Smooth rhythms and loads of similar sounds make this poem as soothing on the ear as an oozy crème-filled chocolate egg. Alliteration and assonance give sound spotlights to important lines while internal rhymes and visual assonance keep the focus on form as well as content.
You can hardly read two words of this poem without smacking up against alliteration or assonance. Suddenly everything either begins with the same sound or contains the same vowels. In addition to making the poem sonically striking (translation: it sounds cool when you read it aloud) these two stylistic devices serve as tasteful red flags, grabbing your attention and directing it toward a particular line's meaning. It's no surprise then that the two arguably most important lines in the poem, 10 and 20, are chock full of both alliteration and assonance (alliteration is bolded, assonance is bolded and italicized):
Then shall the fall further the flight in me (10)
Affliction shall advance the flight in me (20)
Notice how your ear lingers over all those F's and A's? That's exactly what Herbert wants. These two lines summarize the basic paradox of the whole poem (and notice that they both say the same thing but in slightly different words): despair brings joy. What the what? It's a variation on the same paradox behind Easter itself, which celebrates how, according to Christianity, Christ died so that everyone else could live again.
But's it not just the heavy-hitting lines that get styled up. Herbert scatters alliteration and assonance with a liberal hand. In line 11, for instance, we've got a short I assonance in "did" and "begin," and in line 12 Herbert seriously goes to town with a specific type of alliteration known as sibilance, which just means lots of S's:
And still with sicknesses and shame (12)
If a poem hits you with that many hisses, yeah, you're going to remember it.
Internal rhymes (words that rhyme within a single line rather than at the ends of different lines) and visual assonance (words that contain the same vowel but actually sound different) are important in a different way. Less noticeable than alliteration or regular assonance, they stand out visually, drawing your eye in the way alliterating words catch your ear. And in shaped poetry, where layout plays a big role, visual devices are really important to overall meaning.
Let's look at the first line. Notice two words that look alike but sound different?:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store (1)
Yep, the EA in "createdst" and "wealth" visually binds them together, even though they're pronounced totally differently. So what's the point? Well, chances are, if your eye links "createdst" and "wealth," then your brain will too, and that's exactly the point this line is making. God created Adam's wealth.
Something similar happens in line 8, where an internal rhyme on AR links "larks" and "harmoniously." Although you can hear internal rhymes, they're pretty subtle and easy to miss among the more obvious assonance and alliteration in the poem. What's more important is this pair's visual connection, emphasizing the link between birds and song.
So why Easter? Sure, it's a holiday about dying eggs and eating your weight in those special-edition pastel-colored M&Ms. But for Christians it's really a celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead, which gives us the chance to overcome sin by believing in him and becoming like him. According to Christianity, Christ's sacrifice lifts us out of sin and sadness like a pair of wings.
Not only do wings give the poem its physical shape; they also contribute to Herbert's dominant imagery of repentance. Christ's resurrection on Easter morning means that he rises from the dead. In describing how he'll rise with Christ, Herbert compares himself to birds that use wings to fly to the happiness of heaven.
We know "Easter Wings" is set during Easter because in line 9 the speaker asks to sing "this day" Christ's victory over death. But what else do we know?
Since this poem is the speaker's one-sided conversation with God (spoiler alert: God never responds), we could also imagine that it's all taking place inside the speaker's religious brain—that it's more a mental than an out-loud dialogue. On the other hand, it could also be a prayer that's actually voiced aloud but without expectation of God talking back—at least not in words. Of course, the response the speaker really wants is action: he wants God to let him share the Easter limelight and rise up, too. But whether the speaker ever receives that particular answer lies outside our poem, folks, so we're left to guess.
We'll be honest. While it's often frowned upon in studying poetry, it's very tempting to lump the speaker and Herbert together into one figure. And it seems like a pretty safe move. Whoever's talking rocks a theologically sophisticated voice, musing on the hardships of life and proceeding logically from bad to worse to worst and then up from worst to better to good. And Herbert, being a parson, would be all too knowing about these matters.
Although there's a lot of bleak stuff here, the speaker never loses his hopeful tone. He has full faith in the promise of Easter and doesn't question the power of God to reverse his misfortunes (another quality a parson would be sure to have). In fact, he talks directly to God throughout the whole poem, as if, yeah, it's no biggie to rise up with Christ and participate in Easter, too. Both humble and surprisingly confident, this speaker thinks hard about the past but sees a future full of hope.
The wing shape is cute but the heavyweight theology hovering just beneath makes this poem more complex than it looks. It's easy to get snagged on the central paradox that sin is both bad and good, but if you stick with it, you may find a nice Easter basket at the end of the hike. Here's hoping for some marshmallow Peeps.
Even for a clergyman Herbert was a pretty rigid one-genre man: he did religious poetry—no love songs, no epics, no haikus. So how to distinguish Herbert's churchy poems from the rest of the religious verse out there? For one thing, Herbert never shies away from complexity. His poems delve deep into the intricacies and difficulties of religion. Paradox is central: by writing about what seems contradictory, Herbert's poems work to resolve it, demonstrating the logic and beauty of even the most confusing Christian ideas. God dies so we can live? Now there's a headscratcher. But don't worry—Herbert's here to explain it.
You can also spot a Herbert poem by its elegant use of iambic rhythm, generous sprinkling of assonance and alliteration, and last but not least, the formal variation in the verse form. Wings, anyone? There's also a poem-altar.
