About the Poet
George Herbert (1593-1633) was an English poet and priest. He is best known for his religious poetry, which explores themes of faith, love, and devotion to God. Herbert’s poetry is characterized by its intricate wordplay, metaphysical elements, and spiritual depth. His most famous work is “The Temple,” a collection of poems that reflect his deep religious convictions and his struggles with doubt and temptation. Herbert’s poetry continues to be celebrated for its profound insights into the human condition and its ability to inspire readers with its spiritual beauty.
In George Herbert’s poem “Man,” a harmonious blend of homage to God and celebration of humanity unfolds. The poem’s core premise asserts that as God holds the supreme position, and since humanity is a creation of God, humans inherently possess a greatness that often goes underestimated. The poem intricately explores the notion that man serves as a microcosm, a miniature representation of the vast world. In this profound metaphor, each part of the human body symbolizes a facet of the world, and, remarkably, every element is deemed equal in significance.
My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is man, to whose creation
All things are in decay?
In this opening line, the speaker begins with a direct address to God, expressing a personal connection in their communication. The phrase “this day” suggests a recent idea or realization that the speaker wants to share. The speaker conveys what they’ve learned , suggesting that no one builds an impressive or grand place without the intention of residing in it. The speaker emphasizes that only someone with the intention of living in a grand house would go through the effort of building it. The speaker then introduces the metaphorical comparison, asking rhetorically if there is a house more magnificent than a man? The comparison is made explicit: the stately habitation is compared to Man. The speaker brings up the idea that everything, including humans, might naturally fall apart or wear out over time.
For man is ev'ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
Reason and speech we only bring;
Parrots may thank us if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.
The poet states that man is everything. It suggests the richness and diversity of human existence. The poet extends the metaphor by likening man to a tree. This metaphor conveys the idea that, like a tree that bears fruit, humans have the capacity to produce and create even more. It implies that humans, through their actions can contribute something that goes beyond their basic existence. Adding another metaphor, the poet compares man to a beast, an animal. However, he suggests that humans have the potential to be more than just animals. He highlights two distinctive qualities that set humans apart from other creatures: reason and speech,. The poet suggests that it is these intellectual and communicative abilities that distinguish humans in the natural world. The poet playfully suggests that parrots might be grateful to humans if they can speak. This is a whimsical way of emphasizing the uniqueness of human speech. It’s as if even parrots, known for mimicking speech, owe their ability to us. The line concludes by saying that parrots “go upon the score,” meaning they operate on credit. This implies that the parrots can imitate human speech, but they owe their ability to humans who have the original capacity for reason and language. This stanza celebrates the diverse nature of humanity, using metaphors to convey the richness of human existence, the potential for growth and creation, the responsibility to rise above mere instinct, and the uniqueness of human reason and speech.
Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides;
Each part may call the furthest brother,
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.
The poet remarks that humans are entirely symmetrical. Symmetry implies balance and proportion, suggesting a harmonious and well-ordered structure in the human form. The proportions and arrangement of each limb contribute to the overall symmetry of the human form. The poet extends the symmetry of man beyond the body, suggesting a connection between human symmetry and the broader world. This could imply a harmonious relationship between humans and the world around them, emphasizing a sense of balance in the greater cosmic order. Each part of the human body can metaphorically call the most distant part its “brother,” emphasizing the interconnectedness and unity of the body. The poet uses the metaphor of “private amity” to describe the relationship between the head and foot. Despite being at opposite ends of the body, there is a sense of friendship or harmony between them. This could symbolize the unity of different aspects of human experience. The poet further extends the metaphor by connecting the head and foot with the natural cycles of moons and tides. This may suggest that the balance and harmony within the human body mirror the balance in the natural world.
Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
His eyes dismount the highest star;
He is in little all the sphere;
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.
There is nothing in the world that has advanced or achieved progress to the extent that humans have. The poet expresses the idea that whatever exists or progresses, humans have not only captured it but also preserved it as if it were their prey. This could imply the human capacity to conquer, understand, and control various aspects of the world. This line metaphorically describes the human ability to understand or reach even the most distant and celestial entities. The phrase “dismount the highest star” suggests a mental or intellectual engagement with celestial bodies. Here, the poet suggests that despite the vastness of the world, humans represent the entire sphere. This could refer to the idea that humans, in their small size, encompass the essence of the entire world. Next he speaks of the healing properties of herbs. The poet suggests that herbs willingly heal human flesh because they recognize a connection or familiarity with the human body. It implies a harmonious relationship between nature and humanity
For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav'n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
This line suggests that the winds blow for the benefit of humans. It implies a sense of favor or purpose in the natural elements, emphasizing their positive role in human existence. The poet describes a harmonious and ordered state of the natural world. The earth is at rest, the heavens are in motion, and fountains continuously flow. This imagery conveys a sense of stability and abundance in the universe. The poet asserts that everything humans observe in the world serves their well-being or is intended for their benefit. This line expresses a positive outlook on the world and the belief that everything has a purpose in enhancing human life. The things we see in the world are either a source of joy and pleasure or can be considered as valuable treasures. The entirety of the world is likened to a cupboard of food. This metaphor implies that the world provides sustenance and nourishment for humanity. Alternatively, the world is compared to a cabinet of pleasure. This suggests that beyond fulfilling basic needs, the world also offers enjoyable and delightful experiences for humans.
