restricted access Paradox and Imping in Herbert's "Easter-wings"
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Paradox and Imping in Herbert's "Easter-wings"

One of the more vexing lines in Herbert's poetry comes at the end of "Easter-wings," when the poet writes:

For, if I imp my wing on thine,Affliction shall advance the flight in me.1

As editor after editor has noted, following the OED, in falconry a deficient wing feather can be repaired by "imping" or grafting a feather from a healthy bird onto the feather of the needy bird. Regrettably for our understanding of the poem, however, Herbert has his prepositions working in the opposite direction so that the speaker's damaged wing is imped on Christ's perfect one. Editors and interpreters have, therefore, often read the line as though it said "if I imp my wing from thine." One interpretation, wanting it both ways, says this: "In wishing to 'imp' his wing upon the wing of Christ the poet wishes to repair his own decayed wing to full plumage by grafting into it feathers from the perfect wing of the Messiah."2 Even Helen Wilcox in her magisterial new edition of the poems changes prepositions: "feathers from the triumphant Christ's 'healing' wings (Malachi 4:2) are used to repair and 'advance the flight' of the sin-damaged Christian."3

In order to do due diligence to Herbert's actual wording, we need a way in which to make sense of imping or grafting a deficient feather onto a perfect one. The action is paradoxical, and that is our key for working things out. Herbert is fond of paradox, like others in his time.4 In "Repentance" he asserts that "Fractures well cur'd make us more strong" (l. 36), while in "Affliction" (V) he sees his fellow Christians as "the trees, whom shaking fastens more" (l. 20). In "Ungratefulnesse" the dust blown into our eyes by death will "make us see" (l. 18). Other instances abound. In fact, there is a paradox in how Herbert describes his whole life. According to Walton he said that it was only in subjecting his will to the will of Jesus that he had "found perfect freedom" in his service.5

"Easter-wings" itself is about the well-known paradox of the Fortunate Fall or felix culpa, and Herbert depicts this both in the words [End Page 98] and the shapes of the two short poems, emphasizing the paradoxical nature of the situation in the last lines of each:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and storeThough foolishly he lost the same,Decaying more and more,Till he becameMost poore:With theeO let me riseAs larks, harmoniously,And sing this day thy victories:Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:And still with sicknesses and shameThou didst so punish sinne,That I becameMost thinne.With theeLet me combine,And feel this day thy victorie:For, if I imp my wing on thine,Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Both poems are about wings and flight; both poems stress the paradox of the Fall: "Then shall the fall further the flight in me . . . Affliction shall advance the flight in me." Both poems show by their words and shape the decline yet unexpected rise of the speaker.6

By subject and shape the poems both recount the Fortunate Fall and show it graphically. Given this larger emphasis on the paradox of the Fall we almost expect to find a paradox in the interior language and imagery. In falconry a deficient feather is repaired by imping or grafting a feather from a healthy bird onto the needy one, but in Christianity the deficiency of the Christian is made up for by Christ, by imping or grafting the Christian onto Christ. In this poem the deficient feather is magnified into an entire wing to represent the many deficiencies in the speaker, and is imped, or grafted onto Christ's perfect wing, which is [End Page 99] also not literal. This paradox is a small example of the larger paradox that is unfolded in the poem. Herbert appropriates the technical language of falconry only to reverse...