Note, as we mention in our "Why Should I Care?" section, the form and shape of this poem are super important to their meaning. Unfortunately, in breaking down the poem line by line, you lose a bit of the magic. So to see the poem in it's original shape, check out our "The Poem" section.
Now onto the content. Addressing God directly, Herbert begins at, well, the beginning. See, way back in Garden of Eden times, God created humans and gave them a pretty sweet life. Since God probably didn't forget this, the speaker isn't so much reminding him of the good ole days as just thinking aloud.
"Wealth" here doesn't literally mean dollars in the bank. Along with "store," it refers more generally to abundance. Adam had all he needed: food, wildlife, a wife.
Read the line aloud. Go ahead, no one's listening. Did you notice that dadum sound that repeats? That means that this poem is written in iambic lines, but you'll notice that the syllable count is not fixed. The first line has 10 syllables (making it a line of iambic pentameter), but things get shorter from there. Head down to "Form and Meter" where we sort it all out.
Notice how the visual assonance (internal vowels that look the same but sound different) gives balance to the line. We've got the bookends "Lord" and "store" and in the middle "createdst" and "wealth."
We know what you're thinking: What in tarnation is an "st" doing at the end of "created"? This archaic second-person verb ending signals respect. In other words, this is God doing the creating and don't you forget it.
Though foolishly he lost the same, Decaying more and more, Till he became Most poor:
So is Adam like, Thank you, God, for giving me an abundance of everything I could ever want, I will of course honor your one request and NOT eat any forbidden fruit? Nope. Not so much. Herbert skips over the details of the Fall, but they're right under the surface in line 2 and throughout the rest of the poem. Keep those eyes peeled.
"Foolishly" Adam lost all his good stuff. The backstory that Herbert doesn't mention includes Eve and the serpent, who convinced him to eat the fruit. (For more details on what went down in the garden, check out our Learning Guide for Genesis).
This is Bad News for the first man. In lines 3-5 Herbert paints a grim picture of how everything went south.
Facing a harsh world where—newsflash—you actually have to work to get a salary, Adam goes from poor to poorer, losing all the stuff that made life great. And just like "wealth" (1) was more than money, here "poor" means more than just no money.
"Decaying" underlines that this is an all-encompassing type of poverty: everything good in this guy's life is actually rotting away.
And speaking of rotting away, is this poem on a diet? What's up with the shrinking lines? Not only do they make this poem look like wings on the page; they also visually reflect what's going on inside the lines.
Check it out: as Adam gets poorer and poorer, the lines get smaller and smaller until "most poor" (5) takes us to the shortest line of the poem, emphasizing just how small and miserable his new life is. For more on line length and meaning, head down to "Line Length" under "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay."
There's also a cool bit of irony in the two words of line 5. "Most" is a big word, meaning the greatest amount of something, as in, I've got the most friends on Facebook. But Herbert knocks it up against the exact opposite: "poor." Turns out, Adam's got the greatest amount of poverty. Not cool.
There are a lot of O's in these four lines. We've got "though foolishly," "lost," "more and more," and finally "most poor." And where there are a lot of O's there's also a lot of wide-open space—just another way of underlining just how empty this Adam is becoming.
With thee O let me rise As larks, harmoniously,
The speaker's still having the heart-to-heart with God at line 6, but now the speaker himself enters the poem and we start getting me's instead of he's.
We also get a new tense. Adam and his long-ago problems were narrated in past tense, but now we get a present-tense speaker speaking passionately and hopefully about the future. Adam may have ended up in a rough place, but our speaker, for one, is determined to ask for something better.
Notice how the cheerfulness factor goes way up as he makes his request, the tone going from somber to cautiously joyful.
Sunny skies ahead, folks, and the speaker's going to soar right into them.
But hey, where'd you go Adam? Did he get so poor and thin and miserable that he just disappeared at line 5? Not so fast: Adam lives on, in all of us. Adam's foolishness didn't just affect his own life; it ensured that every other human would have work, experience pain and sorrow, and live in (relative) poverty.
That means that in the poem, Adam and the speaker are closely linked when it comes to cause and effect: because Adam lost his wealth and store, so did the speaker. And because Adam fell so low, the speaker must rise to recover all that Adam lost.
This is also where Easter enters the poem for the first time. Notice that the speaker wants to rise "with thee," the "thee" here being "God." Easter celebrates Christ's resurrection from the dead, the day when he triumphed over death and rose from the tomb. In this sense, the speaker's plea to do some rising, too, makes a comparison between universal human sorrow and death: just as Christ rises up out of death every Easter, so the speaker wants to rise up out of this pit of poverty, sin and sadness.
Herbert uses flight imagery to describe this rise, comparing the speaker to larks in a simile. Any reason he didn't pick pigeons?
Well, larks were known for their sweet singing, hence the speaker's request to rise "harmoniously." This guy wants to rise and Sing.
Plus, larks were associated with dawn, so not only is the speaker soaring up like a bird, he's also greeting the promise of a new day—a new, happy, sin-free beginning.
Also notice how the lines are beefing up again, a syllable at a time, keeping pace with the speaker's rising hopes.
And sing this day thy victories: Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
The speaker has just asked God to let him rise harmoniously like a lark and now he formalizes his request for a bit of music.
He wants to be allowed to sing his worship, in particular, the "victories" of God, to which we say, belt it out, buddy! Since he's already referenced Easter with Christ rising in lines 6 and 7, "victories" pretty clearly = Christ's resurrection and triumph over both death and sin.
Chirping out about God's victories, Herbert offers some final food for thought in line 10. By falling so low into poverty and sin, Adam increased the distance between God and everyone else, requiring them to rise way up to get out of the pit. In other words, this means that because Adam's sin was so big, the speaker's repentance must be correspondingly big.
Fortunately, that repentance is made possible through God's victories over death and sin. The implications of Christ's resurrection can get tricky—just ask the theologians who've argued about it for thousands of years—but Herbert keeps it simple here. The speaker (and everyone else) can overcome Adam's fall because, according to his theology, God died for our sins and then rose again. For how this is a paradox, check out "Line Length" under "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay."
We've got a lot of similar sounds in these two lines: I assonance (sing, sing, victories), sibilance or repeated S-sounds (sing, this, and victories), F alliteration (fall, further, flight), and -ALL internal rhymes (shall and fall). Just drawing attention to the main ideas, as usual.