The Altar

by George Herbert

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The Altar

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch'd the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.


This poem falls in the category called "shape poems" since it's shape echo's the meaning of the verse. It has been noted that it was only eighty years after Herbert's composition that Joseph Addison made the judgment that such a shape poem was "garish and silly." Yet Herbert was a man of an earlier century and really another era. Up until the sixteenth century the western European view of the world was characterized by what Michel Foucault has called the "doctrine of signatures" described below:

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them. (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 17, (New York: Vintage Books, 1970))


No wonder that Addison could not appreciate Herbert's shape poems. Addison had actually entered the eighteenth century, while Herbert's style reflected that of the sixteenth century. With such a poetic device there was a complementary resemblance between the form of the text and the theme of the poem. In The Altar there even seems to be an internal visible structure that complements the externally implied meaning. When we isolate the capitalized words from the poem we see the poetic theme in outline form.




It has been said that George Herbert's poems are actually a record of his private devotional life. Thus the altar metaphor should provide insight to his personal relationship to God. The most elementary Biblical definition of an altar is as follows: A structure for offering a sacrifice to worship and serve God. To "reare" a structure is to raise it up on end which is far more difficult when it is "broken." This brokenness appears to be an expression of a heart felt sense of inadequacy. In line two we learn that the metaphorical altar is actually the poet's heart. A servant often is called upon to render service to his Lord in spite of personal pain, and so he attends to the task with tears. Yet there is reason to believe that this servant recognizes the need to bind together his brokenness using tears as the binding cement. Tears are often the metaphorical binding element in personal relationships. A funeral is a time to mourn the loss of a loved one, but also the time to cement together the lives of those who care enough to weep with us. This calls to mind the shortest verse in the Bible expressed at the grief of Mary for the death of her brother Lazarus. It is simply recorded that, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Herbert, with tears like Mary, "reares" the altar of his heart to his Lord. The tone of these introductory lines is one of emotional brokenness.

A heart is something created by God with natural inclinations, desires, and passions. This led the psalmist to say, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Only the hand of God can frame a man. In contrast to this conception of the heart is the word "workman" in which is compounded the idea of man's work. Herbert's altar has not been framed by the work of man's tools. Some of Herbert's ideas on the nature of an altar seem to be an allusion to, and interpretation of certain Old Testament ideas. One of the first incidents associated with an altar was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. One of the direct descendants of Cain was Tubal-Cain, "who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron" (Genesis 4:22). The stigma associated with Cain's faithless offering was passed on to his descendants who symbolically continued his self righteous work through their tools. Therefore, when God later gave a commandment concerning the making of altars he sought to make it evident that true worship was based on faith and not the works of man.

'If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.' (Exodus 20:25)

Herbert is not a "self made man" and thus, he offered up what God had already made.

The stone described by Herbert was a homely metaphor familiar to everyone of his time. A stone may be large or small, heavy or light, hot or cold, but whatever else it may be, it is dead. This understanding would also be true for the Old and New Testament scriptures. The Biblical view was that after The Fall, man's spiritual heart was dead like a stone. The heart was originally conceived to be alive to the will of God, but through Adam's sin it died. There is a paradox that it was with such a broken and dead stone that Herbert sought to build an altar for worship. And further, it is with the heart that God required true worship. Therefore, the heart desired by God can not be one natural to man, but one cut by the hand of God. The paradox was resolved by God as promised in the scriptures.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36: 26,27)

Only God's power can "cut" a true heart.

In lines nine through sixteen there is a change of tone which can be called trusting hope. This change is due to his confidence that God can change his heart. Herbert realizes that the parts of his once "hard heart" are still the same, but now they are directed toward a new end. The heart's natural parts now meet in his unified frame to praise the name of God. The frame metaphor probably should be understood as descriptive of his personal makeup. Herbert finally extends his stone metaphor to the place where he has fulfilled the symbolic words of Christ concerning the stones. That is to say, we may have an allusion to the words of Christ at his Triumphant entry to Jerusalem. At that time when the "crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen ... some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" Jesus replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out" (Luke 17:37-40). So it was with Herbert. If he happened to hold back the words that should rightfully glorify God the previously stony parts of his heart would rise up to praise Him who changed them.

The Lord will look with favor on a man's offering if it is one from the heart. This is beautifully illustrated by David in his penitential psalm.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)


Brokenness of spirit is the opposite of worldly pride. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). Such a humble life will be in fullest possible submission to God. Therefore the kind of sacrifice that God desires and that which He will bless is a life in submission to the will of God. The apostle Paul explained the ultimate goal of Biblical sacrifice.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1,2)


With such devotion Herbert is faithfully expectant that God will sanctify the altar of his heart. God can and will set apart a life that is in submission to Him as though it were His very own. The altar metaphor has indeed provided insight to George Herbert's personal relationship to God.


Tim Nordgren, 2-22-97