Man's attitude to nature

Herbert's poem Man is not as well known as the poem of the same title by his disciple, Henry Vaughan, with which this should be compared (see Man (Vaughan, Henry)). It uses traditional Christian perspectives in examining the relationship between humankind, the natural world, and the God who created both.

‘What is man?'

The subject matter is common to many writers and thinkers: what is humankind? What sort of being is a human being? Herbert's thinking naturally draws on the Bible. For example, the Psalmist asks, ‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?' and asserts that humankind has been made ‘a little lower than the angels' and has been given jurisdiction over the earth Psalms 8:4-8. This in turn echoes the creation account in the Book of Genesis, especially Genesis 1:26-30. It is helpful to read these passages before studying this poem in depth.

Microcosmic man

The poem is partly a meditation, partly a celebration of human beings. Herbert uses a central conceit, demonstrating that each human being can be seen a microcosm of the wider world, with the same essential features. This microcosmic thinking can also be seen in Donne's poetry (e.g. The Sunne Rising), as well as in Shakespeare's drama and much other writing of the time. Herbert writes: ‘He is in little all the sphere' and ‘Man is one world'. Everything that exists in the macrocosm (the world), finds its equivalence (‘acquaintance') in the microcosm.

More on microcosm: see John Donne's The Sunne Rising

Investigating Man
  • Read Herbert's Man
    • What are the main features of a human being in the first four stanzas?

A purposed design

The second set of four stanzas goes on to describe how the world was made for humans to use: ‘For us the winds do blow'. This challenges scientific thinking today, which sees the forces of nature as acting impersonally and independently. Herbert sees the world as being designed to serve humankind. Herbert's imagination is very domestic here: ‘The stars have us to bed'. Sometimes Herbert is labelled as a ‘homely' poet, but that is somewhat of an ambiguous term and best avoided.

Investigating Man
  • From his poem Man
    • Give examples of Herbert's optimistic view of the world.

The final stanza helps us see why Herbert's collection of poetry was called The Temple.

More on Temple: a sacred a building or place of worship. In the Old Testament, it denoted the one central sacred place of worship, originally built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 3:1-15). Much of Herbert's poetry is about emblematic aspects of the church building and Christian worship. But the New Testament also uses the metaphor of God ‘dwelling' in human beings, as in a sacred building (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

A stately habitation

Here Herbert uses the more secular metaphor of ‘Palace', which ties in with the first stanza's ‘a stately habitation'. The right attitude is to invite God back into his creation. As God dwells within human beings now, they will live with him in heaven after death. But for now, the world and human kind must serve each other – and him.

Investigating Man
  • Look at the concluding thoughts in Man
    • What does the term ‘dwell' mean to you?
    • Is it different from just ‘live'?
    • In the last line, what does ‘both' refer to?
  • What do you find most interesting in the poem?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Being Human).

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.