If you’re not aware of the context of Herbert’s writing, you will get confused when trying to make heads or tales of this one. However, it’s pretty simple once you do.
Basically this is a conversation between the Herbert and God. God is welcoming Herbert, but Herbert consistently questions his own worth and refers to his guilt and sinning as reasons God should be disapproving. However, in contrast to the all powerful image of God that is often found in poetry, here we have a humble and kind God who recognises Herbert’s worth.
Herbert uses this poem to show the superiority of heavenly love to earthly love.
Bade – commanded;
Slack – hesitant;
Marred – damaged.
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.
George Herbert (1559-1633)
George Herbert was a poet, orator and priest: you don’t get many people with that on their CVs these days! Not only that he seems to have been a very kind and charitable priest – extremely unusual! – with one contemporary saying he was ‘a most glorious saint and seer’. Unfortunately though he wasn’t a priest for long. After a brief academic career, then a stint in politics, he joined the priesthood in 1629 and only served for 4 years before dying at 39.
All of his poetry that has survived was religious focused. He is somewhat famous for his use of shape within his poetry, where both ideas and shape link to Church architecture.
His major collection of poetry was called The Temple. This consisted of three sections and this comes from the end of the second one, called The Church. This poem is the third one in the collection called Love; the first two complain that earthly love gets much more attention and focus than the more worthy religious love.
That’s probably all you need to have in your head when examining this poem.
This is a different take on love from the other poems we’ve looked at so far. Herbert personifies Love, but it turns out that really he is referring to God as love – emphasising what Christianity is all about and making God the only real love we should contemplate.
This is a relatively short poem and I’m going to fly through this.
In the first stanza, God welcomes Herbert to his kingdom, but Herbert feels uncomfortable because he feels unworthy of God’s company as a result of the sin he has accumulated in his life. However, God realises what’s going on and puts an arm round his shoulder and tries to get Herbert think if he is lacking anything at the moment – while he’s not part of God’s immediate family; basically he’s implying that Herbert is lacking the comfort and surety that faith brings.
Moving onto the second stanza and God tells Herbert he has what it takes to be welcomed into heaven. However, Herbert questions this and says he is not even worthy of looking at God. Ever the smart ass, God tells him that he created his eyes and questions why he would’ve bothered if he didn’t intend people to look at him.
Well, Herbert still doesn’t get it and claims he’s dirtied the eyes God gave him (I’m choosing not to speculate how specifically he’s done this). By now you imagine God must be getting a bit frustrated with him, but no! He tells him that Jesus’ death has already covered him for all that sinning he did.
Finally Herbert relents and agrees to serve God. However, God isn’t satisfied with this and wants Herbert to treat him as an equal and eat meat from his table.
Language and techniques
Firstly, you should comment on the fact that God is being referred to as Love. If God is the personification of love, then that shows how everything about faith relates to love. This is deliberate from Herbert as a way to redirect us from thinking of love as an earthly emotion, but rather to think of it as being the way that God cares for us.
Throughout the poem Herbert uses language that suggests the humility of his Lord and completely ignores associations of almighty power. He ‘welcome[s]’ Herbert; ‘drew [him] nearer’ and ‘took [his] hand’ when he was worried and unsure of himself; and is ‘smiling’ whilst reassuring him of his worth. He subtly rejects Herbert’s notion that he should ‘serve’ as he orders him to ‘sit down… and taste my meat’ (don’t twist this into something rude, you vile creature!), which communicates that God wants us to sit with him as equals rather than rule over us from an ivory throne. This is an important way of communicating his perception of faith as something that provides comfort and direction, rather than something that determines the decisions we take with the help of the fear of being unworthy and being cast down from heaven.
Compare the impression we get of God with the expectation from the poetic voice that ‘cannot look on thee’ as he doesn’t feel worthy enough. This paints God in a more aloof, almighty role: as someone judging our actions. You could say this perception is more of the God we see in the Old Testament where he was hell-bent on violence and destruction. However, the poem dismisses this perception.
God is such a softy that he asks rhetorical questions to make Herbert realises his worthiness rather than just telling him he is worthy; he is so kind he wants him to figure out his worth on his own.
On the other side of things we have the doubt expressed on behalf of Herbert’s poetic voice. He is reluctant because he feels he is ‘guilty of dust and sin’ and considers his life to have brought some ‘shame’ to the gifts God has given him. Cynically here we could see this as a comment on how pretty much everyone is a sinner to some degree in Christianity; however, Herbert seems to be acknowledging an everyman doubt. We all fear we are not good enough, whether it be for heaven, to go to university or for the promotion we want.
Herbert furthers this submissive and respectful doubt by using a rhetorical question to paint himself as ‘the unkind, ungrateful?’. This stands in stark contrast from what we know of Herbert’s life and is more than likely again just self-doubt rather than some confession of concealed nastiness in his life.
One final thing I’d comment on is a piece of intertextuality. The final line of the first stanza directly references the Bible. When God ‘sweetly question[ed] If [Herbert] lacked any thing’ this is mirroring psalms 23 where some chaps says The Lord is my shepherd and therefore I can lack nothing. The poem is suggesting that we will always lack something without God and faith fills an important part in all of our lives.
It’s not just me this time, I swear. Turn the poem on its side and we have three churches per stanza! Well, maybe not, but the alternative long and then shorter line give us these impressive spires when the poem is on its side and are meant to mirror religious architecture.
Another thing to comment on, probably easier to explain, is the lack of speech marks here. The poems works as a two-way conversation between Love (God) and I (Herbert/poetic voice), but you can get lost quite easily as a result of the missing punctuation. Why has Herbert chosen to leave this out? Was he illiterate? No! He wants us to understand that this conversation is really one that is going on within our heads, hearts and souls. Faith and our relationship with God are controlled from within rather than without.
You could also mention the consistent use of caesura. The poem is read at a really slow pace as a result. This contributes to a tone of calm and reassurance that reflects the idea of faith that Herbert wishes to portray. In fact, you could take this further and comment on how concise God’s lines are, such is his surety and his calm.
As above, the initial self-doubt is overcome with the calm certainty of faith.