GEORGE HERBERT'S POEM 'LOVE': A COMMENTARY


GEORGE HERBERT (1593 – 1633)

George Herbert had a life of public service before committing himself to the Anglican priesthood, in 1630, and served as a ‘country parson’ for three years. He was a learned man, and sensitive to the challenges of being faithful to Christ. He wrote poetry in the style of the early 17th century which to our ears seems sometimes forced and stilted. The sometimes daring and unexpected stretching of the possibilities of an image is one feature of the style.

Herbert’s devotional poetry was a vehicle to explore religious themes. He shared his work with his friends, and was published only after his lifetime.

Of his many devotional poems LOVE is a standard in many anthologies. Its exploration of the relationship between the individual and God is a fitting meditation for Lent. As with art, whether in poetry or a finely worked prayer which this poem is, the reader is challenged to make a personal response. In this regard the story told is like a parable.

The comments following the poem are designed only to point to some of the dynamics at work in the poem.

LOVE

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful ? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

The last two lines of verses 1 and 2 form a gentle, even seductive, wooing, in which the Lover is eager to reassure the beloved. Love is ‘sweetly questioning’, and ‘took my hand, … smiling..’. Love [ - it is not stated whether Love is male or female - ] does not want to frighten him away. It is ‘quick-eyed Love’ who reassures the ‘guest’ who is hesitant to look at Love by reminding, ‘who made the eyes but I?’

A love poem with a difference surely. God is not named, but is Love all the way. The poet and Love converse intimately, openly and honestly. Love absolves all inadequacy. Love takes the initiative. Love seeks out the beloved, extending the welcome, and it was the dust and sin which inhibited the response.

Having being put at ease, and accepting the welcome, and the invitation to ‘taste my meat’, they sat together and ate. One could say that the pinnacle of their intimacy is the Eucharist.

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