Love (III)

By George Herbert 1593–1633 George Herbert
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.

Source: George Herbert and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Poets  (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978)

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Poet George Herbert 1593–1633

POET’S REGION Wales

SCHOOL / PERIOD 17th Century

Subjects Love, Relationships, Religion, Faith & Doubt, Christianity, God & the Divine, Romantic Love, Classic Love, Infatuation & Crushes

Poetic Terms Metaphor, Rhymed Stanza

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George Herbert: “Love (III)”

A 17th-century poet’s project invites its readers to the table

By Hannah Brooks-Motl

Should poets have a project? Should books of poetry? It’s a question that generated some heat a few years back, when Dorothea Lasky published her chapbook Poetry Is Not a Project (2010). Lasky objected to the term as not having much to do with poetry. In a post at The Millions, she wrote: “The notion of a poetic ‘project’ may actually be very toxic to poetry. The term seems to suggest to young poets that a poet can set about his life path knowing what he is doing at all times. And to tell a young poet that is to make him feel like he has to know how to create both a project and a poem. It’s hard enough to create a poem. If he is destined to be a great poet, he will never know what his project really was, no matter what he says it is, was, or what he might imagine it could be.”

When we think about poetry “projects,” we might think of recent book-length collections, like Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager or Anne Carson’s Nox; or we might remember older works, such as Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, or Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. These are books that follow Lasky’s dicta—the poets knew what their projects “really were” (write a poem in one day; erase the biography of a controversial figure)—but they are also good books of good poems (Lasky objects to contemporary projects that don’t produce good poems). But how dirty a word is “project” in relation to poetry? Do some poets know what they’re doing all the time, and still become great poets?

Published shortly after his death in 1633, George Herbert’s The Temple is an example of a kind of poetry-project, the exact meaning of which has been debated almost since its first appearance. Because it is composed of poems with titles like “The Altar” and “The Windows,” some critics have believed Herbert was attempting to recreate the elements of a church in the structure of his book; others thought he was mapping the liturgical year through poems such as “Whitsunday,” “Lent,” and “Christmas.” Some, such as Helen Vendler, note that the book models new kinds of friendship and lyric address, even anticipating, in Herbert’s painstaking dissections of his own weakness and his many dialogues with God, “the modern notion of the ideal therapist.” Still others, notably Stanley Fish, think about The Temple’s project in the terms Herbert himself set out, in a chapter on catechizing in his prose work The Life of a Country Parson: “at Sermons, and Prayers, men may sleep or wander;” Herbert wrote, “but when one is asked a question, he must discover what he is.” Herbert’s project, in this reading, is a kind of “catechism” intent on leading the reader to discover “what he is” for himself. “What is crucial,” Fish notes, “is not the dialogue in the poem, but the dialogue the poem is in.” Herbert wasn’t just writing about his own relationship with God, he was writing to alter his readers’ sense of their own. But despite, or because of, such varying interpretations, what has never been disputed is the “project-ness” of The Temple: “We cannot judge Herbert, or savour fully his genius and his art, by any selection to be found in an anthology,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his seminal study of the poet. “We must study The Temple as a whole.”

What kind of “whole” was Herbert making? Born into an aristocratic, literary family, George Herbert excelled at music as a child and studied at Cambridge, eventually rising to the position there of public orator, which brought him in contact with many of the most important figures of his day, including King James I, and a stint in Parliament in 1624 and ’25. But Herbert spent his later years as a country priest, serving the small parish of Bemerton and far from any kind of glamour or courtly intrigue. In Eliot’s words, “it was most unusual that a man of George Herbert’s social position should take orders and be content to devote himself to the spiritual and material needs of a small parish of humble folk in a rural village.”

Part of Herbert’s “project” in The Temple might be understood as an attempt to come to terms with malingering, worldly desires. Poems such as “Affliction” and “The Collar” give voice to a speaker who is rebellious, exhausted, and confused. As spiritual autobiography, and like diary entries, such poems interpret experience rather than present it: “My flesh began unto my soul in pain— / Sicknesses cleave my bones;… / … I scarce believed, / Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived” (“Affliction”). It is unclear, as in many Herbert poems, exactly what has precipitated the occasion of this poem, or where it’s taking place. The speaker’s “sickness” could be real (Herbert died young, at 39, from tuberculosis), or purely spiritual—after all, it is his “soul in pain.” As in many Herbert poems, “objective reality” exists only in relation to psychological experience.

