The Church-floore

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.

Emblem pictureThe 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

Photo by Evelym Simak, available through Creative CommonsAs 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
    • How is this?
  • 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).

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