Love (III)

 Overview

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.

Mini-glossary:
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)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

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.

 

 Themes

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.

 

Content

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.

 

Structure

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.

 

Tone

As above, the initial self-doubt is overcome with the calm certainty of faith.

 

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

17 thoughts on “Love (III)”

  1. Dear Mr. Sir,

    Your analysis on different poems as helped me immensely in preparing for my IGCSE Literature exams.

    However I have some concerns about the way that you worded some of your analysis.

    This poem has religious context in it and by analyzing it there is a certain respect that has to be shown towards it. When mentioning that ‘some chap’ wrote in Psalm 23, it can be seen as writing off a very important character in the Christian faith.

    Furthermore, you wrote about how
    “he orders him to ‘sit down… and taste my meat’ (don’t twist this into something rude, you vile creature!)” and describe God as “ever the smart ass” that was deeply a disrespectful thing to write. This poem talks about God’s Love and then by mentioning something as rude as that, and so casually saying something as inconsiderate as that, it can be seen as a very disrespectful, impudent thing.

    I hope you don’t take offense to this, I really do appreciate your hard work on these poems so I hope you take this as constructive criticism.

    Thank you,
    A student

    1. Hi A Student,

      I am sorry if I have caused offence. However, I think it is important not to be too straight faced when it comes to religion and I’m sure any loving God would appreciate a good bit of double entrendre. I try to write my posts with a bit of humour and referring to religious figures in very human tones I feel lends a sense of credence to the ideas within the poem.

      Anyway, I guess we will never see eye to eye on this issue, but I will bear it in mind in future posts. Glad my notes have been of some help, irregardless of my sacrilege 😉

      Mr Sir

  2. Dear Mr Sir,

    Thank you soooo much for sharing your hard work and great insight with others! I just felt sorry about your comment on kind and charitable priests being extremely unusual. I feel blessed to have encountered many in my life, and wish for you, from the heart, that same blessing.
    🙂
    Gaby

    1. Hi Gaby,

      Don’t read too much into it. In the UK the only thing I hear about priests is when they are being naughty, but I’m not particularly religious so don’t really have much to do with them. I am sure there are many good ones out there.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  3. Hi this really helpful
    I am doing my IGCSE poetry exam soon and I was wondering if this poem comes up and the question is ‘how is love presented in love(111)” then would you talk about God and religion or more generally about love?
    Thanks

  4. Hi sir,

    My friend told me about your website yesterday and I’m very happy with the great amount of detail you put in the analysis of each poem. This is definitely a great resource for revision and I have already recommended it to my friends.

    I have a question about making original points. Is it risky to make bold/ unique points that might not be true? So about the poem representing religious architecture if turned on its side; will the examiner potentially mark you down? I know originality and flair is marked highly, but will some things be unintended by the poet?

    1. Hi Han,

      Good to know word of mouth is spreading!

      In terms of making original points, feel free to do so. Any point is valid as long as you are able to demonstrate the validity of your interpretation through close examination of the text. However, don’t feel like you need to have a completely fresh and unique perspective in order to fulfill the requirement for a personal response, as this really means that you are able to justify interpretations and explain your perspective.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  5. Mr Sir,
    Just a minor confusion. I think you might’ve meant “cast down [from] heaven” instead of “cast down to heaven” from the language and techniques tab …?

    A huge thank you for all the help you are giving us students who are sitting for the Literature exam btw!

    1. Absolutely correct, sharp eyes! I’ve changed it now.

      Not a problem re: the website, hope your exams go well!

      Mr Sir

  6. Mr Sir,
    I was just wondering about the conceit meanings within the poem. The most confusing one for me is when Love says: ‘You must sit down,…, and taste my meat.’
    Although I understand your summary of the poem (which was really helpful!) I’m still complexed as to how simple the poem is. It reminds me of a similar poem within the collection “songs of ourselves” called ‘the clod and the pebble’. I’m very curious so I find it hard to accept that the poem is just a conversation between Herbert and God. Is there an underlining message, or is it really this simple?
    Thanks a lot for your help, Mr Student.

    1. Wow! A load of comments! 🙂

      I think the ‘taste my meat’ line (giggle) is pretty simple to get your head around. Think about communion where worshippers eat the wafer to represent Christ’s body, which is meant to be a way of them finding life:

      “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

      I’m not sure I’d class it as a completely simple poem as I suppose it is designed to act as a sort of parable for the reader, where we recognise ourselves to some extent. However, don’t panic and think you are missing something, sometimes poems are relatively literal and easy to follow.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

    2. I believe God is inviting this worshipper to share in the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, in which, to some Protestants, the bread and the Body of Christ coexist. To a believer, the act of Communion is the closest you can be to God.

  7. Good Evening Sir. I am appearing for my IGCSE exams next month. for Literature .. when writing an essay on any poem. Do u think writing bit about the poets life and his beliefs or purpose is necessary ?
    i also wanted to know that for poetry. if we want to answer a Q on a poem. do we go stanza by stanza explaining what it means – or that may sound more like a summary? whats the best way?

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Definitely don’t write about a poet’s life or beliefs. The only reason you’d mention this would be if it was in someway relevant to your interpretation of the poem. In terms of your response in general, I think it makes sense to work through the poem from first stanza to last, but you need to ensure that this isn’t just explaining what the poem is about, rather you should be developing analysis in relation to the question. Also, don’t feel completely restricted by the stanza order. If you want to make a point about a continuing use of pathetic fallacy or an analogy, it makes sense to bring the related ideas together to deal with them as one.

      Hope this helps,

      Mr Sir

  8. Thanks a lot for your great help…everyday I search the site for your new work..it really makes my day..Thanks again

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