George Herbert’s “The Pulley”

In the style of the “wit” of metaphysical poetry—the ability to see striking, original analogies and to use fresh metaphors—Herbert writes of man’s relationship to God by comparing the communication of God to man and man to God to the movements of a pulley. In the language of seventeenth century poetry, Herbert uses a “conceit,” an unexpected image from another realm of learning to illuminate a truth of theology—the simple machine of a pulley from the science of physics as a concept to understand the mystery of love between God and man. The first stanza describes God’s gifts from above descending to man below:

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

Beginning with the story of Creation in Genesis, Herbert portrays God as the bountiful Lord whose goodness overflows with the fullness David praises in Psalm 23: “My cup runneth over.” God’s blessings know no limits, for He chooses to “pour on him all we can” and offer man “the world’s riches.” God’s riches abound with a wealth of plentiful gifts that Herbert describes as the best prizes of human happiness:

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

God in the liberality of his munificence bestows this kingly wealth upon his creature, sparing none of his treasure. God endows man with an abundant life enriched with the gratification of the senses, the pleasures of the mind, the wonder of beauty, and the compliments of praise. God empties and pours with openhanded profusion but withholds one last blessing that remains in the cup: peace (“Rest in the bottom lay”). God’s love and wisdom complement each other. To grant man rest in addition to other blessings separates God and man and eliminates the communion between the Creator and his creature.

In his infinite wisdom Go does not part with this last gift—his “jewel”—to prevent man’s self-sufficiency and independence from God, as if man’s ultimate and final happiness consisted of worldly satisfactions without any thought of Heaven, eternal happiness, the Beatific Vision, or the “peace that passes all understanding.” God in his great wisdom gives man temporal pleasure, joy, and happiness but not perfect “rest”—the peace that Christ promises when He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27):

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

From the heights of Heaven God—as if by means of a pulley—sends down to man on earth this multitude of gifts. The heavy weight and number of blessings from heaven above move the pulley downward for man’s benefit and enjoyment, yet God does not put so much weight on his end that the pulley drops all the gifts to touch the earth. He designs the pulley to move downward and bestow many gifts to his creatures yet remain partially suspended. God stops at letting the pulley rest on earth lest man forget the donor of the gifts, fail to express gratitude, or lose his relationship with God. Without the pulley moving always both downward and upward, God’s Providence does not reach man and man’s praise never rises to God: “both should losers be.” Some of the weight—rest, the “jewel”—remains at the top end of the pulley to pull the rope up when man falls victim to the temptation to “rest in Nature, not the God of Nature”—to make the City of Man the City of God or to think man does not need God. God does not want man to live as if God does not exist, and a Heavenly Father does not wish to sever his bond with his children. If man fails to render thanks to God as the author of all gifts and blessings or forgets the purpose of the human pilgrimage and the four last things, then God has another way to lead man to him:

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

In the course of human life the original gifts bestowed from the cup of blessings—strength, pleasure, beauty, honor, pleasure—do not provide lasting happiness but “repining restlessness.” Health declines and strength diminishes. Pleasures fade, and the senses are dulled or jaded. Beauty blooms and then declines. Honor gives momentary glory but then disappears into oblivion. As time progresses and ageing follows, these original pleasures do not provide the deep satisfaction or spiritual joy that offers the rest or peace the heart seeks. Fading and declining, they lose their weight, and the bottom end of the pulley becomes lighter and lighter. As these pleasures lose their capacity to fill man with the happiness he seeks, he grows “weary,” restless, and empty. The weight that remained in the top part of the pulley—now heavier than the lower part—pulls upward, and God leads man back to him by the second method—the way of “weariness” that God has designed when gratitude fails to render to God the things that are God’s.

The poem illuminates the journey of St. Augustine’s soul in the Confessions. Blessed with a loving mother, St. Monica, who never ceased praying for her son’s conversion, and with a generous father, Patricius, who afforded his son the best classical education of the day, Augustine—before his conversion—enjoyed all the blessings enumerated in Herbert’s poem: health, friendship, pleasure, honor, and wisdom. He achieved the prestige of a professor of rhetoric, pursued a love of knowledge, and felt inspired by “an extraordinary and burning love of wisdom.” He reveled in the entertainments of his pagan culture, enjoyed gladiatorial spectacles, “was carried away by plays on the stage,” cultivated the ideals of friendship, and cohabited “with a woman who was not bound to me by marriage.” Despite honor, wisdom, and pleasure Augustine confesses, “I lived a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving, the prey of various desires.” He writes, “Mad and foolish I was at that time. I raged and sighed and wept and worried, I could not rest, I could not think intelligently.” Although God’s many gifts and life’s pleasures never lifted Augustine’s heart to gratitude, his restlessness ultimately led him to the Catholic faith where his restless found rest: “Stand in Him, and you shall stand fast; rest in Him, and you shall find peace.” Herbert’s concluding line, “If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to my breast” gives special meaning to Augustine’s most famous words: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “George Herbert at Bemerton” was painted by William Dyce in 1860.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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