Herbert published ‘Easter Wings’ in his collection The Temple in 1633. This poem is one of Herbert’s best-known. It contains some of his clearest musings on religion and several literary devices, not to mention the shape of the lines themselves, that shows his ability to experiment with form.
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Summary of Easter Wings
By using the shape of a bird’s wings, the poet is able to emphasize the nature of the fall and rise the speaker is experiencing. The poem begins with the speaker addressing the creation of humankind, specifically Adam. He describes the man’s foolishness and how he threw away everything good that God gave him. It is because of this person’s choice that the speaker suffers today. But, he’s not content to stay that way. He asks God throughout this poem to allow him to rise out of the darkness and into the light.
Structure of Easter Wings
‘Easter Wings’ by George Herbert is a two stanza shape poem, meaning that each stanza is organized so that the lines form a particular shape. The two ten-line stanzas, when originally published, appeared horizontally on the page in the shape of two sets of wings. Now, the poem is generally reversed so that the stanzas appear like two hourglasses.
The lines follow a simple ABABACCDC rhyme scheme and make use of iambic stresses. This means that in each metrical foot the first beat is unstressed and the second stressed. The lines vary greatly in length, from two words and two syllables up to nine words and ten syllables.
A reader should also consider how the length of the lines and their positioning is influenced by their content. For example, the lines that are the most hopeful and uplifting are the longest, at the beginning and end of each stanza. While in contrast, the more depressing lines are shorter.
Literary Devices in Easter Wings
Herbert makes use of several literary devices in ‘Easter Wings’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, assonance, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, is seen through the transitions between lines. The moments in which the poet does not use end-punctuation are most commonly enjambed. For example, the transitions between lines four, five, six, and seven.
Assonance is the use and reuse of the same vowel sound within words that are next to one another or close together. For instance, the “i” vowel sound in the last lines of the poem with words such as “I,” “imp,” “thine,” and “flight”. Alliteration is a similar device. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “more” and “more” in line three of the first stanza and “fall,” “further,” and “flight” in line ten of the first stanza.
Analysis of Easter Wings
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
In the first stanza of ‘Easter Wings,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Christian God as “Lord”. This god created “man in wealth and store”. Adam, the first man, was created with everything he could’ve ever needed. He had that which should’ve made him happy—food, shelter, comfort. Without stating it explicitly, Herbert alludes to the Fall in the next lines. He does not go into detail about Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. Instead, he goes straight to the “foolishness” of humankind and the loss of everything that God created for them. Things decayed “more and more” until “man” became “poore”.
As the lines shrink, so does the happy and hopeful imagery. The darkest lines of the poem are the shortest. Then, as they expand, things become cheery once more.
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
In the second half of this stanza, the speaker brings themselves into the poem. He addresses God and asks that he be allowed to “rise” as a “lark”. This simile compares the speaker to a bird that is elevated above the foolishness of humankind. The speaker would like to rise above Adam’s choices.
It is also at this point in the poem that the speaker introduces the theme of Easter. It is with “thee” that he wants to rise. This is an allusion to the holiday traditionally celebrated to honor Christ rising from the dead. In the last lines of the stanza, he asks that he be allowed to “sing” of victories and rise as far as the fall took mankind down.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
In the second stanza of ‘Easter Wings,’ the speaker continues to use first-person pronouns. He says that he was born into “sorrow” because of the first man and his choices. He is still impacted by what Adam and Eve did. The lines shrink and the imagery becomes more depressing. He speaks about the darkness of his own life, the sickness, and the sin. All of this feels inescapable until the lines start to grow again.
The poem turns around in the center of the second stanza by emphasizing how “With thee,” or with God, the speaker is going to rise. The speaker knows that he needs God’s help to fly. So he’s going to “imp,” or support himself with the feathers from God’s wings. This is how the speaker intends to rise above the sin that’s at the root of the human race.