Herbert’s interest in moods and interior psychological states plays out in multiple ways. The poem “The Collar” dramatizes the anxious, questioning strain that tugs Herbert’s poetry away from merely religious verse and toward a personal, experiential—and experimental—lyricism: “My lines and life are free; free as the road, / Loose as the wind, as large as store. / Shall I be still in suit?” Herbert’s speaker asks, breaking the conventional eulogizing we expect from a religious poem as well as its metrically regular “lines.” Another reading of The Temple might find its project to be one of exploring, and exploiting, new poetic forms.

The Temple’s profusions, protestations, and formal experiments culminate in “Love (III).” As the book’s final lyric poem, it might seem to “solve” the drama a reader traces through Herbert’s book: is he worthy to sit with God as an equal? The poem’s last line, “So I did sit and eat,” seems unequivocal: Herbert has found his place at God’s table. Herbert’s almost interchangeable use of “Love” for “Lord” in this poem is worth noticing: “Love (III)” is the ultimate poem in a triptych on the subject. The earlier poems attempt to reclaim the term “love,” which has been sullied by secular usage. “Love (I)” opens by praising “Immortal Love, author of this great frame,” and mourning that “mortal love doth all the title gain”; “Love (II)” also addresses itself to “Love,” distinguishing between God’s “Immortal Heat” and the “usurping lust” we mortal humans mistakenly call love. As the culminating poem in the series, “Love (III)” seems to firmly settle which kind of “Love” Herbert intends to celebrate. But the poem also purports to show how God is Love—through its emphasis on God’s role as host.

Herbert’s portrait of God-as-Love has long been admired as the crowning achievement of The Temple. The philosopher Simone Weil famously had a religious experience as she recited “Love (III): “Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache,” she wrote in her Spiritual Autobiography. “I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines… It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” Yet despite the “tenderness” Weil noted, much of the poem remains equivocal, even stubbornly so. A reader looking for a tidy—or happy—ending to Herbert’s project might end up troubled by the poem’s surprising and insistent ambivalences.

Formally, the poem is a dialogue, an aspect foregrounded by the poem’s halved spacing on the page. “Love” has the first word in the poem, though it’s spoken offstage. “Love bade me welcome,” Herbert begins, and we supply the reported snippet of speech. But what follows that promising opening—the Lord God, or “Love,” ushering the speaker in, as an eager host might a reluctant guest—is the first of the poem’s many hesitations: “yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.” In “Love (III)” the hesitations are marked rhetorically, by an excess of coordinating conjunctions—“yet,” “but,” “and,” and “so” appear multiple times in each stanza, as do semicolons and other markers of hesitation. Gestures are accompanied by qualifications, and these are frequently signaled by conjunctions: Love bade the guest welcome, yet his soul drew back, “but quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in, / Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning / If I lack’d any thing.” Conjunctions link the action—and the actors—together, but conjunctions also dramatize the provisional, halting nature of The Temple’s finale.

Qualifying, hesitating, and second-guessing extend all the way through “Love (III),” playing out in the dialogue between Love and the guest (the speaker or “I” of the poem). When Love “sweetly question[s]” if its guest needs anything, the guest responds, “A guest … worthy to be here.” The guest doesn’t lack “any thing,” but everything: he needs a self “worthy to be here.” The guest, once you begin looking, is peculiarly disembodied, or embodied as parts—he is a hand, eyes, shame. When the poem begins, it is his “soul” that draws back. Confronted with that kind of despair, a good host would surely offer ready assurances, but Love’s response is also evasive: “You shall be he.” That little verb might suggest that in some future time the guest will be worthy, or it could be a command, or an instruction; “shall” is curiously ambivalent in assigning agency as well. The guest may be responsible for bringing about the state of worthiness, or Love might be the one to grant it, or the state may be brought on by a higher power. But shall can also be conditional—the guest will be worthy only once something else has happened. The guest’s self-identification through negation—“I the unkind, ungrateful”—suggests that he knows he has come to the table too early.

