Love – George Herbert
George Herbert lived during the late 16th and early 17th century. He died early and never enjoyed robust health. Educated at Cambridge University, he could have chosen and got a position at the Court. But surprisingly he chose to be a vicar at a small parish near Salisbury. Most of the poems written by Herbert are like spiritual autobiographies. Most of them are concerned with his struggle with doctrine and faith and the subsequent acceptance of the Church of England. His poems reveal a man of great intelligence who invested or put in a lot time and effort in his works which turned out to be beautiful and shrouded with mystery.
This is a poem that can be read at several levels. On one hand, it can be a dialogue between a guest and the host of a feast. It can also be interpreted as a dialogue between Herbert and God. It can also be a conversation between a pilgrim’s soul and God. Herbert’s Love can be classed as a piece belonging to the Metaphysical school of poetry which employed a rich profusion of metaphors. This poem is marked by genuine emotion. Herbert seems to be conscious of his lack of credentials to be present at God’s feast or communion. He is “dust” and is marked by the original sin. His eyes are not worthy of gazing at God, he says. God tells him, he made those eyes therefore they are worthy. The host explains to the guest “sweetly” why his presence at the feast is honorable. When the guest is unwilling to accede to God’s request, his tone changes and he imperiously “tells” the guest to sit and eat.
Herbert personifies God as a being filled with love. The guest who is Herbert or an ordinary Christian longs to go in and meet God and gaze at his face. But he is keenly aware of his unworthiness as he considers himself a mortal who is guilty of the original sin. Seeing him shrink back, God approaches him and asks him what he needs. The guest wants to be inside but feels he does not deserve this honor. He is ashamed of himself and does not deem his eyes fit or worthy to gaze upon God, but God counters that argument saying that those eyes were made by God Himself. God pacifies the guest by saying that He died on the cross for expiation of the sin of man. Brooking no further argument the host forces the guest to sit and partake of the feast.
Line 1. Love or God welcomes the guest but the guest shrinks back conscious of his unworthiness to be in God’s presence. God has been personified as Love by the poet. Though written in the 17th century, the language sounds surprisingly modern.
Line 2. The guest is made of base material and this makes him feel he is not worthy of being in God’s presence. He is also guilty of man’s first sin. The Bible says that man is made of “dust” and goes back to being “dust” after death.
Line 3. But the all-seeing God notices the guest holding back.
Line 4. After making the initial entrance…
Line 5. Love comes close to the guest and asks in a sweet voice…
Line 6. Whether the guest needed anything,
Line 7. The guest answers that what he lacks is the worthiness as a guest to enter God’s abode.
Line 8. Love says that Herbert is a worthy guest.
Line 9. The guest cannot believe that he, unworthy that he is, can be considered a worthy guest. He is unkind and ungrateful.
Line 10. The guest says that his eyes have not the right to gaze on god.
Line 11. God gently takes the guest’s hand and replies with a smile.
Line 12. He reminds him that the guest’s eyes were fashioned by none other than God.
Line 13. The guest agrees with that but he defiled them. For the shame that he carries…
Line 14. He deserves to go to Hell.
Line 15. God reminds him that he had taken upon himself the sin of man and died on the cross to expiate that sin. Jesus dies on the cross to wash away the sin of man.
Line 16. The guest then offers to serve at God’s feast.
Line 17. God forcefully tells him to sit and partake of the feast.
Line 18. So the guest sits down and eats.
The poet at the door of God’s mansion is troubled in spirit as he is conscious of his sin. God is sensitive to the guest’s moods and tries to put him at ease by making kind enquiries. The poet dares not gaze on God as his eyes are marred with guilt. He feels that he deserves punishment rather than love. The complex relationship between God and a remorseful sinner is explored further when God pacifies him by saying that his eyes can indeed gaze on God as they are God’s handiwork. Shame on account of man’s sin to the happy acceptance of God’s love is the theme of this poem. God is gentle and understanding yet firm. He is not ready to listen to endless protests from the poet.