George Herbert’s poem “The Altar” was published in 1633 along with all of his other writings. The poem is shaped as an emblem, in this case an altar. An emblem is a piece of work written in a particular shape that point to the moral meaning. The poem is Herbert’s description of the heart being the ultimate place for our personal “altar” and that it is filled with imperfection, and with the help of God, as well as His favor, he is allowed to prostrate himself before him. That is just a very basic interpretation . The poem has deeper meaning. Looking closely at the poem we see shape as well as his deft hand with word play.

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The ALTAR in its most basic biblical meaning is a place of worship. Herbert does two things with this word. He capitalizes it as I have done, and he uses it twice, once at the very beginning, and once at the end. His capitalization brings the reader’s attention to the word and it’s locations. Herbert uses the word altar symbolically at the beginning and ending of the poem, as if in prayer. Just as man begins his prayer with the thanking of God for the guidance He has already given us and of course when we are at the end of our prayer we then ask for that same continued guidance upon our lives. The use of altar and how the poem flows points to Herbert’s way of devotion. Herbert worships this way. Altar also brings up Genesis 4, and when Cain and Abel go to worship God. It is the the first use of an “altar” (not spoken) in the Bible and it is also the time when God expresses his anger at the impurity of Cain’s heart, which leads to murder. Cain’s impure heart mirrors our own (and is also a capitalized word) when we become angry and frustrated with ourselves.

When we are in devotion, we are said to be sacrificing ourselves. Sacrifice is capitalized also and is important because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. So now that we go to God to pray, we are thanking God for his ultimate sacrifice. A sacrifice is an offering and all that we have to offer God is our heart, which Herbert uses to mean both heart and soul. Herbert is anxious to point this out because with the crucifixion of Jesus, we now live under grace, and there is no longer a need for anything more than our spiritual offering of our heart.

Herbert capitalizes heart and means several things by it. God wants our hearts. Our hearts are the ultimate proof to God of our belief in him. When Herbert uses heart, he is pointing out how impure it is but he is also giving us a biblical lesson. In Ezekiel 12, God warns him that the heart of man lives in a rebellion, with eyes and ears that will not bow to the will of God. Herbert is letting us know that God battles for your heart, without rebellion of your mind. It is opportunity he takes to lead us to look upon our own faith in God.

Herbert’s poem should be considered one of the greatest examples of the intersection of literature and Biblical thought. Often in literature, you have one or the other. It is difficult to get the non-believer to look at the literary merits of the Bible. Herbert uses the “worldly” poem as a guide for a biblical lesson. I stated earlier that this poem is Herbert’s devotion, and it is also a biblical lesson because it is loaded with symbolism and a definition of faith.

  • Herbert, George. “”The Altar” by George Herbert.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1633. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. .
  • King James Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.