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It's a plane! It's a bird! It's a poem!
"Easter Wings" is one of George Herbert's most famous poems not just because it's shaped like bird wings (cute!), but also because it explains in simple and moving language some of the most complex ideas in all of Christian thought. And in case you assumed that wing shape was just decoration, stick around to find out how the changing lines are actually essential to the poem's meaning.
So who's the dude behind the bird? The English poet George Herbert spoke a lot of languages, excelled at Cambridge University, and was headed for a dashing career in 17th-century politics until a few of his major patrons died. He was in a pretty pickle, so he hastily switched gears and rode right into religion instead, spending the rest of his life as a parson and a poet.
If you're familiar with Herbert's stuff, this makes a whole heap of sense because if there's one subject Herbert's poetry gets down with, it's God. Pretty much every poem he wrote was religious, including "Easter Wings," which flies to us from The Temple, his 1633 collection of poetry in English (he also wrote in Latin).
But religion alone does not a good poem make. Herbert's poetry continues to be read and celebrated because it combines theological sophistication with playful experimentation. Like a baker on the Food Network, Herbert cuts poems out of words like cookies out of dough, throwing on gobs of alliteration, assonance, and wordplay to sweeten the deal. These stylistic choices are important because they're Herbert's way of wrestling with the paradoxes that define his Christian religion: Christ died so that we can live, we must suffer pain so we can feel joy—all that tricky good stuff.
Popular for his religious feeling in addition to his technical brilliance, Herbert's often described as pure-hearted and tender, writing on a small scale with gentle words about super-important things, like death and sin and God. "Easter Wings" is a perfect example of that legendary style.
Valentine's Day, second grade. The moment of truth. You reach for the pinkest crayon in the box, ready to write out your heart to the looker at table 4. But do you pen this note on a torn-out piece of lined paper? Do you grab a yellow post-it? Heck no. Only if you're looking to get reject-ed. If you know what's good for you, you select a piece of violet stationery, draw a big juicy heart, and add lace. Now that's a valentine.
Herbert's got the same idea in "Easter Wings." Why write a regular poem when you can write a visual poem? This thing's got shape and form. It lifts right off the page like a butterfly about to launch off a flower. By giving visual structure to his content, Herbert lifts poetry into a multime-dia experience that engages both the brain and the eyes. And all this in the 17th century.
Although he wasn't the first to write shaped poetry—check out the "Best of the Web" for some medieval examples—Herbert definitely resurrected this baby, inspiring generations of later poets like e. e. cummings and Dylan Thomas who gave new and wild shapes to poetry. And while you might think that shaped poetry is a little silly or romantic, definitely in the Valentine's realm, remember that Herbert made his shapes while keeping the tone reverent. This poem is about death and sin, folks. What's more, instead of distracting you from the poem's meaning, the shape actually enhances it. By matching line length with content, Herbert has created a small showstopper of a poem that expresses the despair of sin and the promise of God's love.
Now that's a valentine.
Words by Walton
Izaak Walton's contemporary biography of George Herbert is rich with unexpected gems. For instance, this story about Herbert's mother: "having entered Edward into Queen's College, and provided him a fit tutor, she commended him to his care, yet she continued there with him, and still kept him in a moderate awe of herself, and so much under her own eye, as to see and converse with him daily." How's that for some mother-son love? Or did we mean helicopter parenting?
The Temple Online
Click through online transcriptions of all Herbert's poetry.
In case you wanted to buy a $5 vocal solo of "Easter Wings" and perform it at your next talent show. Hey, there are worse ways to spend a Lincoln.
Check out images of each stanza of "Easter Wings" from Herbert's original manuscript.
And here's the second half.
Here's an image of "Easter Wings" in the first printed edition of The Temple. Why do you think the layout is different than in Herbert's own manuscript (see above)?
Check out those long lovely tresses.
The Life Behind the Temple
Here's an extremely thorough biography of George Herbert with loads of good stuff about other contemporary poets.
Check out a vast collection of academic essays and student essays on all aspects of Herbert's work. You could be here for hours.
Why would one guy carry a copy of Herbert's poetry everywhere he goes? The answer lies here.
Here's an in-depth book review of Helen Vendler's important study of Herbert's poetry. For a link to the very book under review, head to "Books."
Vendler Does Herbert
This commentary and analysis hails from one of the most famous poetry critics in the field.