The Poem as Hieroglyph
TOO often Herbert is remembered as the man who possessed the fantastic idea that a poem should resemble its subject in typographical appearance, and who therefore invented the practice of writing poems in shapes such as wings and altars. Herbert, of course, no more invented the pattern poem than he invented 'emblematic poetry' or the religious lyric: his originality lies in his achievement with traditional materials. The Altar and Easter-wings, his two most famous pattern poems, are not exotic or frivolous oddities; they are the most obvious examples of Herbert's religious and poetic concern with what we may call the hieroglyph.
A hieroglyph is 'a figure, device, or sign having some hidden meaning; a secret or enigmatical symbol; an emblem.'1 In the Renaissance 'hieroglyph,' 'symbol,' 'device,' and 'figure' were often used interchangeably. Because of special meanings which have become associated with the other words, 'hieroglyph' seems more useful than the others today, and even in the seventeenth century it was often considered the most inclusive term.2 'Hieroglyphic,' the older form of the noun, was derived from the Greek for 'sacred carving,' and the root usually retained something of its original religious connotation. Ralph Cudworth used it in its generally accepted meaning when he said in a sermon, 'The Death of Christ . . . Hieroglyphically instructed us that we ought to take up our Cross likewise, and follow our crucified Lord and Saviour.'3 The hieroglyph presented its often manifold meanings in terms of symbolic relationships rather than through realistic representation. Francis Quarles's anatomy of the hieroglyphic significance of the rib is an extreme example of the general hieroglyphic state of mind: