The Altar

by George Herbert

Original Language English

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman's tool hath touched the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

-- from Metaphysical Poetry: (Penguin Classics), Edited by Colin Burrow

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Notice first how the poem itself is an altar. The lines of the poem are constructed in the shape of a table or an altar.

If you really read this poem, however, it becomes obvious that the altar here is more than physical. Herbert is not writing about a table of wood or stone in a church. Herbert's altar is spiritual. It is the heart.

But to be a true altar, the heart must be carved and shaped. "A heart alone / Is such a stone..." The hard, stoney heart must be "cut" by the "pow'r" of God -- it must be shaped, formed, opened up. The pieces are cut, but then re-formed, brought together into a new wholeness. "Wherefore each part / Of my hard heart / Meets in this frame..."

This new heart is a different thing because it is now connected to all beings, to all of creation, and, of course, to God. Unlike the heart of stone, the new heart is no longer "alone." The stone of the heart, touched and formed, comes alive. Such hearts speak. "These stones to praise thee may not cease." Like the stones mentioned by Jesus in the Christian Gospels, awakened hearts sing out.

Finally, to be properly consecrated as a fit table for worship, a sacrifice must occur. When the heart yields to the shaping and transformative touch of the Divine, you can say that a sort of death occurs. It is the death of selfish will, the death of numbness and retraction in the stone heart. When the heart is "cut" it finally opens. The open heart feels. And the open heart bleeds. It is the blood of this compassionate awareness that is the heart's "sacrifice," anointing it, awakening it, and consecrating it. That is what truly transforms the heart into an altar.

Recommended Books: George Herbert

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse George Herbert: The Country Parson and the Temple Metaphysical Poetry: (Penguin Classics) George Herbert: The Complete English Poems
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The Altar