George Herbert – The Pulley
The Pulley is written in four stanzas of five lines each. The first and last line in each stanza have three feet (are in iambic trimeter), and the middle three lines of each stanza have five feet (are in iambic pentameter). The rhyme scheme is ABABA.
Although the meter is iambic (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable in each foot), occasionally the poet uses a trochaic substitution (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable). The first time he does this is in the second line of the first stanza, “Having a glass…” where “HAVing” is trochaic and “a GLASS” goes back to iambic. The trochaic substitution alters the rhythm to lend emphasis to an important metaphor. The glass of blessings metaphoric imagery helps establish and personalize God as a creator, creating man in a laboratory where the blessings are the ingredients. The blessings will be poured out into man, but God will keep “rest” in the bottom, withholding it for reasons He explains.
Another trochaic substitution is in the last line of the second stanza (line 10 of the poem): “REST in” is a trochaic beginning where the rest of the line is iambic. Rest is emphasized because it is the most important gift that God withholds from man and that is the theme of the poem. After being so generous with wisdom, honor, pleasure, and all the rest, God withholds rest so that man will not have everything, and will seek God for respite.
In lines 7, 9, and 14, an extra syllable is added to the last foot, creating a three syllable foot, with the first and third syllables unstressed and the middle syllable stressed. This is an amphibrach substitution. Herbert introduces these line variations for purposeful effect. For example, in line 7, “Then BEAUty FLOWED, then WISdom, HONor, PLEASure” Herbert is emphasizing the bounty of God’s blessings by lengthening the line.
In the last stanza, in line 17, Herbert introduces a pyrrhic substitution at the end of the line (WITH rePINing RESTlessness). He wants this line to trail off and end weakly, just as someone who is tired and overweary. The rest that He withholds leaves us restless in our labor and suffering.
The metaphoric imagery of the glass of blessings is extended in the last stanza to become a pulley. A pulley is a mechanical device used to lift things that cannot be lifted directly. As our restless drags us down (on one rope of the pulley) we rise (on the other rope) to God, who gives us the blessing of rest. This is the only blessing He did not endow us with at creation, so that we would be spiritually dependent on Him, and “tossed up” (by the pulley) “to His breast.” The pulley is an unusual extended metaphor, becoming the conceit of the poem.