Hi, and thanks for the question
There is a perfect answer to your question at this site discussing the poem:
The Altar by George Herbert
The author, Tim Nordgren's main thesis is that...."This poem falls in
the category called "shape poems" since it's shape echo's the meaning
of the verse."
It concludes that in The Altar there is, an addition to the total
shape of the poem, an internal visible structure that complements the
externally implied meaning.
To quote again:
"When we isolate the capitalized words from the poem we see the poetic
theme in outline form.
The article also goes on to show how the altar metaphor provides
insight to the authors personal relationship to God.
This site should answer your question, but there are other sites that
provide supporting conclusions.
This site explains shape poems succinctly, and gives another view of "The Altar"
On "The Altar" it says:
"The shape poem dates from classical antiquity, but its more recent
history begins with George Herbert's poems The Altar and Easter
Wings from The Temple (1633). What Herbert does with these poems is
effectively to take his own metaphors visually and literally. He was a
very religious man, and his poems are all in one sense prayers,
offered up to God in The Temple, his book itself becoming a material
metaphor for the building in which he prays; and within the temple/The
Temple the reader will also find a poem shaped as an altar ...
The visual perception of drawing and painting is mixed with the
visual perception of reading, and the poem becomes a picture as well
as a text."
Another author, Dr Lillian Myers, has suggested that the form of "The
Altar" also reflects its use as a "marker" poem in that book. She
"A close scrutiny of ?The Church? shows that its poems are organised
into sequences that are marked off by distinctive marker poems, and
this is confirmed by the manuscript evidence. Each sequence focuses
on a particular aspect of the Christian life. For example, the first
sequence of ?The Church? is marked by the two pattern poems, ?The
Altar? and ?Easter-wings?. .....
The thematic focus of the poems between ?The Altar? and ?Easter-wings?
is the central fact of Christianity, the death and resurrection of
Jesus. The sequence also delineates the identification with Christ?s
death and resurrection necessary for a person to become part of the
Christian church. So, the movement from ?The Church-porch? into ?The
Church? is through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The two
pattern poems are relatively obvious marker poems and they serve to
prepare the reader for the more subtle marker poems that follow. "
You'll find a biography and bibliography of Herbert here:
The Life of George Herbert
Search terms used
Herbert "The Altar"
Herbert "The Altar" criticism