At age 31, George was at the height of his political career. After graduating with dstinction from Trinity College, Cambridge, he was now quickly climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, just one year earlier, he became one of the youngest men ever to be elected to Parliament. Sir Francis Bacon, who is now credited with popularizing the “scientific method,” was so impressed with George that he dedicated his translation of Certaine Psalmes to him that same year. Life was there for George’s taking, and things were looking up.
But then tragedy struck. Death took hold of his family and friends as the plague resurfaced in England. In response, George Herbert stepped away from his career ambitions and, much to everyone’s surprise took on holy orders with the Church of England. In the small village of Bemerton, just west of Salisbury, England, George faithfully spent the remaining years of his life as the rector at St Andrew’s Church.
We’re not well-acquainted with George Herbert, but I bet you’ve heard the name John Donne. Donne, who wrote his famous Holy Sonnets, represents the 17th Century Metaphysical Poets–a group of primarily Christian writers known for their use of paradox, jarring imagery, and often plain or direct use of language. George Herbert is recognized as one of these poets, and if you listen to the Christian History Almanac, you are likely to hear about him. He penned some of the most beautiful lines of Christian poetry ever written.
To the people of Bemerton, though, George Herbert was simply the local representative of God’s grace. He was “Holy Mr. Herbert” – the man who would forgive their sins, feed them the Sacraments, and empathize with their suffering. He had his own share of suffering, after all. At the age of 39, just seven years after becoming rector, George Herbert died of consumption or tuberculosis.
He was “Holy Mr. Herbert” – the man who would forgive their sins, feed them the Sacraments, and empathize with their suffering.
On his deathbed, he asked that his writings only be published if they would “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” This pastoral mindset pervades Herbert’s poetry, and we see a great example of that in Love (III). In this third and final part of his poetic meditation on the nature of love, Herbert illustrates the passive righteousness we receive through Christ and the fortification of our faith through the sacraments. Masterfully, he brings us face to face with the real personification of Love, namely, Jesus Christ.
Love (I) and Love (II): Diagnosing Our Situation
To better understand Love (III), it’s good to know a little bit about the first two parts of this collection, Love (I) and Love (II). In Love (I), “Immortal Love” is identified, and we begin to see its broken relationship with man. In the very first stanza, Herbert laments that man has “parcel’d out,” this perfect love, and “thrown it on that dust,” only to use its name when it pleases or benefits man.
He continues by showing that this Immortal Love, which we recognize as God (1 John 4:8), dispenses itself freely without limit. Yet mankind’s natural self is turned inward and organically turns to lower things. We abscond with pieces of this love and misappropriate it in our earthly relationships.
In Love (II), Herbert turns this somber reflection into a prayer for deliverance, asking that the Love’s “Immortal Heat...Which shall consume the world” first kindle in our hearts true, righteous desires, and that it, “consume our lusts, and make Thee way.”
Herbert’s prayer is presumably answered in Love (III). So, what does this interaction between “Immortal Love” and man look like?
Love (III): Herbert’s Conversation with Love
In Love (III), Herbert has moved from the theoretical realm to love personified. Like a fly on the wall, we get to witness this interaction between man and Love.
When Love first approaches, the author flinches, and his “soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.” Almost immediately, Herbert shows us man’s visceral and almost allergic reaction to real love. As the author’s soul quickly retreats and rejects Love, we find Love–now a real person–patiently tending to the recoiled creature. Instead of rightfully abandoning the man when rejected or letting anger take control, Love, “Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.”
Love continues to gently but endlessly pursue the narrator, despite his persistence in pulling away in the opposite direction. Herbert provides a beautiful image of God’ chasing us down’ in love like the so-called, “Hound of Heaven.” Despite being wracked with guilt, the narrator digs his heels into the ground. In response to nearly every loving statement made by Love, the narrator responds, “Yes, but…” He is unwilling and, perhaps, incapable of coming to accept Love on his own accord.
Love continues to gently but endlessly pursue the narrator, despite his persistence in pulling away in the opposite direction.
But Love persists, and eventually, man is ‘defeated’ as he admits he is simply not worthy of Love’s presence. At this pivotal moment, we learn that Love, in its purest form, is a person who is overflowing with kindness and grace. Just as the narrator seems to move towards the door, he says that Love, “took my hand, smiling did reply, / ‘Who made the eyes but I?’”
The dialogue continues: “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?”
When the author quips that all he lacks is a, “worthy guest,” Love declares, “You shall be he.” By speaking these words, Love actually makes the narrator what he cannot make himself: a guest worthy of Love’s presence. The law has clearly done its work on the man. Love breaks in from the outside with the foreign and surprising Gospel word. In these lines, Herbert captures the tension of the Christian life, and how our daily game of tug-of-war with God always ends in our ‘defeat’. Time and again, he pulls us over to his side and declares us the winner!
The Simple Comfort of the Sacraments
Love’s words are active throughout the poem. They declare and command.
In the third and final stanza, when the author makes one half-hearted attempt to address his wrongdoing and guilt, Love commands, “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.” This is no suggestion, only insistence. There is nothing for the narrator to do but enjoy the feast before him.
Here is where we find a signature characteristic for Herbert and the other Metaphysical Poets. As we approach the end of the poem, we anticipate a grandiose or powerful conclusion. Instead, we are left with just six simple and rather unimpressive words: “So I did sit and eat.”
This plainness leaves the reader staring down at a paradox. How can something so magnificent be so simple?
Knowing Herbert’s background as a rector and judging from his dying words, he intended these poems as a comfort for anxious souls. Herbert takes us to the heart of our anxiety as simul iustus peccator and shows us the truth: As we live our new life in Christ and deal with the current consequences of sin, there is tension in the Christian life.
We are both “guilty of dust and sin” and totally exonerated as worthy guests in the eyes of Love.
This is the paradox that pervades the entire piece. We are both “guilty of dust and sin” and totally exonerated as worthy guests in the eyes of Love. Herbert shows us through this poetic dialogue that there is nothing left for us to do. Instead, we are invited to dine at the table set by Love and “taste my meat.”
It is here at The Holy Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood where Love meets us and draws us back to Himself time and time again to dispense His grace to us.
But we continually fight it. We can’t help but insist that there is something we must do. Just as the narrator, we grasp at half-hearted piety, saying, “My dear, then I will serve.”
But Love won’t accept it.
Instead, Love reiterates it’s grace-filled message: Take and eat.