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The Windows by George Herbert summary & Analysis

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About the poet

George Herbert was an influential English poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England, associated with the metaphysical poets. Despite initially intending to become a priest, he served as the University’s Public Orator, gaining recognition from King James I. Herbert’s poetry, celebrated for its metaphysical depth, inventive language, and exploration of spiritual themes, continues to mark him as one of Britain’s foremost devotional lyricists.

Line by line Analysis
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

The speaker begins with a question, expressing awe and humility before God. The question reflects a sense of inadequacy in the human ability to effectively convey the timeless and divine message of God.The speaker metaphorically describes man as fragile and unstable, akin to “brittle crazy glass.” This imagery emphasizes human vulnerability and imperfection. Despite the fragility described in the previous line, the speaker acknowledges that God allows man a place in His temple. This suggests divine generosity and grace, granting humans a significant role in expressing and sharing the divine message. The speaker elaborates on the nature of the place given to man in God’s temple. It is described as glorious and transcendent, emphasizing the elevated and divine nature of the role bestowed upon humanity. The metaphorical imagery continues as the speaker likens man’s role to that of a window. This window is made possible through God’s grace, allowing humans to transmit and convey divine truths to others. The window serves as a channel through which God’s eternal word can shine forth. It’s like saying each person is like a clear glass window in a special place made by God. This comparison is possible because of God’s kindness, which enables people to share important messages from God with others.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

The term “anneal” refers to the process of heating and cooling glass to make it stronger. Here, the speaker is addressing God, suggesting that when God strengthens or fortifies His story within the metaphorical glass (representing human vessels or preachers), something significant happens. God’s life or divine essence is infused or embedded within the glass (the preachers or messengers). It suggests a transformation where the divine becomes a part of the human vessel, allowing God’s presence to shine through. Referring to those who preach or convey God’s message, the “holy preachers,” the line suggests that when God’s life is embedded in them, a special light and glory emanate from these individuals. This light symbolizes divine wisdom, truth, and the radiance of a life touched by God. As a result of this divine infusion, the preachers become more revered or respected. The use of “win” implies that they gain greater influence and importance. The idea is that when individuals are touched by God’s presence, their words and actions become more impactful and respected. The last line contrasts the state of being infused with God’s story and life with a state of being without it. Without the divine infusion, the speaker suggests that the person’s life would be like water, lacking substance and depth, and appearing thin or insubstantial.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

The speaker emphasizes the unity of “doctrine” (religious teachings) and “life” (the way one lives in accordance with those teachings). The combination of these elements is likened to “colors and light,” suggesting a vibrant and illuminating harmony. The idea here is that when religious teachings (doctrine) are combined with the way one lives (life), and when these elements mingle together, they bring about a certain effect or outcome. The result of the combination is a powerful sense of respect and reverence. In contrast to the combination of doctrine and life, the speaker now singles out “speech alone.” This could refer to mere verbal expression or preaching without the accompanying embodiment of those teachings in one’s life. The impact of speech alone is likened to something that flares or flashes briefly. The suggestion is that spoken words without the backing of a lived-out doctrine and life lack lasting substance; they are transient and fleeting. The final line contrasts the fleeting nature of mere speech by noting that it resonates “in the ear” rather than in the deeper realm of conscience. In other words, empty words may be heard, but they do not penetrate the moral and ethical core of an individual.

George Herbert’s poem “The Windows” explores profound themes related to the human experience, spirituality, and the transformative power of divine grace. The poem uses rich metaphors, particularly that of windows, to convey intricate layers of meaning. The central metaphor of humans as windows in God’s temple suggests that individuals, despite their inherent fragility and imperfection, have a sacred role in transmitting divine truths to the world. The concept of being a window is not a result of human merit but is made possible through God’s grace, emphasizing the undeserved favor and empowerment that allow individuals to play a crucial role in conveying eternal messages. The metaphorical imagery of humans as windows in God’s temple highlights the fragility and imperfection of humanity. Despite these shortcomings, God’s grace enables individuals to play a significant role in transmitting divine truths to the world.

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