So the most obvious thing about the form of "Easter Wings" is that it actually has a physical form. No same-old left-aligned vanilla-flavored poems in Herbert's Easter basket. These stanzas give new meaning to the phrase, A picture's worth a thousand words—or, in the case of "Easter Wings," 96 (yes, we counted).
Officially known as carmen figuration or pattern/shaped/figural poetry, this type of poem-picture takes the relationship between form and content to a visual level. Take a look at these stanzas. Not only does their elegant unfurled wing-shape mimic the title of the poem; the changing line length also reflects the line-by-line meaning of each stanza. For further deets, head down to "Line Length" under "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay."
But just because "Easter Wings" looks like a bird doesn't mean it's flighty. With its symmetrical stanzas, ABABACDCDC rhymes, and impeccable iambic rhythm, this poem keeps its wings elegantly folded. Just check out how perfectly the stanzas match up. Adam ends up "most poor" at line 5? The speaker ends up "most thin" at line 15. The speaker's singing victories with the larks between lines 8 and 9? He's feeling the same with the hawks in lines 18 and 19. And lines 6 and 16 are actually identical.
And just how do we get that sleek wing-curve without messing up the rhythm? First off, this baby's made of iambs, or sets of two syllables with the first one short and unstressed and the second one long and stressed. This non-stress/stress pattern gives iambic poetry its characteristic dadum dadum sound. Check out the stress pattern in the first line to get a feel for how this iambic rhythm plays out here (stressed syllables are bolded and italicized):
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store (1)
If you count the number of non-stress/stress pairs here, you'll notice that this first line contains five iambs or 10 syllables. But wander down to line 2, and you'll count something different. This line has only 4 iambs or 8 syllables:
Though foolishly he lost the same (2)
Get out your magnifying glasses, sleuths, it's the case of the disappearing iamb. Keep counting and you'll discover the pattern: Herbert chops off an iamb every line until he hits line 5, which contains only two words, one iamb, and two syllables:
Most poor (5)
Line 6 is the same and then the pattern reverses, with each line gaining an iamb until at line 10 we're back up to a full 5. Tallying all the syllables gives us this overall pattern: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. On the page, those iambs look like wings. Simple but nifty. And even niftier when you realize that the content of the lines mirrors their size (for more on this, check out our summary).
"Easter WINGS" is our first clue: this is either a poem about deep-fat-fried chicken with ranch or a poem about flying. It doesn't take long to figure out that deep-fat-fried anything has no place in Herbert's world. What with Adam's fall and God's punishments, this poem digs a really depressing hole of poverty and hardship—no snacks here. Instead, what the speaker wants is a ticket out of the abyss. How to get out? Rise up with Christ like a bird from a tree.
But why birds? Why not airplanes or frisbees or butterflies? (Not invented, not invented, could be cool, but don't they flit, not fly?) For one thing, birds have been admired and written about for so long that they're really rich in associations. Birds mean freedom and gracefulness and love. They are linked with death and foretelling and hope. Herbert's birds are meant to evoke a lot of these feelings, while introducing more explicitly the ideas of singing and healing.
It's rough, getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and Herbert uses the language of material hardship to describe it. Adam is created with "wealth and store" but once he makes his fatal error, he loses all of it, going from poor to "most poor." In Herbert's version, Adam is like a careless millionaire who starts out with a great house and pool but after making unwise investments falls into foreclosure and bankruptcy. Talk about a recession.
But the word "decaying"—a surprising choice that doesn't fit in with the other images of material wealth—signals that this poverty might also be a little less literal. Just take the Garden of Eden, which is both physically abundant as well as symbolic of God's abundant love. In the same way, Adam's loss of his material goods = the loss of his spiritual closeness to God. Both types of poverty are made visual in the length of line 5, which clocks in at just two iambs.
If "Easter Wings" were actually "High School Musical, 1633," Adam would be the dumb jock and the speaker would definitely be the weak blushing nerd. That's the biggest contrast between the two stanzas, which are eerily similar. Adam "foolishly" loses his wealth; a stanza later the speaker starts out weak and only gets weaker.
And just as Adam's wealth is both material and spiritual, the speaker's thinness stems from more than sin-induced dieting. In fact, the mention of "sin" and "shame" point us in this spiritual direction. Yeah, "sicknesses" and even "sorrow" might lead someone to pine away, but do sin and shame really cause weight loss? Only if you want to slim down your soul. The speaker, burdened with Adam's inherited sin as well as his own, loses his closeness to God too.
They're alive! Or at least the lines are moving. In order to give each stanza the shape of a wing, Herbert has to first axe out two syllables every line and then add 'em back in a few lines later. (For more on how this fits with the poem's rhythm, check out "Form and Meter.")
But this isn't careless hacking. Give it a closer read and you'll notice that the lines describing the greatest comfort and the greatest hope are also the longest (1 and 10, 11 and 20), while those that chronicle the moments of greatest despair and the faintest hope are the shortest (5 and 6, 15 and 16). Each line of the poem responds in a careful, intimate way to the content of that line.
Nowadays The Temple goes by The Temple, but once upon an unexpurgated time, when it was first published in 1633, it came out as The Temple, Sacred Poems, and Private Ejaculations. Yikes. How's that for some innuendo? But title aside, Herbert's poetry is short on spice. His tone is worshipful and his subject is God—no hanky-panky here.