The Altar by George Herbert

‘The Altar’ was published in The Temple in 1633. It is a great example of the poet’s religiously themed verse as well as the relationships he saw poetry as having with God and humankind. He considered his poems to be a way of understanding one’s faith and growing closer to God. Today, The Temple is considered to be one of the most influential poetic volumes of the period. It is arranged into three parts and ‘The Altar’ is contained in the second part known as “The Church”. It is the first in this portion of the book, mimicking the primacy of a physical altar in a church. 

The Altar by George Herbert

 

Summary of The Altar

‘The Altar’ by George Herbert is a direct and devotional poem that depicts the speaker’s desire to make a sacrifice similar to Christ’s. 

The poem, which is constructed in the shape of an altar, describes the metaphorical process of building an altar out of one’s heart. The speaker describes how stone by stone, and bit by bit, he’s going to create an altar to God out of his own body.

 

Structure of The Altar 

The Altar’ by George Herbert is a sixteen line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. It is a “shape” poem, meaning that the lines of text are arranged on the page to form an image. In this case, the shape of an altar. The middle eight lines are considerably shorter than those before and after them. They are also indented farther than the others. 

The poem makes use of a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds with each couplet. The meter is also regulated. The first lines are written in iambic pentameter. This means that they contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. Later on, the poem changes and there are examples of iambic dimeter and iambic tetrameter. 

 

Literary Devices in The Altar

Herbert makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Altar’. These include but are not limited to metaphor, alliteration, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the description of the altar as “Made of heart and cemented with tears”. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In ‘The Altar’ the extended metaphor that runs throughout the entire poem is one of its most important aspects. The poet uses stone related images to depict the construction of an altar out of his heart. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “heart” and “hand” in lines two and three and “pow’r” (also an example of syncope) and “part” in lines eight and nine. 

 

Analysis of The Altar 

Lines 1-4

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,

Made of a heart and cemented with tears:

Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;

No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.

In the first four lines of ‘The Altar,’ the speaker begins with the word “ALTAR” in all caps. This emphasizes the object further after it has already appeared in the title and on the page through the shape of the lines. He explains in these first lines that he is God’s servant and that he is building an altar out of his heart. It is “Made of a heart” and “cemented with tears”. The altar is, of course, metaphorical, but that doesn’t decrease its importance. His tears hold the bits of it together like cement. It is his plan, when his altar is complete, to use his heart as a means to worship and grow closer to God. The choice of the word “broken” alludes to the imperfections of humanity. No human being could build a perfect altar, only God can do that. 

He refers to the “parts” of the altar in the next lines. They have not been altered from how God made them. This refers to Exodus chapter 20, verse 25 where God says that if an altar is going to be built that it should be made from stone that hasn’t been altered in any way. 

 

Lines 5-12 

A HEART alone

Is such a stone,

As nothing but

Thy pow’r doth cut.

Wherefore each part

Of my hard heart

Meets in this frame,

To praise thy name:

The next eight lines of ‘The Altar’ make up the center of the poem. The word “HEART” appears in all caps, again drawing a reader’s attention right to it. He speaks about his heart as a “stone” that can only be shaped by God. God is the only force with the power to do so. The parts of the “hard heart,” (an example of alliteration) come together to make the larger object. All of the speaker’s heart is used to praise God. 

 

Lines 13-16 

That if I chance to hold my peace,

These stones to praise thee may not cease.

Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,

And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

The final quatrain of ‘The Altar’ is used to create the image of the altar’s base. These lines are written in iambic tetrameter meaning that they each contain four sets of two bets. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. The speaker talks directly to the listener, whomever he intended them to be. He explains how he built the altar so that he might continue to praise God if he should die. 

The last lines are directed to God. He asks to take on God’s sacrifice, the death of Christ. He wants to do something that is just as difficult and prove himself in God’s eyes. This is completed through the construction of the altar out of his own heart.

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