As the poem proceeds, host and guest continue to correct, and evade, each other. “Who made the eyes but I?” Love asks when his guest protests his unworthiness to look at him, echoing earlier “Love” poems in The Temple; “Truth Lord, but I have marred them,” the guest complains back. The final lines demonstrate both the slippery tone of the poem and the cross-purposes of its principal actors. Here is the last stanza:

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 lines of dialogue can potentially run together here, making it difficult to discern who is saying what. Such difficulty in parsing speakers may not be accidental; after all, much of Herbert’s poetry tries to bridge the gap between God and self, “Making,” as he wrote in the poem “The Search,” “two one.” But if we take each sentence as the unit of speech, the dialogue unravels itself: first the guest speaks, then Love replies with a rhetorical question, then the guest offers his service, and so on. But dropped into the present tense, the characters seem even further apart in their Q&A. Does Love bear the blame for the guest’s sins, his shame at them, or his expulsion from the table? Most peculiarly, the guest’s offer to serve—because his host has done too much already?—is never acknowledged. If we think of “serve” in its religious sense, and imagine that the guest is offering not just his assistance at the table, but his life to God’s mission, it become more troubling that Love ignores him. Instead, Love orders, or insists, “You must sit down.” Like “shall” before it, “must” shelters a number of possible readings. Its tone, as Helen Vendler notes, could be generous, the kind of politeness we offer instinctively to visitors; or as Stanley Fish describes it, the verb could signal a thinly veiled imperative meant to maintain Love’s position at the expense of the guest’s free will: “He,” Fish says of the guest, “has been killed with kindness.” That Herbert’s final poem in The Temple ends with lines so easily—even necessarily—inflected by the person reading them does not seem accidental, to either the book or the poet.

Though God and Jesus do speak occasionally in Herbert’s poems, most incredibly in “The Sacrifice,” a long dramatic monologue spoken from Jesus on the cross, “Love (III)” is a dialogue in a setting—the poem is a scene, complete with stage directions: Love draws nearer, takes the speaker’s hand; the speaker enters “in,” prepares to serve, finally sits and eats. The poem is a species of stagecraft; like all theater, it depends on a third element: you, its audience. Other poems in The Temple present us with a kind of fiction of composition: they seem to be happening in real time, presenting us with a speaker whose thought miraculously transcribes itself. “Whither, O, whither art thou fled, / My Lord, my Love? / My searches are my daily bread; / Yet never prove,” begins “The Search.” Herbert’s direct address, as in this poem, lets us believe that we are reading a speaker’s spontaneous, secret speech. “Love (III)” is different. Presented as a scene, it acknowledges and even involves its audience in new ways. The poem itself invites us to decide on its final tone and to use it, as Simone Weil did, to our own ends. While the poem’s final line may at first appear unequivocal, its ultimate meaning is always in flux, dependent in part on the inflection we grant it—either grateful or exhausted or some other emotion entirely.

Did Herbert know what he was doing? Did he intend to end his poem-project on a note that, according to Fish, “rather than resolving conflicts, re-enacts them and confirms their durability”? The Temple’s project might be a kind of preaching, but other poems also occasionally acknowledge their own incompleteness, asking outright for our involvement, an involvement they know they can’t quite control. “Yet slight not these few words,” Herbert writes in “A True Hymn,” “If truly said, they may take part / Among the best in art. / The fineness which a hymn or psalm affords, / Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.” “Love (III)” requires such “according” from its readers, as we resolve its many tonal ambiguities and rhetorical equivocations for ourselves.

Love (III)

By George Herbert 1593–1633 George Herbert
 George  Herbert

Biography

Nestled somewhere within the Age of Shakespeare and the Age of Milton is George Herbert. There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Love, Relationships, Religion, Faith & Doubt, Christianity, God & the Divine, Romantic Love, Classic Love, Infatuation & Crushes

POET’S REGION Wales

SCHOOL / PERIOD 17th Century

Poetic Terms Metaphor, Rhymed Stanza

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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