Easter Wings

A shape poem

Easter wings

This poem is a good example of a ‘Shape' or ‘Pattern' poem. The practice of writing poems whose shape mirrored their theme was adopted from the ancient Greeks and was very popular at the time when Herbert was writing.

If you turn the poem sideways, you can see the shape of two pairs of wings. The Easter theme in this poem operates at two levels:

  • The shape represents a dying or falling, then rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problems caused by human sin. The bottom half reflects the hope made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter.
  • The wings may evoke those of the angels who were said to be present in the empty tomb on Easter Day (John 20:12).

More on Easter: Easter is the central Christian festival, even more significant than Christmas. It commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels state that Jesus died on what is now called Good Friday (see John Donne's poem Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward), and rose again three days later (John 20:1). The resurrection of Jesus was later interpreted as giving hope to all who believed in him that they too would rise to new life after death (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

The first stanza

xpulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas ColeThe first stanza or wing traces the decline of humankind outlined in Christian thought. After their creation, Adam and Eve were believed to have experienced the wealth of God's provision for them in the Garden of Eden but they ‘foolishly' chose to disobey God and eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Expelled from the garden and alienated from God, they, and their descendants, were condemned to poverty and wretchedness in a harsh and unwelcoming world. Rather than believing that human beings grow better and better through the centuries, Herbert is reflecting the Christian perspective that human beings had enormous potential, which they have wasted through turning away from God.

Fortunately, there is hope. In the rising part of the stanza, Herbert now talks of himself rising with Christ, like a lark which soars and sings in the spring, close to Eastertide. The alliteration of ‘the fall further the flight in me' reinforces the paradox of the ‘felix culpa' or ‘happy fault' which teaches that the fall of humankind actually had a positive outcome because it resulted in the coming of Christ to bring human beings into a new relationship with God. Herbert is now applying this hope to himself.

The second stanza

The second stanza is parallel in its form, and, in fact, picks up a number of words and phrases from the first. It is more specifically autobiographical, and could be seen as a summary of Affliction I. The second part then becomes a prayer that his previous suffering may help him to fly even higher. ‘Imp' is a technical term taken from falconry, meaning to graft feathers on to a damaged wing to restore a bird's power of flight. Herbert is asking to become one with Christ's rising from the dead into new life and to soar towards heaven with him. Herbert may have in mind two passages from the Bible which link the idea of flight and the experience of God's healing and renewal: Isaiah 40:31 and Malachi 4:2.

Investigating Easter Wings
  • What do you think about human progress?
  • What sort of progress is Herbert thinking about in Easter Wings?
  • ‘Let me combine'
    • What is the force of this phrase?
  • How effective is this poem?
    • What elements are most powerful?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Being Human).

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