The Pulley: Summary and Explanation

Introduction: The poem, The Pulley, centres on the theme of relationship between God and his best creation, that is, man. God, the ultimate father-figure to mankind, uses his special pulley to draw man back to him, once man’s scheduled quota is over on this planet earth. He (God) does it for the good of mankind. The Pulley portrays the life of a man as he grows up experiencing certain aspects of life and in the process developing a relationship.

Summary and Explanation

In this famous poem by George Herbert, an analogy is drawn between a pulley and Pandora’s Box. As Pandora’s Box keeps all the evils of the world, anyone who opens it only takes the risk of spreading all the evil contained in the box and this process cannot be undone. Whereas, in the poem The Pulley, Herbert suggests that God controls everyone through a metaphorical pulley so that God can keep man under control and pull on a man to come to his salvation; hence, denying him the temptation not to undo the Pandora’s Box. The very initial lines of the poem, state that:

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessing standing by,
Let us (he said) pour all on him we can.

These lines point to the reader that when God created man, he gave the best of everything he had in his possession to him. God almost poured his own image in man. He has blessed man with prosperity and has endowed him with all the riches because God realizes that man deserve these privileges. God has done this out of the goodness he stores in his heart for mankind.

The reader must understand that after God blessed man by creating him, next he filled man with gifts such as wisdom, honour and pleasure; rare yet incomprehensibly precious. After this, God gave man everything he could give to make man different of all the species:

When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all His treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

After blessing man with so much good, God decided to take rest. Thus, suggesting that God is beyond comparison in his ability to be so generous. He parted with whatever he had and decided not to keep anything for himself. The word ‘rest’ creates a pun because it means both physical rest and the notion of being left behind.

Moving on, Herbert says that God has showered all his gifts on man, but man is foolish to worship the gifts while ignoring God. And since this happens, Herbert suggest,

‘And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature: / So both should be losers.’

To elaborate further, if the man worships the gifts and not God, then both man and God are unsuccessful in their intentions. Man did not realize that God is the ultimate being and creator and he should not forget God while lingering after the gifts that God has given him. Moreover, God too failed because he did not give that wisdom to man to understand as to what he should worship. Thus, man chooses a different path and moves further away from God. Each of them are definitely unsuccessful because the man
chooses to go after something not pious and not precious as God had originally intended.

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However, this is the choice which each and every human must decide upon, because, needless to say, Pandora’s Box is extremely tempting, but it is up to man to realize that God is doing everything that he can do out of his love for humanity.

The last segment of the poem, states, ‘Yet let him keep the rest, / But keep them with repining restlessness.’ Here, Herbert insists that both God and man are failures. God insists that the man must keep the gifts, but this leads to him being discontent in every aspect of his life due to the transitory choices he makes. Herbert goes on to

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

May toss him to My breast.

Thus, God finally decided that the man may remain rich, but weary. Since God’s goodness could not make man to worship him, then let these troubles and worries make people return to God. In this manner, we are back to discussing the pulley which was talked about in the early part of the poem. Human beings, in general, have a choice. The individual can either chose to remain weary and lead a miserable life. Nevertheless, he can also take recourse to the good that God has made for him; thus, continuing to remain under his protection forever. God specifically wants the best for his prized creation. God desires that man will worship him of his own will. Yet, if this does not happen then let through despair, he will be drawn back to God and in the process have a good life that he possesses.

To no one’s surprise, God has intentionally withheld the gift of rest from man. As God is fully aware that his other treasures would finally result in bringing upon a spiritual restlessness and fatigue in man. Man will, after all, grow tired with his material gifts that he has provided. Soon humans will turn to God in exhaustion and desperation. Certainly, God is omniscient and prophetic. He is fully aware that the wicked might not come back to him, yet at the same time, he knows that his mortal creation will linger in lethargy. At this point of time, ‘his lassitude, then, would be the leverage.’

Once the reader goes through this poem, he will realize that God is only seeking to make the best possible life for all humans. Herbert prays that people might get the right powers to choose the correct path and follow God because the latter has created them.

For some reason, if the man decided not to choose the right path, then he will be surrounded by Pandora’s Box. This will continue as long as he does not decide to change his course of action and worship the almighty. Through this poem, Herbert is trying to make a very strong point.

According to the poet, God has created man, but human beings are prone to mistakes. Thus, God has made a metaphorical pulley which will constantly remind human beings that they are still connected, yet they need that extra pull at times to remind them of God’s existence.

Appreciation of the poem ‘The Pulley’

‘The Pulley’ by George Herbert is a secular poem having hints of religious elements woven into it. The title of the poem is quite justified because just as a pulley lifts up objects to a greater height, God, the creator too lifts man towards him, through the pulley of ‘restlessness’.

