‘Redemption’ by George Herbert is a fourteen-line sonnet that is separated into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and two tercets, or sets of three. The lines follow a structured and consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFF EGG. This pattern of rhyme, as well as the formatting of quatrains and tercets is unusual. ‘Redemption’ makes use of elements of both Shakespearean (or English) sonnets as well as Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnets.
For example, the first two quatrains follow the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet. The lines generally conform to a pattern of iambic pentameter, something that is common within both sonnet forms. This means that the majority of lines contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. There are moments though in which the emphasis changes to something called an anapaest. This occurs when two unstressed syllables come before a stressed. Whenever this change occurs it throws an unavoidable wrench in the rhythm of the text.
Summary of Redemption
The poem begins with the speaker stating that for a long time he has been the tenant of a great lord. He is unhappy with his situation and decides to find this lord, who is the Christian God, and ask for a better deal. This represents the transition from the Old Testament Covenant of Work to the New Covenant of the New Testament.
When the speaker finally finds Christ he is about to be crucified. His last words confirm that the speaker and all of humankind are allowed to start over and get new “small-rented” leases.
Analysis of Redemption
Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.
In the first lines of this text the speaker begins by stating that he is a tenant of a “rich lord.” He has been in this potion for a long time, but is not thriving. The close positioning of the “rich lord” and the words “Not thriving” immediately inform the reader that the speaker believes these two things are connected. He is unhappy in his tenancy and is seeking to make a change. The following lines explain what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it.
Before progressing into the poem further, it is important to note that there is an underlying second meaning to the text. The speaker is discussing land, but through the eyes of one seeking salvation. The “rich lord” is a representative of the god to whom he is going to appeal. Herbert’s speaker is looking to improve his life, with help from the Christian God.
Another element that the speaker reveals to the reader is that he is “resolvèd to be bold.” This means that normally he would not dare to speak out. This time though, it is likely that he has had enough and is ready to stand up for himself. This is something that would take a great amount of bravery as the lord (in the form of the landowner and God) has his entire life in his hands.
The speaker’s plan is to go to the man and to “make a suit unto him.” He will explain that he wants a “new small-rented lease.” This makes clear that the speaker’s problems are intricately connected to the money he pays for his home and land. He thinks that maybe if he can lessen the amount he pays by making a new lease and canceling “th’ old” he will be better off. When considered in a religious context, these lines discuss the speaker’s desire to be part of Christ’s New Covenant rather than the Old Testament Covenant of Works.
In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.
In the second stanza of ‘Redemption’ the speaker begins by trying to find the lord of the land. He must seek him out in “heaven at his manor.” So different are their lives that the speaker must leave his mundane life behind and travel to a heaven-like manor. Not only does the manor represent heaven, when considered in the context of a man seeking an audience with God, but it is also actually Heaven.
Unfortunately for the speaker things immediately go off track. The lord is not at home and the speaker is turned away. Those who met him explain that he has gone off “About some land.” This refers to God traveling to earth. It is the land which he “dearly bought” with the sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ.
I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
In the third stanza of, and the first tercet, the turn, or volta, occurs. He describes how he traveled back home to seek out God, knowing now that he can’t be found in Heaven. The speaker takes into consideration the fact that this deity has a “great birth.” Aide from anything divine, his lineage is kingly. The speaker expects him to act in a kingly, royal way. With this in mind, the speaker searched for him “in great resorts.” He travels to different “cites, theatres” and “parks and courts.”
A reader might be confused by the mention of these particular places. They are not religious or traditionally spiritual in nature. This search relates directly back to Herbert’s own life. He too sought answers in the secular world before taking holy orders.
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.
It becomes clear in these lines the speaker is following the path of the crucifixion. He is unable to find Christ, instead, he hears “a ragged noise and mirth.” This represents the crowds which gathered and cried out in support of Christ’s crucifixion.
Finally, the speaker comes upon Christ. He is there, between “thieves and murders.” Here, Herbert references the fact that Christ was crucified between two thieves or rebels of some kind. As soon as Herbert’s speaker finds Christ he is spoken to. He informs Herbert that his “suit is granted.” This is the redemption he was looking for.
The relief of this revelation is tempered with the fact that Christ dies in the final two lines. This is only a shocking ending if one did not interpret the deeper meaning of the text, or did not know how the crucifixion scene in the Bible ended.