A poem a day by George Herbert: ‘Love (III)’
Written by: Helen Wilcox
To celebrate the publication of George Herbert: 100 Poems, we ask volume editor Helen Wilcox to pick her favourite George Herbert poems and explain why she chose them.
This is the final poem in Herbert’s sequence of over 150 lyrics, and the third with the title ‘Love’, suggesting the consistent presence of a loving God in the poet’s devotional life despite the moments of uncertainty and self-doubt explored so honestly in his writing. The opening line of this poem declares love to be a dynamic presence, personified as a welcoming host. He is perhaps the landlord of an inn and undoubtedly the giver of a feast to which the soul has been invited. As the conversation develops, we discover that this figure of ‘Love’ is Christ. Love is characterised by patient persistence expressed in a gentle but firm voice, offering an answer to every objection made by the speaker. It seems that Love has overcome all the problems that human beings can present, even to the extent of having borne ‘the blame’ for their mistakes. Love is not only generous and reassuring to the hesitant speaker but has a sense of humour, too, punning wittily in the question ‘Who made the eyes but I?’. Everything that is created – and redeemed – is encompassed within that ‘I’. And so the speaker’s resistance and claims of unworthiness are gradually whittled down, until the last suggested alternative to accepting the invitation to the meal – ‘then I will serve’ – is set aside. To the end, the poem is a perfect combination of dialogue and lyric form, and a graceful blend of the spiritual and material worlds. While the poem’s tone is that of intimate conversation, and its vocabulary remains familiar and homely, it becomes clear that the tavern supper is also the Eucharistic feast and an anticipation of the eternal heavenly banquet. Herbert’s skill is subtly to combine these layers of meaning in a poem of transparent and poised simplicity. The last line – ‘So I did sit and eat’ – encapsulates acceptance, completion and redemption in an everyday action expressed in words of one syllable: a remarkable and moving achievement.