The rhyme scheme used in the first three stanzas of the poem is ‘ababa’ while that of the fourth stanza is ‘abcba’. The poem is beautified using figures of speech such as Alliteration, Antithesis, Climax, Consonance, Hyperbole, Inversion, Metaphor, Paradox, Personification, Repetition, Synecdoche, and Tautology. An example of Metaphor from the poem is “Bestow this jewel also on my creature” where the gift of ‘rest’ is indirectly compared to something precious such as a ‘jewel’.

The theme of the poem revolves around the fact that human beings are bestowed with many gifts by God, yet we tend to be materialistic and overlook God, who always pulls us towards him. Written from the point of view of God, this poem gives us a clear idea that as humans, we are subject to God’s will and all the wealth in the world wouldn’t be able to compensate for the satisfaction and solace we seek in him.

Q. Discuss myth and conceit in The Pulley.

Myth and Conceit in The Pulley

Many critics consider the poem, The Pulley, containing a myth of origins. Yet, many others suggest that it is a moral and spiritual fable. However, both these genres overlap because of the way the poem is presented. According to Herbert, someone’s devotional responsibility is perfectly consistent with the flow that decides his personality. The poem is short and yet simple, but Herbert manages to reaffirm several key facts.

The approach to creation myth emphasizes the dignity of humankind. This dignity is bestowed by God, who is always considered to be thoughtful, generous apart from being kind. In the Book of Genesis, the story of creation that we come across says that a spiritual breath raised dusty clay to life and this living being was Adam. Nevertheless, in Herbert’s poem, the creation appears to be even more wonderful because humanity, as well as humankind, is projected as the summation of all the riches that the world possesses.

Moreover, God is a being that can easily and cordially communicate with all his creations—living and non-living. Along with this emphasis on the dignity of humankind, there is, however, a carefully drawn difference; beauty, strength, wisdom, honour along with pleasure are all integral and vital aspects of humankind. Yet, these are not sufficient to guarantee the spiritual health of the people. Only for this purpose, human beings need rest and this is one quality that God has held back. Thus, the independence of human beings is definitely curtailed. The Pulley never ever suggests that humankind is miserably flawed or impotent, or life that we come across in the world of nature is insignificant or useless. Herbert opines that life can, definitely, be ‘rich’. Nevertheless, the poem highlights the limitations of human beings and the liabilities that one comes across while undergoing this earthly existence.

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The Pulley is one of those rare poems which are replete with meaning. God is presented as a being who knows everything and has clear knowledge about how eventually life will turn out to be.

This poem begins with the story of God creating man and goes on to say:

‘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.

Here, we see that God is tense that man might prefer to rest in nature while ignoring him completely. God was definitely aware that his treasures would eventually tire man and exhaust him. He desired that man should find true rest only in him. God wanted all of us to rest in him, for he is the only one who is able to give the best while the rest appear desperately seeking comfort.

The notion of Sleep and The Pulley

In the context of the mechanical operation that we come across in the poem through the imagery of a pulley, the same kind of leverage and force when ‘applied makes the difference for the weight being lifted’. The same idea is applied to man in this composition by Herbert. One can definitely suggest that the denial of rest by God is actually, the leverage that will make it possible to hoist or draw mankind towards the almighty. However, if we look at the first line of the last stanza, we realize that

Herbert puns with the word ‘rest’, implying that it may be God’s will, after all, allow man to ‘keep the rest’. Yet, such a reading will appear to lessen the intensity behind the poem’s conceit. Rest, which also implies sleep, is an idea that was definitely plaguing the minds of the Renaissance writers.

One can come across numerous Shakespearian plays which speak about sleep or denial of it as a result of some punishment or due to some heinous sins committed. For example, in Macbeth, King Macbeth is said to ‘lack the season of all natures, sleep’ while both he and Lady Macbeth are tortured due to lack of sleep. If we consider the case of Othello, we realize that even he is disconcerted by the fact that he is not being able to sleep peacefully. Especially, once Iago tries to poison him with a remote possibility that his wife might be infidel to him and preferring Cassio over him. Hence, considering the poem in this context, we realize Herbert’s The Pulley does not provide us with any new concept. Rather, the ideas presented in the poem are extremely commonplace,
especially, if we consider for seventeenth-century religious poems that were composed by Herbert and his contemporaries. Though the most distinctive feature of this metaphysical poem is the religious tone, it conveys through a secular as well scientific image that not just requires the reader’s friendliness with the subject matter, but also expects certain knowledge of some basic laws of physical sciences.

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