Essay

Voice of Eros

George Herbert was a good churchman, but his poems made him a master of the erotic.

by Adam Plunkett
Voice of Eros
Pictured: the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

George Herbert, the 17th-century poet and parson, is notable for having written almost only sacred poems, about his experience of God rather than that of other people. His single and singular masterpiece, The Temple, written throughout his adulthood and published shortly after his death in 1633, is “a record of spiritual struggles,” as T. S. Eliot wrote, struggles inspired “only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness.” A good churchman, Herbert wrote poems to draw his readers, like his parishioners, toward the love of God. This meant that he evoked the range of human love, from sacred to profane. But it also made him, perhaps unwittingly, a master of erotic poetry. This is not something of which the churchman is often accused. But erotic love is everywhere in The Temple, the unspoken drive behind many other loves in the poems and, in the end, their impossible fulfillment.

Herbert’s God was that of the flourishing moderate and humanist Anglicanism in the early 17th century, set against what the Anglicans saw as the ritual austerity of Puritanism, the ideological austerity of Calvinism, and the elaborate hierarchies and rituals of Roman Catholic popery. In 1611, when Herbert was 18, the King James Bible was first published, the translation that reproduced the majesty of biblical language in the vernacular. (Its lead translator, Lancelot Andrewes, was a great friend and influence of Herbert’s, and the king was Herbert’s admirer.) Later, Herbert became a scholar and then a churchman—first a deacon and then rector of two churches in small towns in County Wiltshire. As such, he had immense spiritual freedom and opportunity, the freedom to choose by his own judgment much of what dogma to believe and which rituals to observe, and the opportunity to judge the rich traditions of both by dint of Andrewes’s classicism and sermons, John Donne’s sermons and poetry, and Francis Bacon’s empiricism. (Bacon and Donne were also his friends.) Herbert eventually opted for a religious philosophy of inner revelation rather than speculative theology, or “divinity.” (He took after his brother Edward, who wrote a treatise on the subject.) You could draw your will in line with God’s by prayer and proper custom, not by vainly reasoning about God or through the mediation of a higher human spiritual authority. God is Love, and your aim is to love Him. The problem is that Herbert coupled this with a belief in fundamental human wickedness, rendering your faith in your own love a precarious thing. 

Herbert had the cursed blessing to be both morally doctrinaire and doctrinally skeptical. He questioned everything and felt that he sinned in the process. His poems, then, often move from an accusation or another spiritual deficiency toward an inner resolution, but without a new idea that would prevent the problem in the future. The poems are spiritual exercises that, for all they incline you to have his reactions in your own life, always beget more spiritual exercise. Nowhere is this cycle clearer than in his sonnetPrayer (I),” a poem that is both about the cycle and an incomparable instance of its frustrations as well as its joys. The sonnet, with its 26 pictures of prayer like the associations of a praying mind, follows what Helen Vendler has described as a passage from positive to negative images of God and then a clear articulation of human wishes for self and for God:

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

Follow the movement of the pairs in the final three lines. Horizontally, they move from a space to an object that embodies a hope for the space—that the Milky Way is a sign of milk and honey, paradise; that the soul exists beyond the stars. Vertically, the first column moves farther out from Earth, past the stars and to a land of myth, while the second column moves inward, the scale contracting as the images grow more and more intimate—paradise, the soul, the sense of being understood. That last image, at once the loftiest rhetorically and the most plainspoken, ascends to heaven as it descends from its rapture into the everyday life of the mind. The “something understood” is at once the self by God and God by the self—a vision of heaven that, because you can’t understand God, is untenable on Earth and contracts into a sense of your own hopes. Perhaps God understands you, but your hopes are the only things that you know were understood in the prayer. You have to pray again.

This sort of imperfect fulfillment characterizes the poems in The Temple, in which God’s love is treated as if He were part of a human relationship. He is a stern father and a nursing mother, seemingly a parent of a favored child and a parent of what seems like a brazen, angry adolescent, a relentless suitor and a lost lover, a maiden with her hair down as if it hung from a tower. What’s missing is romantic love satisfied.

For almost all of The Temple, he brings up sexual love only to reproach it, or alludes to it only to show how holy love has taken its place. The former would urge you toward abstinence, the latter toward “mortification,” as he explains in his prose work A Priest to the Temple. Mortification, a “divine” virtue—in contrast to abstinence, a “moral” one—is the purification of physical desires into spiritual ones. His poem “Love (I),” for instance, complains that “mortal love doth all the title gain,” while “Love (II)” complains of “usurping lust” and longs for “such true desires. / As may consume our lusts.” He bemoans the “licorous [much like “lecherous”] eye” of his heart in “The Discharge,” “false glozing [flattering] pleasures” in “The Dotage,” in “Jordan (I)” that “fictions only and false hair / Become a verse.” One can hardly miss the sexual undertones of the signs of his sin in “The Flower,” an incomparable poem of spiritual death and resurrection: “I shoot up fair ... growing and groaning thither,” “upwards bent” till “Thy anger comes” in the form of a tempest (“and I decline”). In “Easter,” a two-part poem that shows the horror of the Sacrifice and the glory of the Resurrection, the second part is the “sweet art” of a lute strung with the sinews of the dead Christ, the love song of the Passion. God’s love is a terrible beauty, but it sounds like a mellifluous hymn:

