“The Pulley” is a poem written by the English metaphysical poet, George Herbert. It was first published in 1633 as part of his collection of religious poems titled “The Temple.” The poem explores the idea of God’s love and the relationship between humanity and divinity. Here is a line-by-line explanation of the poem:
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
In these opening lines of the poem, the poet presents an imaginative depiction of God as the creator of mankind. God is portrayed as having a “glass of blessings” prepared for humans, symbolizing a container filled with various gifts and blessings that He intends to bestow upon them.
God, in His benevolence, decides to pour all these blessings upon humanity. He expresses His desire to concentrate all the scattered riches and abundance of the world into a limited measure, represented by the phrase “Contract into a span.” This signifies that God wants to give humans a condensed and concentrated form of His blessings, filling them with abundant gifts.
The lines convey the idea that God, at the very beginning of human creation, intended to bless mankind with an abundance of His divine gifts and favor. The image of the “glass of blessings” and the pouring of these blessings onto humanity emphasize God’s generosity and His desire to bestow all that is good upon His creation. It sets the stage for the rest of the poem, which delves into the concept of withheld rest as a means to draw humans closer to God.
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
In these lines, the poet continues the imagery of God bestowing blessings upon humanity. He describes the sequential order in which these blessings were given.
First, “strength” is mentioned as the initial blessing that God granted to humanity. This strength refers to physical and perhaps spiritual power, providing humans with the ability to endure and overcome challenges.
Next, “beauty” is depicted as flowing to humans after strength. This could be interpreted as the aesthetic beauty that exists in nature, as well as the beauty found in human character and virtues.
Following beauty, “wisdom, honour, pleasure” are mentioned. God grants humans wisdom to understand the world and make informed decisions, honor to uphold moral values and dignity, and pleasure to enjoy the delights and joys of life.
However, when it seemed that almost all of God’s blessings had been bestowed upon humans, the poem takes a turn. God “made a stay,” indicating that He paused or withheld something significant. The reason for this pause is explained in the next line: God perceived that “rest” was the only treasure He had not yet given to humanity.
Here, “rest” has a deeper meaning beyond physical rest or relaxation. It signifies spiritual rest and contentment—the ultimate peace and fulfillment that can only be found in a close and harmonious relationship with God.
The poem suggests that God intentionally withheld this rest from humans, realizing that if they were granted everything without experiencing the need for Him, they might become too self-reliant and forget their dependence on Him. By leaving “rest in the bottom,” God creates a void or a longing within humans that can only be filled when they turn to Him in surrender and seek spiritual rest in His presence. This withholding of rest serves as a reminder that true satisfaction and completeness can only be found in a loving and faithful relationship with God.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
In this continuation of “The Pulley”, God speaks of His wisdom and reasoning behind withholding the gift of rest from humanity.
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God presents His internal dialogue, saying, “For if I should, Bestow this jewel also on my creature…” Here, the “jewel” symbolizes the gift of rest, the spiritual peace and contentment that comes from a close relationship with Him.
God explains that if He were to give this gift of rest to humanity, they might solely focus on the blessings and gifts He bestows, rather than on Him, the giver of these blessings. In other words, people might become more engrossed in the material and earthly aspects of life, finding contentment only in the beauty and riches of the world, neglecting their relationship with the Creator.
God expresses His desire for humans to not merely find satisfaction in the natural world and its riches but to seek a deeper connection with Him, the God of Nature. He wants them to understand that true fulfillment comes from acknowledging and adoring Him, the source of all blessings, rather than fixating solely on the gifts themselves.
The poet highlights a profound spiritual truth through God’s reasoning. If humans were to focus only on the gifts without recognizing the divine presence behind them, both God and humans would lose something significant. God’s intention is for humans to recognize their dependence on Him, to turn to Him for spiritual rest and find their ultimate purpose in a relationship with Him.
By withholding the gift of rest, God instills in humans a sense of longing and yearning for something beyond the material world, leading them to seek a deeper connection with their Creator. In this way, God emphasizes the importance of a spiritual bond and the pursuit of true contentment through a genuine relationship with Him.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
In the concluding lines of “The Pulley”, God reveals His ultimate plan for humanity’s relationship with rest and fulfillment.
God acknowledges that humans need some form of rest to sustain them in their earthly journey. He says, “Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness.” Here, “the rest” refers to the other blessings and gifts bestowed upon humanity, such as strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, as mentioned in the earlier verses. God allows humans to enjoy these worldly blessings, but with a condition – “repining restlessness.”
“Repining restlessness” suggests a sense of discontentment and dissatisfaction despite possessing these worldly blessings. It implies that even with material wealth and abundance, humans will still experience a yearning, a restlessness within them. This restlessness serves as a reminder of the ultimate purpose of life, which is to seek a deeper connection with God.
God expresses His desire for humanity to be “rich and weary,” indicating that they may attain material wealth and experience the weariness that often accompanies the pursuit of worldly desires. God recognizes that humans may seek fulfillment in various pursuits, but He hopes that weariness and the realization of life’s transience will prompt them to seek something more meaningful.
God emphasizes that if human goodness and righteousness do not lead them to seek Him, then weariness and the temporary nature of worldly pleasures might compel them to turn to Him. He uses the metaphor of weariness and restlessness as a way to guide humans to His “breast” – to His loving and comforting embrace.
In essence, God’s plan is to use both the blessings and the inherent restlessness in human hearts as a means to draw them closer to Him. The weariness experienced in pursuing worldly desires should act as a catalyst for humans to seek spiritual rest and fulfillment in their relationship with God. Thus, even in the absence of the gift of rest, God provides a way for humanity to find solace and peace in His love and presence.
In summary, “The Pulley” is a profound exploration of the relationship between God and humanity. It presents the idea that God, in His wisdom, withholds complete earthly satisfaction from humans to draw them closer to Him. The withholding of “rest” serves as a reminder that true fulfillment and contentment can only be found in a spiritual connection with the divine. The poem encourages humans to seek God’s love and find peace and rest in Him.