One of the principal reasons for God taking human nature upon Himself in the Incarnation is that we have trouble turning from the many earthly pleasures provided for us in this life to the One who made them. Central to what we celebrate at Christmas then, is that God did not leave us to sift through the range of hints in nature and the various theories of men in order to know Him, but came down to us in our creatureliness and showed to us the truth about His character and will; in the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in and amongst the lowliest of society and visited first by humble shepherds, we are shown that here is what God is really like.
And yet, despite this blessing, most of us, at various points in our lives, still find it hard to turn to God. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, though we have known the ways of the Lord, we still do not strive to enter His rest (c.f.; Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13), preferring to direct our hearts and minds to the things of the world, which deep down we know (and are constantly reminded by experience) can never satisfy us as God can. In his poem The Pulley, George Herbert inverts the classical story of Pandora’s Box (in which the box was originally a glass) and imagines God pouring a ‘glasse of blessings’ onto mankind, as opposed to the multitude of ills that Zeus (via Pandora) released into the world.
In doing so, he draws acute attention both to the range of blessings we do commonly enjoy (and routinely forget) as well as the perennial madness of our forgetting of our Maker who pours those very blessings upon us. The pulley of the title is never itself mentioned, but is instead embedded in the theme of the poem as a whole – as the old pulley system used a filled bucket to weigh it down on one side, simultaneously raising the empty bucket on the other, in Herbert’s poem we are weighed down by the many blessings God gives us, and this weight lifts up the empty bucket of our restlessness (as we are never fully satisfied by worldly things and cannot find rest in them) propelling us upwards to the God we have so long ignored:
When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead 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 restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
That the gift of rest is one God holds back from us (the word ‘rest’ having a double meaning here, also meaning ‘the remainder of’ – i.e.; the last blessing God could have given us, and which, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, He one day will) is a fact that we can well recognise from experience, and if we are honest, know to be for our benefit. It is all too easy to ‘rest in Nature, not the God of Nature’ and adore the gifts of God instead of the Giver. Therefore, whilst it may be irksome to us at the time, it is a thing known deep within us that this must be so – that we must be harried and have our rest diminished, and also that we may be left restless after we have sated ourselves on the things of the world, for this restlessness is needed to shake our greedy and prideful souls awake. When Herbert writes ‘if goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse may tosse him to my breast’, he is echoing something we know all too well.
Another thing must be noted, which intensifies the overarching theme of the poem – namely that it is only in God we can find rest for our souls – and testifies to George Herbert’s skill as a poet. In the final stanza, the word ‘rest’ is itself enshrined in the final word of the poem (‘breast’), so that the key word is echoed in the final line, and subtly recalls us to the fact that it is only in the breast or heart of God that we can find peace. Moreover, and it is surely not too daring an assumption to make given Herbert’s life and work, because of the Incarnation we can know that heart with even greater confidence and in even greater depth than before the first Christmas occurred, as ‘the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known’ (John 1:18).