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The poem calls to mind an aubade, a morning poem that mourns lovers’ parting, as in John Donne’s famous “The Sun Rising.” (“Busy old fool, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus, / Through windows, and through curtains call on us? / Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?”) But while the lovers in Donne’s poem are two humans, those in Herbert’s are man and God; and while Donne’s poem argues that profane love can transcend the motions of the sun and follow its own laws, Herbert’s argues that sacred love does.

Donne was a major influence on Herbert, especially when it came to sexual love. Donne imagined his love for God bodily, sometimes bawdily: he wrote to God that he isn’t “chaste, except you ravish me.” Herbert alludes to that poem—“Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” in which Donne famously asks God to treat him like a piece of blown glass and to “break, blow, burn, and make me new”—with a double alliteration of his own, a prayer “[t]hat I may run, rise, rest with thee.” Herbert’s line is a stylistic riposte, understated rather than outlandish, and a poem after his own comparison of men to glass infused by God (“The Windows”). But it is as dense as Donne’s, compacting not just three actions metonymic of life—activity, waking, and sleeping—but an ascent to heaven, as if Herbert were flying to God with a running start. This ascent by restraint carried into his treatment of eroticism in holy love. He followed Donne in imagining sacred love in profane terms but, unlike Donne, left much to the imagination.
   
Herbert generally drew less on Donne’s earlier, profane writing, such as “The Sun Rising,” than on that about the sacred, beginning with a series of poems that Donne sent to his friend “the Lady Magdalen Herbert,” George’s mother, around 1607. The poems, a series of sonnets called “La Corona,” are a pledge by Donne to concentrate his poetry on sacred rather than secular themes, a pledge that a 16-year-old Herbert would conspicuously echo in a pair of poems sent to his mother in January 1610. Herbert’s sonnets grotesquely reject profane love:

Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth; when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies in the discovery.

That’s about as appealing as sexual drives ever get in his writing when they aren’t imagined as the love of God, although I wonder whether his religious sublimation was also an Oedipal one. He was exceptionally close to his exceptionally beautiful mother after his father died in his early childhood, and then devoted to his “Mother Church.” His God is mostly male, but He seems to share his mother’s character—stern, mercurial, melancholic, and a paragon of devotion and love.

The pinnacle of Herbert’s intimacy with God is “The Glance,” in which he asks, “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-eyed love!”: “thou shalt look us out of pain.” How could anyone forget that image, at once supernatural and perfectly human? Who wouldn’t want that from a lover or a loved one? The pathos of the poem, though, is that he hasn’t received it, and that even if the first glance from God, from his youth, controls his “surging griefs,” his will is still separate from God’s. But if love without obedience is blinded, obedience without love is empty, as we see when God guilts Herbert into submission in “Dialogue.” Herbert argues that he isn’t worthy to serve Him, and God, like many a parent, reminds him of all He’s sacrificed for him until he gives in:

That as I did freely part
With my glory and desert,
Left all joys to feel all smart ––
          Ah! no more: thou break’st my heart.

He relents out of guilt and fear, not love, and he draws the height of his passion in line with the height of obedience only in the last and most erotic poem in “The Church,” “Love (III).”

The poem is the crown jewel in a book full of treasures. Eliot thought that it “indicates the serenity finally attained by this proud and humble man.” It is at once an allegory of God’s accepting a soul into Paradise and the story of a dusty traveler and a gracious innkeeper, at once the capstone of The Temple, a flourish in which every other line repeats and resolves a problem that comes before it in the book, and a story anyone can understand. In Helen Vendler’s incomparable description, its movements are like those of “some decorous minuet.” What critics have largely passed over is that the poem is a perfect figure of lovemaking, the kind that feels tentative and adolescent, new and overwhelming:

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 any thing.
 
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.

All of Herbert’s hopes for sacred love come to pass in a vision of Eros, the only time in The Temple when erotic love is fulfilled. But as soon as the light breaks in, a shadow falls. The language is so human, it’s easy to forget that the poem is spoken from beyond the grave, the only poem in The Temple spoken by a dead person. There’s hope for salvation, but not in our lifetimes.

One can infer that the beauty of his innuendos was to make his readers blush, to suggest an idea and make them potentially sinful, like the speaker, but also capable of rejecting it and receiving the grace that the speaker receives. What seems at first like a promise of Eros is an argument against its fulfillment; you should turn your passion toward devotion. But even those of us unlikely to purify our desires can find in the poem a stunning image of love—gracious, grateful, graceful, clumsy, all too human.

Originally Published: June 24, 2014

COMMENTS (0)

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

Related

Poems Authors
 Adam  Plunkett

Biography

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of the New Republic.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.