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head;
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.
This line suggests that the stars come out as the day ends, ushering in the night, and creating a metaphorical image of the stars guiding humans to bed. The poet uses the metaphor of night drawing a curtain to signify the end of the day as the sun sets. It creates a visual image of the transition from daylight to darkness.The poet introduces the idea that as night falls, music and light accompany or surround our heads. This could symbolize the tranquility and beauty associated with the night, where perhaps the sounds and sights are more pronounced. During the night, everything in the environment is gentle and kind to our physical selves. The poet introduces a parallel between the physical and mental aspects of our experience. Physical things are kind to our flesh as they descend or exist around us, while mentally, our minds find kindness in the ascent or understanding of the causes of these phenomena.
Each thing is full of duty;
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguished, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above, our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat!
The poet introduces the idea that everything in the world has a purpose or duty. Each element or entity serves a particular function or role. The poet metaphorically describes bodies of water as a means of navigation. Water, when combined or united, serves as a path for travel or exploration.When waters are separated or distinguished, they become the places where we live. This line conveys the idea that different bodies of water mark distinct habitable areas. Here, the poet plays with the metaphor of water. Below, water serves as a source of drink, and above, it is metaphorically compared to meat, highlighting its vital role in sustenance from both below and above. Water, whether consumed or used for cleanliness, is portrayed as a crucial element for maintaining cleanliness. This line emphasizes the purifying and nourishing aspects of water. The poet poses a rhetorical question, asking if anything else possesses such beauty as water does. This could be an invitation for the reader to reflect on the inherent beauty and utility of water. The concluding line suggests that if something as common as water can possess such beauty and fulfill various duties, then everything in the world must be inherently orderly and neat.
More servants wait on man
Than he'll take notice of; in ev'ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
The poet begins the stanza by suggesting that there are numerous things in the world that serve or benefit humanity. Despite the abundance of helpful elements, humans often fail to recognize or appreciate these benefits. The phrase “in every path” implies that these helpers are present in every aspect of life. The poet uses vivid imagery, describing how humans sometimes, perhaps unintentionally, disregard or undermine things that are actually trying to befriend or assist them. The exclamation “Oh mighty love!” suggests a realization or a sense of awe. It might indicate an acknowledgment of the powerful force that sustains and serves humanity despite our disregard.This line introduces a metaphorical idea. It suggests that within the individual human being, there is an entire world—an intricate and interconnected existence. The poet concludes by expressing the idea that, in addition to the world within the individual, there is another world that helps or serves the person.
Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.
The poet begins by acknowledging a divine action or creation by addressing God. “Since then” implies a past event or action on God’s part. God is credited with building a magnificent palace. In this context, the palace may symbolize the human body or soul. The poet implores God to inhabit or dwell within the palace. This can be interpreted as a request for God’s spiritual presence to reside within the individual. The poet expresses the hope that by dwelling within the palace, God will eventually allow the individual’s soul to reside with God in the afterlife or in a state of divine unity. Until the time, the poet asks for wisdom or understanding. This can be seen as a request for guidance and insight during the earthly journey. The poet desires the wisdom to serve God, drawing a parallel between how the world serves individuals and how individuals, in turn, can serve God. The final line emphasizes the desire for a reciprocal relationship: both the individual and the world will serve God. The poet envisions a harmonious state where all elements work together in service to the divine.
The poem explores the idea of God’s presence in the human soul, symbolized by the construction of a “brave palace.” The poet expresses a desire for God to dwell within this spiritual dwelling, creating an intimate connection between the divine and the individual. The poem reflects a deep longing for spiritual unity and closeness to God. The poet yearns for the soul to eventually dwell with God, suggesting a profound desire for spiritual union and oneness with the divine. The poem touches on the temporal aspect of life on Earth (“Till then”) and the eternal aspect of spiritual unity with God (“at last”). This duality reflects a broader theme of the transient nature of human existence and the aspiration for a lasting connection with the divine.