The Pulley by George Herbert

George Herbert’s metaphysical poem, ‘The Pulley’ is one of his best-known. In it, he uses a conceit, a type of figurative language that is most commonly associated with John Donne (think The Flea’).

In this poem, the conceit revolves around the pulley. He uses it to depict humanity’s restless nature and the reason why human beings are incapable of being satisfied. When considering this conceit, think about the way that a pulley creates force and leverage. God kept “rest” to himself in order to always be able to pull mankind back. But, this choice means humankind is continually running from place to place seeking out satisfaction.

The Pulley by George Herbert

 

Summary of The Pulley

The Pulley’ by George Herbert speaks on one part of the Christian creation story in which God chose to imbue humanity with blessings.

The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is retelling the story of creation. He is particularly interested in the part where God gives humankind knowledge, wisdom, beauty, and strength. These are important features of human existence that flowed easily from God to humankind.

There is one blessing that God did not let out of his cup, rest. He chose to withhold an innate ability to rest from humankind in order to keep his creation close to him. When one gets weary, they turn to God. Or that is his reasoning. Herbert’s speaker states that God did not want humanity to love Nature more than they love “the God of Nature.”

 

Themes in The Pulley

Herbert was interested in exploring themes of religion and human nature. This poem provides the reader with an image and idea of how God bestowed various traits on humanity. The speaker describes these traits, which are the best that humanity has to offer, flowing from God. But, human nature was also influenced by that which God did not give–rest.

 

Structure and Form of The Pulley 

The Pulley’ by George Herbert is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines or quintains. Each of these quintains follows a structured rhyme scheme. They conform to a pattern of ABABA, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The consistent repetition in the rhyme helps to give the poem an overwhelming feeling of unity. This makes sense as the entirety of this piece is dialogue spoken by God or about God. 

A reader should also take note of the moments of repetition in the starting words of ‘The Pulley.’ There are a few moments in which these words rhyme. One notable instance in stanza two with the words “Then” and “When” at the beginning of lines two and three. There is also an example in stanza three with “So” and “Bestow” in lines two and five. 

In regards to the meter, the lines are also very consistent. The first and fifth lines of each stanza conform to a pattern of iambic trimeter. This means that there are three sets of two beats per line. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 

The stresses remain the same in lines two, three, and four, but they mostly contain five sets of two beats. This means they are written in iambic pentameter. The regularity of the rhyme scheme, in tandem with the meter, gives the poem a very structured feeling. A reader learns what to expect from line to line, and at least in regards to structure, there are no surprises. 

 

Literary Devices in The Pulley 

In ‘The Pulley’ Herbert makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and imagery. The latter is seen through the creative images that Herbert describes of the lightly personified forces making their way out of God’s belonging and into humankind. The last, rest, lay on the bottom when all the rest of the treasures had departed.

Alliteration is a common technique that helps to increase the overall rhyme and rhythm of a poem. For example, “Let” and “lie” in line four of the first stanza as well as the repetition of “nature” in stanza three.

Throughout this poem, as stated in the introduction, Herbert makes use of a metaphysical conceit. This technique is comparable to a metaphor but is much more complex and original in nature. In this case, Herbert uses a pulley to describe the relationship between humanity and God/religion.

 

Analysis of The Pulley 

Stanza One 

When God at first made man, 

Having a glass of blessings standing by, 

“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 

Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 

Contract into a span.” 

In the first stanza of ‘The Pulley,’ the speaker begins by describing the creation of humankind. Herbert’s speaker is seeking to retell the Christian story of creation with a  few added details. The speaker is able to describe what God was thinking and feeling when he decided to make humanity. God saw what he had made, and decided to pour “a glass of blessings” on humankind. 

These “blessings” were just “standing by” in a cup, waiting to be used. This speaks to the ease of God’s access to forces separate from human understanding. This fact will become important later on in the text when God decides to withhold a blessing without a second thought. 

