Poetry Review, George Herbert, Love (III)

10 Jun

Ah, Love.  One of the first major themes expressed in poetry and song, and one of the easiest to do badly.  I remember when I was in high school where the teacher forbid love poetry because as she said, there’s nothing original about talking about someone you love romantically, because they are always portrayed as perfect, therefore boring.   The other thing is that Love is such a universally acclaimed virtue that it can become easily meaningless–it’s an easy virtue to praise because it has no shape, no specificity and that is the problem a poet has in talking about it at all.

George Herbert makes his love a prodigal story:

“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 anything.”

One of the biggest follies about love is the idea that it somehow must be earned, that we must become people capable of deserving love before we can have it.  However if you think about those that can use love the most, like babies, it’s not about being deserving or undeserving, real love doesn’t care about such things–it’s not something you can earn.  The other thing that I like about this stanza is how he’s guilty of dust and sin–not just the things he’s done but his general dirtiness keeps him out of the door.

” ‘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?”

Looking and seeing have a great meaning in this poem.  Love is like sight, and since when do we speak of people being deserving of that?  Also he is painfully aware of his shabbiness, but Love does not care a bit.

“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.”

The poem amusingly moves from this great symbolic personification of love to a sign of home and hearth.  There’s a little bit of Christ talk, but the poem is pretty clear that Love is not supposed to be the same as Christ here–she’s feminine, she has a home, she has invited a stranger in who does not feel worth it.  And Herbert seems to think it’s in the ordinary everyday things that Love shines, that Love makes ordinary everyday things exist at all, without which life would be meaningless.  It gives shape and order and sustenance.  Love must not move mountains, it must only serve a hot meal and be kind.  A very different matter entirely.

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