The Pulley // George Herbert

The metaphysical poets wrote of eternal life and of the divine connection between the Man and God through metaphysical images.. Herbert articulates this concentration of the metaphysics in his poem, ‘The Pulley’ which uses the speaking voice of God in the process of making Man, illustrating a concrete imagery with the different characteristics of man being likened to a liquid formula in a ‘glass of blessings’. Herbert theorises on the cycle of life through God’s doctrine of what man is to be given and what is to be left so as to allow man’s continuous return to God.

Herbert adopts a biblical theme, starting with an analogy of The Creation referred to in the Books of Genesis, ‘When God first made man’. This solidifies the divinity in human creation as well as enabling a sense of holiness and sanctity within the poem. Herbert then introduces the human nature with a visual imagery of a ‘glass’ which ‘stand(s) by’ God, presenting Creation itself as chemical mixture, a concoction of liquid substances. God pours this combination of the ‘worlds riches’ on man which ‘contracts into a span’ where ‘span’ has a double meaning, referring to a ‘life span’. Herbert presents the first set of substances as the physical and the material qualities, i.e. ‘strength…beautie…wisdome, honour, pleasure’, but within the magnanimity of God allowing man such resources, He lets one thing to remain. Herbert weaves a double meaning in ‘rest’ (‘Rest in the bottome lay’), where rest is an allegory to ‘Rest in Peace’ which is a euphemistic term for death. There’s also a visual imagery incorporated with ‘rest’ being at the bottom as ‘rest’ also means weariness and in that, heaviness, justifying why it lies in the bottom.

The withdrawal of rest, which connotes to peace and tranquillity, is reasoned by God as He didn’t want man to be too engrossed in wealth and riches, to seek out solidarity through God and revere ‘nature’ instead of its Maker. Therefore, rest is kept and ‘restlessness’ is given, where in the fourth stanza, Herbert again plays with the words as ‘rest’ here acts as a homonym which is the diction for the ‘everything else’, and restlessness is the antonym of ‘rest’. The alliteration in ‘repining restlessness’ further emphasises on this particular word and presents the nature in which this plays a vital role in the cycle of life. Life itself is presented through a conceit of the mechanical device of the ‘pulley’ which lifts one part of itself when another part falls due to heaviness, and thus Man will forever return to God from his restlessness in the world, that is he will be ‘rich and wearie’ but with ‘repining restlessness’. So if it wasn’t his own want to return to God, it will be his ‘weariness’ which pulls him upwards back into the ‘breast’ of God, completing the cycle of life.

Herbert presents a contradiction in the human life, where man is both rich and tired, but it is this same tiredness which brings him back to God. The parallel of life to a mechanical device is part of the remarkable, yet intriguing conceits the metaphysical poets conjured, with ‘The Pulley’ being Herbert’s most anthologised poem. Through their poems, we understand the cosmic nature of human existence through comparisons with science, mechanism and religion. Herbert articulates the divinity of human creation with a completely mundane contraption.

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