The speaker relays God’s words at the moment as he addresses all of creation. He decides to “‘Pour on [humankind] all that we can.” The “world’s riches,” everything from strength to beauty is bestowed. They have come together into a “span.” 

 

Stanza Two 

So strength first made a way; 

Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 

When almost all was out, God made a stay, 

Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 

Rest in the bottom lay. 

The first of the blessings in ‘The Pulley’ that came to humanity was “strength.” It “made away.” Next came beauty. It was soon followed by “wisdom, honour” and lastly “pleasure.” These are all incredibly important parts of the human experience. There is one more element though that in this retelling of creation Herbert’s speaker chose not to include. That was “Rest.” 

“Rest” as a blessing equal to beauty and strength is interesting. It is not something that one might immediately think of as a feature of life that can be given or granted. But in this narrative, it is the “treasure” that remains at the bottom of God’s cup. He chooses not to give it to humanity. His reasoning behind this choice is contained within the next two stanzas. 

 

Stanza Three 

“For if I should,” said he, 

“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 

He would adore my gifts instead of me, 

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 

So both should losers be. 

In the next five lines, the speaker describes how it was God’s choice to not bestow “rest” on humanity. He knew that if he did so, then “He would adore my gifts instead of me.” Herbert’s speaker thinks that God made this choice because he didn’t want humankind spending their days worshiping nature. Instead, they should be appreciating “the God of Nature.” 

Rest is not something that is an integral part of human life and God made an informed, at least to him, the choice to withhold it. 

 

Stanza Four 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 

But keep them with repining restlessness; 

Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 

May toss him to my breast.” 

In the final lines of ‘The Pulley,’ the speaker finishes up God’s reasoning behind his choice not to give humanity a complete life of rest. He doesn’t want humanity to never rest, but there should be different periods. It is ideal for everyone to rest only until they feel restless, then they should get back to their lives. God believes that if there is “weariness” in one’s everyday life then that feeling of exhaustion will “toss” humankind to his “breast.” 

These different periods of activity, exhaustion, rest, and rejuvenation are just as integral to human existence as are strength and wisdom. It seems that Herbert’s God has chosen to add them for a reason that appears entirely selfish though. It is not clear, at least through these few lines of reasoning, how “weariness” helps humanity, aside from forcing them closer to God. 

 

Similar Poems

Religion is one of the most popular themes of all time, stretching through every genre of poetry, and touching on every type of religion in existence. Therefore, readers are certainly not at a loss for poems of a similar nature. This poem, which describes a story of creation is not dissimilar from James Weldon Johnson‘s ‘The Creation’. John Donne‘s Holy Sonnets are also good examples of similar content, style, and time period. Readers might also be interested in ‘Religio Laici’ by John Dryden.

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  • Avatar Yumi says:

    I want to ask if this poem somehow alludes the myth of Pandora’s box? If yes then how can anyone explain please!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I can’t see it really, no.

  • Avatar Sesay Alimamy says:

    Comment on the metaphysical conceit in the poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      The poem seems to suggest that man is gods greatest creation, which is very conceited!

      • Avatar Hailey says:

        I can see how this would be seen as conceited, but it’s really not! It’s actually beautiful, and humbling. And we are God’s greatest creation, because we are the ONLY created things that God created IN HIS OWN IMAGE! 🙂

        • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

          That is certainly an uplifting view.

  • Avatar Derek Foo says:

    The imagery of the pulley is appropriate in that it shows what’s hoisted up as important and, on the other hand what’s down, perhaps momentarily will soon rise up again. All those enumerated qualities, as they are debatable are in a constant flow of life’s many obligations and duty.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you Derek, that is a very thoughtful and helpful answer to the question. Good job.

  • Avatar Parvin says:

    What is the significance of this title ” the pulley”?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a good question. A pulley is a device usually used to hoist things up. So perhaps in this context it is supposed to lift things into heaven?

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