is an example of shaped verse, where the image formed by the lines helped communicate the meaning of the poem. In this case, the lines look like wings (if you tip your screen or your head to the side) and also like an hourglass, and both flight and time are important themes.
Further, the two stanzas parallel each other in their movement: the first stanza discusses the plight and prayer of the poet, the second stanza extends these themes to all of mankind.
Notice also how Herbert uses structure within each stanza. The first half of each stanza discusses how sin diminishes one’s being, culminating in the short lines, “Most thinne” and “Most poore”. The second half of each stanza Herbert uses two bird metaphors to petition Christ to restore our being, and the lines consequently grow in length.
The bird metaphors in this poem require some explanation. At the end of the first stanza, Herbert prays, “if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me” (ll. 19-20). The verb “to imp” refers to the falconry practice of ingrafting flight feathers from one bird into the wing of another to help it fly better. This metaphor helps illustrate what Paul means when he talks about Christ’s life becoming ours.
The bird metaphor in the second stanza mentions larks singing. The skylark Herbert has in mind sings as it spirals up into the air beyond the reach of unaided sight. Herbert uses this image to describe what decayed and shrunken mankind can do because of what Christ has done on Easter.