The Sunday Poem: Anthony Cronin's personal anthology
The Pulley by George Herbert
"Metaphysicals" was the name given by Samuel Johnson to a grouping of 17th-Century poets, including John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan, whose work Johnson did not particularly like. All were Christian; nearly all of them Christian clergymen. I have discussed the relationship of poetry to belief, with particular reference to Yeats's somewhat curious credo and Eliot's more orthodox one, in a book called A Question of Modernity, published a good number of years ago. But I do not think it would be possible to summarise the conclusions here, nor might the reader thank me if I tried to do so.
George Herbert was undoubtedly the finest poet among the Metaphysicals and this is one of his finest poems. It depends of course to an extent on the reader's acceptance of Herbert's Christianity but the profound truth about human nature that it expresses remains 'true' even if the reader is not a believer.
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 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 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.'
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