A Short Analysis of George Herbert’s ‘The Pearl’

A summary of a classic Herbert poem

George Herbert (1593-1633) is widely regarded as one of the greatest religious poets in all of English literature. His work is also associated with the Metaphysical Poets. ‘The Pearl’ is a tricky poem to decipher and analyse, but the effort is worth it. What follows, then, is a brief summary and analysis of ‘The Pearl’ in terms of its language and meaning.

The Pearl

Matth. 13. 45

I know the wayes of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the presse, and make it runne;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of itself, like a good huswife, spunne
In laws and policie; what the starres conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and historie;
All these stand open, or I have the keyes:
Yet I love thee.

I know the wayes of Honour; what maintains
The quick returns of courtesie and wit;
In vies of favours whether partie gains
When glorie swells the heart and moldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,
And bear the bundle wheresoe’re it goes;
How many drammes of spirit there must be
To sell my life unto my friends or foes:
Yet I love thee.

I know the wayes of Pleasure, the sweet strains ,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot bloud and brains;
What mirth and musick mean; what love and wit
Have done these twentie hundred yeares, and more;
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuffe is flesh, not brasse; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.

I know all these and have them in my hand;
Therefore not seeled but with open eyes
I flie to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love,
With all the circumstances that may move.
Yet through the labyrinths, not my groveling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me
Did both conduct and teach me how by it
To climbe to thee.

Herbert prefaces ‘The Pearl’ with an epigraph from the Bible – specifically, from the Book of Matthew, chapter 13, verse 45. Or rather, he gives us the reference but is relying on the reader to know the Bible (literally) chapter and verse, rather than providing the quotation himself. It reads: ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls’ (King James Version). This quotation provides George Herbert with the title for his


poem. The pearl is thus a symbol for something that is sought but not necessarily easily found, much as ‘goodly’ or beautiful pearls are not easily obtained. This quotation gives us a clue to the meaning of the poem that follows: Herbert is discussing his relationship with God.

In summary, ‘The Pearl’ is precisely about this relationship. In the first three stanzas of the poem, Herbert tells us how he is well-acquainted with certain key pursuits and benefits in life – learning, honour, and pleasure, which are discussed one by one in the first three stanzas – but that these things are nothing when laid beside Herbert’s love for God. The structure and syntax of each stanza of ‘The Pearl’ bear this out: Herbert’s lengthy discussion of the various advantages of each of these ideals (learning, honour, pleasure) is lengthy and syntactically complex, unfolding across the first nine lines of the stanza in iambic pentameter. Then we get a short final line. This reads simply: ‘Yet I love thee.’ These four simple monosyllables are repeated at the end of the first three stanzas, suggesting God’s constant nature. Once you’ve found God, nothing can top or topple him. George Herbert concludes ‘The Pearl’ with a fourth stanza in which he argues that, because he knows all about these other things – Learning, Honour, Pleasure – he doesn’t love God because he is ignorant of other things. On the contrary, he knows and understands these earthly things, appreciates their power, but rejects them anyway, in favour of God. To use (and elaborate on) his own metaphor, he is not an ignorant customer simply grabbing at the first product he finds on the shelves, but an informed punter making a careful decision. Herbert then states that it is not his own ‘groveling wit’ that enables him to see that God is better than these other worldly qualities: instead, it is thanks to the guidance of God, who throws down a tied silken sheet from heaven, which Herbert is then supposed to use to climb up to heaven and to God.

A few words by way of analysis of ‘The Pearl’, then. The date at which Herbert composed ‘The Pearl’ is difficult to ascertain, but we wonder whether those opening lines might be a reference to a recent scientific discovery:

I know the wayes of Learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the presse, and make it runne;

William Harvey published his ‘On the Motion of the Heart and Blood’ in 1628, five years before Herbert died; it was Harvey’s paper that explained, for the first time, how the heart (Herbert’s ‘presse’) pumps blood around the body via the arteries (Herbert’s ‘pipes’?). If Herbert is indeed alluding to Harvey’s recent discovery in these opening lines, so much the better for proving his point: no matter how sophisticated, full, and up-to-the-minute his ‘Learning’ is, it is still secondary to his love of God.

Indeed, this metaphor of the blood and heart recurs in the second and third stanzas of ‘The Pearl’, with Herbert’s reference to ‘glorie’ which ‘swells the heart’ and the ‘propositions of hot bloud and brains’. This echoing of the poem’s opening image in these later stanzas suggests a link between them but, more crucially, points up their bodily or mortal shortcomings: Learning is no good if it is without knowledge of God, honour is not honourable if it is not complemented by religious observation, pleasures of the ‘flesh’ (Herbert readily admits that his ‘stuffe is flesh’) pale into insignificance beside religious exaltation.

Something else that recurs throughout those first three stanzas of ‘The Pearl’ – and, indeed, in the fourth stanza – is the language of trade and commerce. This is well worth analysing. Here it’s worth recalling that Herbert began ‘The Pearl’ with a reference to a biblical quotation about a merchant searching for pearls to sell. In stanza one, we get ‘stock and surplus’; in stanza two, ‘returns’ and ‘gains’, which flicker with financial meaning; in stanza three, ‘the projects of unbridled store’; and in the final stanza, ‘the main sale, and the commodities’ as well as the ‘rate and price’. But here, what started out in the realm of worldly transactions ends up being used to refer to Herbert’s heavenly relationship with God. The pearl has been found.

One thing that is particularly worthy of analysis in ‘The Pearl’ is a characteristic found in many of George Herbert’s poems: the contrast between the plain-speaking and simple, and the more ornate and linguistically complex. Such a tension effectively forms the subject of another of Herbert’s greatest poems, ‘Jordan (I)’.

Image: A white pearl necklace by tanakawho, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons.

One Comment

  1. I’m grateful to remediate what I should have learned in 17th Century British Lit. Thanks.