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Lesson Note
Subject: Literature In English
Topic: Summary Analysis of the poem “The Pulley” by George Herbert.
Lesson Objectives: This lesson is aimed at helping learners understand the poem ”The Pulley. So by the end of the lesson, the learners should be able to:

  1. In few sentences describe the author;
  2. Discuss the forms and meter of the poem;
  3. Identify poetic devices used in the poem;
  4. Explain the thematic structure of the poem;
  5. Recite the poem.

Lesson Summary Aids: see reference materials below content.

Lesson Summary / Discussion

Are you a teacher, student or just lover of literature? You must have read or listened to the poem “The Pulley”. If you have, and still finding it difficult to understand the message passed by the poet, here is a summary analysis of the poem. This summary analysis tends to help literature students preparing for external examinations to have proper understanding of the poem. Below is the summary analysis of ” the pulley by George Herbert ”


The Full Poem

When God 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 dispersed lie,
Contract into a span”.

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.

“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.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep then 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.”

George Herbert was born in Montgomery, Wales, on April 3, 1593, the fifth son of Richard and Magdalen Newport Herbert. After his father’s death in 1596, he and his six brothers and three sisters were raised by their mother, patron to John Donne who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her. Herbert was educated at Westminster school and Trinity College, Cambridge. His first two sonnets, sent to his mother in 1610, maintained that the love of God is a worthier subject for verse than the love of woman. His first verses to be published, in 1612, were two memorial poems in Latin on the death of Prince Henry, the heir apparent.
After taking his degrees with distinction (B.A in 1613 and M.A in 1616), Herbert was elected a major fellow of Trinity, in 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge, and in 1620 he was elected public orator (till 1628). It was a post carrying dignity and even some authority: its incumbent was called on to express, in the florid Latin of the day, the sentiments of the university on public occasions. In 1624 and 1625 Herbert was elected to represent Montgomery in Parliament. In 1626, at the death of Sir Francis Bacon, (who had dedicated his Translation of Certain Psalmes to Herbert the year before) he contributed a memorial poem in Latin. Herbert’s mother died in 1627; her funeral sermon was delivered by Donne. In 1629, Herbert married his step-father’s cousin Jane Danvers, while his brother Edward Herbert, the noted philosopher and poet, was raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Chirbury.
Herbert could have used his post of orator to reach high political office, but instead gave up his secular ambitions. Herbert took holy orders in the Church of England in 1630 and spent the rest of his life as rector in Bemerton near Salisbury. At Bemerton, George Herbert preached and wrote poetry; helped rebuild the church out of his own funds; he cared deeply for his parishioners. He came to be known as “Holy Mr. Herbert” around the countryside in the three years before his death of consumption on March 1, 1633.
A priest to the Temple (1652), Herbert’s Baconian manual of practical advice to country persons, bears witness to the intelligent devotion with which he undertook his duties as priest. Herbert’s had long been in ill health. On his deathbed, he sent the manuscript of the Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish the poems only if he thought they might do good to “any dejected poor soul.” It was published in 1633 and met with enormous popular acclaim it had 13 printings by 1680.
Herbert’s poems are characterised by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets. They include almost every known form of song and poem, but they also reflect Herbert’s concern with speech conversational, persuasive, proverbial. Carefully arranged in related sequences, the poems explore and celebrate the ways of God’s love as Herbert discovered them within the fluctuations of his own experience. Because Herbert is as much an ecclesiastical as a religious poet, one would not expect him to make much appeal to an age as secular as our own; but it has not proved so. All sorts of readers have responded to his quiet intensity; and the opinion has even been voiced that he has, for readers of the late twentieth century, displaced Donne as the Supreme Metaphysical poet.

