An emblem poem
This is one of Herbert's emblem poems. Emblem Books were popular reading at the time, particularly those produced by a minor poet, Francis Quarles.
More on emblems: Each page of an Emblem Book had a woodcut or crude print of a scene or subject. Underneath would be a ‘motto' or sentence suggesting the subject matter of the print. Then would follow a poem which acted as an explanation of the picture, usually a moral or religious explication. An emblem poem is thus an allegorical or symbolic poem explaining a visual object.
The subjects in Emblem Books would be everyday ones – town or country scenes or objects. The system works well for a poet who wants to teach religious truths through everyday objects. In this way, they are not unlike the parables that Jesus told in the Gospels. They are at the other extreme of Metaphysical poetry to the intellectual and scholarly conceits of John Donne, whose audience would have been well-educated men like himself.
A tiled church floor
As the reader of this poem, you are to imagine a picture of the interior of a typical English country church. You are looking at the floor, noticing its tiles, and the gentle slope up towards the choir, where the altar stands, at the far end. You are then made aware of the heavy church door, and of the dust in the church. All of these are given individual meanings by the poet, who uses this series of comparisons and images to mirror the relationship between God and human beings.
The floor is tiled with marble slabs of black and white. The white speckled tiles represent patience, Herbert tells us; the black ones, humility. The reader has to puzzle out the symbolism and thus come to a greater understanding of these moral qualities. The slope upwards towards the altar (symbolically closer to God) is named as confidence, and the cement as ‘Love/And Charity', the latter term meaning heavenly love as opposed to sexual love; what we now call ‘charity' today would then have been known as alms-giving.
The human heart
However the poem does not finish there. Herbert gives us a little drama from l.13 onwards. This is the ‘application' for the reader. The marble gets stained (this is sin), but then sweats or ‘weeps' which removes the stain (of sin). The draught under the door from the wind blows the dust about. The wind is ‘death' and is personified as ‘he thinks ... he sweeps'. Then the final ‘sententia' or moral comes: a blessing to the ‘Architect' who has built, not the church, but the human heart, because it is the drama of the human heart we are talking about.
In the New Testament, too, the people who make up the church are seen symbolically as a building (1 Peter 2:5); and the human heart as a room with a door (Revelation 3:20), so Herbert's emblems are in line with biblical imagery – again, the very opposite method from John Donne, who all the time is looking for unexpected images.
Investigating The Church-floore
- Work through The Church-floore in the way Herbert meant you to!
- Why is ‘patience' a meaning for the white speckled tiles?
- Why ‘humility' for the black?
- Why ‘confidence' and ‘love'?
- Work out the little paradox: death thinks to do one thing, but does the opposite
- Who is the ‘Architect'?
- Did you notice the shift in the sacred space being described?
(see Themes and significant ideas > Death as friend or foe; Being Human).
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation - 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in Scripture: Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. 7So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8and A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 18Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, all evil speakings, 2As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: 3If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. 4To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, 5Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 6Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. 7Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, 8And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. 9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; 10Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. 11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; 12Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. 13Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: 16As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 17Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. 18Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. 19For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. 20For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. 21For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: 22Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: 23Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: 24Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. 25For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 7And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. 8I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie - behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 14And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. 15I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
1And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. 2Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. 3Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. 4Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. 5He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. 6He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. 7And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; 8I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. 9Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. 10Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. 11Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. 12Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. 13He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. 14And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; 15I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. 17Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: 18I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. 19As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. 20Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. 21To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. 22He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
A particular form of symbolic imagery, where a picture is followed by a text to explain its hidden meaning.
1. Devout, involved in religious practice
2. Member of a religious order, a monk or nun.
A non-realistic genre of literature whereby characters or episodes systematically represent a certain belief system. Interpretation of allegory can involve two or more levels of meaning.
In literature, something that is chosen to take on a particular meaning by the writer, e.g. clouds as symbols of mutability.
In the Bible, the term given to stories that Jesus told as part of his teaching.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
From Gospel - Literally 'good news' - used of the message preached by Jesus recorded in the New Testament.
Title given to the four New Testament books which describe the life of Jesus Christ i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
1. A branch of philosophy
2. The Metaphysical Poets were a group of seventeenth century English poets who used philosophical ideas extensively in their imagery and especially in conceits.
An image that seems far-fetched or bizarre, but which is cleverly worked out so that the reader can understand the link.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians.
2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship.
3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
A raised stucture on which religious ceremonies are performed.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Something which represents something else through an association of ideas.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
Represented or imagined as a person.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
Relating to, or contained in, the Bible. The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament.
Figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action, either by saying X is Y (metaphor); or X is like Y (simile). In each case, X is the original, Y is the image.
A figure of speech wherein an apparently contradictory set of ideas is presented as being, in fact, part of the same truth.