George Herbert’s “The Pulley” is one of the first poems that I can recall making an impression on me. Way back, I suspect, in some high school English class (poor teacher!), I sat only mildly interested when this poem grabbed hold of me. What struck me then, and what I still admire, is George Herbert’s sense of the value of limitations. We know what we are, in part, by what we are not. In this case, we are creatures, God’s beloved children; but we are not God. And lest we imagine we have no need of God, or are ultimately sufficient apart from those others God has placed around us, God has placed in us, as the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes, “a sense of eternity in our hearts” (3:11).
We are, in other words, created to love, enjoy, treasure, and care for all the gifts of the earth. Yet we are also made for more. As Saint Augustine says in the prayer to God that opens his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we rest in thee.” Perhaps I found some comfort in this thought as a restless adolescent. All these years later, as an older, but still restless, adult, I find it comforting.
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 worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
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.
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.
George Herbert, 1593-1633