Most of George Herbert’s poems are profoundly personal. This is not to say that they are always autobiographical, although indeed one senses the force of lived experience in his most successful poems. Yet whether or not they deserve Herbert’s own experiences, they typically present an individual in the midst of some dramatic process of meditation, analysis, worry or wonder. “The Pulley” is a remarkable exception, structured as an explanatory tale about the creation of human kind. Herbert does not often operate on the level of myth, but “The Pulley” owes something to the classical story of Pandora’s box. In Herbert’s version, however, it is not all the troubles of the world that are loosed upon unsuspecting human kind by an overly curious Pandora but all the “world’s riches” that are poured upon humankind by a beneficent God. In revising not only the Pandora myth but also the biblical story of creation in Genesis, Herbert constructs a narrative that is charming and bold. The speaker imagines himself as a witness to the moment of creation and gives an on-the-spot report of what transpired and what was on God’s mind as he both gave and withheld certain gifts.
There is a touch of humour in the poem as God not only pours blessings out of a glass on his new creation but also quizzically examines and then rationalizes his own actions. When nearly all the blessings are out secular blessings, it seems, such as strength, beauty and so on.
“The Pulley” is both a myth of origins, a moral and spiritual fable; these two genres overlap because, for Herbert, one’s devotional responsibilities are perfectly consistent with and flow inevitably from who one is. Despite the brevity and simplicity of the poem, several key facts are affirmed. For example, this version of the creation myth emphasizes the dignity of humankind, bestowed by a God who is thoughtful, generous and kind. The story of creation in the Book of Genesis is astonishing: A spiritual breath raises dusty clay to life in the form of Adam. In Herbert’s poem, the creation seems even more splendid, as humankind is described as the sum and epitome of all the world’s riches, and God is a being who communicates easily and cordially with his creation.
Simultaneous with this emphasis on the dignity of humankind, however, is a carefully drawn distinction: strength, beauty, wisdom, honour and pleasure are necessary and vital components of humankind, but they are not sufficient to guarantee spiritual health. For this humans need rest, the one quality held back by God. Human independence, then, is qualified, but not undermined completely. “The Pulley” does not suggest that humankind is disastrously flawed and impotent, or that life in the world of nature is insignificant and useless: Life can, after all, be “rich.” It does show the limits of human powers and the liabilities of earthly existence: The inevitable human fate his style is simple and concrete. The poem “The Pulley” follows this theme and style. Its words are full of devotion to God, “the creator of the world.” In this poem, he explains why God has given peace of mind to man, but also given him dissatisfied restlessness. Man’s restlessness is a pulley with which the soul is lifted to God.

Their style was characterised by wit and metaphysical conceits far-fetched or unusual similes or metaphors such as in Andrew Marvell’s comparison of the soul with a drop of dew. The specific definition of wit which Johnson applied to the school was: “…a kind of discordia concourse; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Their poetry diverged from the style of their times, containing neither images of nature nor allusions to classical mythology, as was common. One of the primary Platonic concepts found in metaphysical poetry is the idea that the perfection of beauty in the beloved acted as a remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm. They use very clever but obscure and unusual, exaggerated imagery that demands the reader think about their poems rather than feel them emotionally. Their verbal humour and philosophy about life is often embedded in their poems with a very harsh matter.
Will all poetic images, two unlike things are compared. Example: creation of humanity: a glass of blessings. These are two things that are basically unlike each other, but poetic mind sees the similarity.
Simile: Compare two unlike things using “like” or “as”. If Herbert wrote “creating man is like pouring talents into the earth,” this would be a simile.
Metaphor: Compare two unlike things directly, not using “like” or “as”. Example Herbert does not use a simile. He describes the creation image as equivalent to the glass of blessings. He extends the image with examples: strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and rest ( stanzas 2 – 3). Up to stanza 3, Herbert creates an extended metaphor, but it has not become a conceits until the last stanza.
Conceit: “An extended metaphor.” That is the usual definition, but a conceits is more complex, more involved. A conceit not only extends the image, as in the THIRD stanza, but it develops the ideas and metaphor into a new, even surprising direction. This is the signature of the metaphysical poet. “Rest,” the blessing God withholds, leaves us with “restlessness.” As our restlessness drags us down, (on one rope of the pulley), we rise (on the other rope) to God, who gives us the blessing of Rest.
Herbert adds the image of the pulley into (not just on to) the image of the glass of blessings. “The Pulley” is not just two metaphors with one extended. It is two metaphors working together to convey the meaning. The “glass of blessings” metaphor extends and expands until it develops into another image, the pulley.

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Ibitola, A.O (Ed.). (2018). Essential Literature In English for senior secondary schools. Tonad Publishers limited.

Victor J. O. (Ed.). (2019). Study Guide to Selected Poems, Prose, & Drama Texts for SSCE . Harmony-Pen Publications.

Note: itsmyschoollibrary considers the above academic resources appropriate and so were sourced for the development of this lesson. Hence no part of these referenced materials should be lifted from this blog without due credence to the various sources.