Brief Analysis of Herbert's Conceit of The Pulley
by Mickey Wadia

It would be difficult to explain Herbert's poem without alluding to Pandora's box of gifts. The gods, especially Zeus, gave Pandora a box, warning her never to open it. Her curiosity overcame her, however, and she opened it, releasing innumerable plagues and sorrows into the world. Only Hope, the one good thing the box had contained, remained to comfort humanity in its misfortunes. In this poem, the fusion of the classical and the Christian add richness and dimension to the poem's guiding metaphysical conceit, which is a pulley that draws man slowly toward God.

Pulleys and hoists are mechanical devices aimed at assisting us with moving heavy loads through a system of ropes and wheels (pulleys) to gain advantage. We should not be surprised at the use of a pulley as a central conceit since the domain of physics and imagery from that discipline would have felt quite comfortable to most of the metaphysical poets.

In the poem, the central idea posited by Herbert is that when God made man, he poured all his blessings on him, including strength, beauty, wisdom, honor and pleasure. However, as in Pandora's box, one element remained. We are told that God "made a stay," that is, He kept "Rest in the bottome." We might, in modern parlance, call this God's ace. God is aware that if He were to bestow this "jewel" (i.e. rest) on Man as well then Man would adore God's gifts instead of God Himself. God has withheld the gift of rest from man knowing fully well that His other treasures would one day result in a spiritual restlessness and fatigue in man who, having tired of His material gifts, would necessarily turn to God in his exhaustion. God, being omniscient and prescient, knows that there is the possibility that even the wicked might not turn to Him, but He knows that eventually mortal man is prone to lethargy; his lassitude, then, would be the leverage He needed to toss man to His breast. In the context of the mechanical operation of a pulley, the kind of leverage and force applied makes the difference for the weight being lifted. Applied to man in this poem, we can say that the withholding of Rest by God is the leverage that will hoist or draw mankind towards God when other means would make that task difficult. However, in the first line of the last stanza, Herbert puns on the word "rest" suggesting that perhaps God will, after all, let man "keep the rest," but such a reading would seem to diminish the force behind the poem's conceit.

The importance of rest -and, by association, sleep- is an idea that was certainly uppermost in the minds of Renaissance writers. Many of Shakespeare's plays include references to sleep or the lack of it as a punishment for sins committed. In Macbeth, for example, the central protagonist is said to "lack the season of all natures, sleep" and both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are tormented by the lack of sleep. Even Othello is most disconcerted by the fact that he is unable to sleep peacefully once Iago has poisoned him with the possibility of his wife's infidelity with Cassio.

Herbert's Pulley, then, does not present a new concept. In fact, the ideas in the poem are quite commonplace for seventeenth century religious verse. What is distinctly metaphysical about the poem is that a religious notion is conveyed through a secular, scientific image that requires the reader's acquaintance with, and understanding of, some basic laws of physics.

Mickey Wadia is a professor at the Department of Languages and Literature
at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Text copyright ©2001 Mickey Wadia. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission of
the author.

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