Listen to this story:
“Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back.”
Thus begins the dialogue between God and the soul in “Love III,” the last poem of George Herbert’s The Temple,1 a collection of 162 poems that Herbert described as “a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul.” The imagery of the temple functions on several levels, representing the Old Testament temple, the New Testament church with Christ as its cornerstone, and the individual believer as the temple of God. All of these meanings are operating in Herbert’s poetry.
The voice of the speaker is that of the Christian Everyman who moves through the various stages of the Christian life and explores “the nature of divine and human intimacy."2 The growth of love between God and the soul is essentially a narrative. He begins by stepping onto “The Church Porch” where he learns the moral behavior expected of the good Christian, until he steps through the door and peers inside the church where he catches a glimpse of divine love in “The Sacrifice.” Throughout The Temple, he uses the language and imagery of the Bible, explores the furnishings of the church and various aspects of the liturgy and church calendar, always longing for a richer intimacy with God, a fuller glimpse of “Thy full-ey’d love” (“The Glance”).
Now at the end of this spiritual journey, he finds himself at the banquet table of God. God has put on his apron and prepared the feast. Now he is welcoming his guests, but the speaker hangs by the door. There must be some mistake here. Certainly the banquet table of God is prepared for the saints and martyrs, the prophets and heroes. He is all too aware that he is simply a sinner. And this is where the dialogue begins:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne,
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
“Love III” dramatizes the relationship of divinity and humanity in the language familiar to readers of the Bible.3 The setting is a feast, prepared by Divine Love, Herbert’s characteristic name for God, clearly echoing the biblical identification of God as Love (1 John 4:8). The banquet setting grows from multiple connections with the Bible. “He brought me to the banqueting house,” says the Beloved in the Song of Solomon, “And his banner over me was love” (Song of Solomon 2:4).
The Communion table, with Love as the Host, an unspoken pun, would have been a ready connection to Herbert’s readers, as well as the banquet parables of Jesus, and the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9). The eschatological setting of Christ welcoming his people to the longest table is supported by the themes of the preceding four poems: “Death,” “Doomsday,” “Judgment,” and “Heaven,” though even now, through the Scriptures, the liturgy, and the sacraments, the soul can have intimations of this ultimate face-to-face encounter with Love. We have watched the dialogue, the back and forth play, between the speaker and God throughout the 162 poems of The Temple. This is the last one. How is it going to end? We watch the drama play out.
“Love bade me welcome.” Love initiates the conversation. And the dramatic situation is set. Love is the host who has spread out the banquet and now welcomes the guest. The narrative really should end right here. The host welcomes; the guest accepts. But, “yet,” the next line begins with an adversative, a contrary motion. Not for the first time, the speaker resists the divine movement on his soul. Here is where the drama begins. For some reason, after 161 poems, “my soul drew back, guiltie of dust and sinne.”
A biblical allusion can be as simple as a single word, if that word rings in the memory and imagination, and “Dust” is a frequent image in the King James Bible for the fallen human condition: “Shall the dust praise thee?” (Psalm 30:9); “He remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14); Abraham says in bargaining with God over Sodom, as if to excuse his audacity, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes”(Genesis 18:27). Can humanity sit at Love’s table in his mortal, fallen condition? Well, no. Something must happen, and we see, as the poem unfolds, that it already has.
“Quick-ey’d Love” pursues the reluctant guest. As the soul draws back, Love draws near, “sweetly questioning, / If I lack’d any thing.” “A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here.” He doesn’t ask for much: just a whole new self. The King James Bible renders it as putting on the “new man” (Ephesians 4:24) or “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “Love said, “You shall be he,” the new man, the new creature you have asked to be.
That should finish the conversation, but the guest comes back with an objection. “I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, / I cannot look on thee.” He addresses Love with the intimacy of someone who knows God well. He falls into a long line of prophets who respond to God’s call with a heart-felt, “But I can’t. Not me.” Moses argues extensively with God, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent,” but “I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Isaiah cries out “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, . . . for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5). The speaker is in good company. And the dilemma is clear. God calls, but how can we look on the face of God. To look on God is death. “Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6). “Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee.” A lover longing to be loved speaks the language of dust and sin, aware that he dare not look on the face of Love.
But Love is up to the challenge. The face of Love he dare not see is smiling. God is holding his hand. “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?”
“Who hath made man’s mouth?” says God to Moses. “Have not I the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). I made your eyes, says Love. They can look on me.
The guest comes back with more arguments. “Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them.” Going beyond the arguments of Moses and Isaiah, he now evokes the New Testament words of the Syro-Phoenician woman in a strange inversion of poetic images. The woman asks Jesus for healing for her daughter. Jesus refuses by saying it is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs. The woman cannot be turned away and, matching Christ’s wit, she says in the language of the King James Bible, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).
The two stories are in direct opposition to each other. The woman will not be turned away by Christ who refuses to allow her a place at the table. Herbert’s speaker refuses to take his place at the table where Love freely invites him. These two strange stories are united by the words of opposition, “Truth Lord, but.” The woman’s argument earns her the praise of Jesus, who says, “O woman, great is thy faith.” The speaker’s faith seems nonexistent.
Love who has evoked his authority as the Creator is rebuffed by the speaker’s claim to the fall. Truth, Lord, you made the eyes, but “I have marred them.” And then the despairing cry, “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.” Where does guilt go when our sins are forgiven? Where does shame go when we are accepted and welcomed? The King James Bible speaks of bottomless pits and the depths of the sea, but there is a bigger issue here. Now we are getting to the crux of the argument. We have been circling it, but we can’t avoid it any longer.
“And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” says Jesus to Nicodemus (John 3:10). Do you not know the most fundamental truth of Christianity: Love bore the blame. That is why God bears the name of Love. The guest of God is no longer the dust-covered sinner. He is a new creature. Because Love bore the blame, he is the guest, worthy to be here.
The guest has no argument against the mind-boggling reality of the cross. But he is not giving in yet. He will draw out his own trump card. “My deare, then I will serve.” As the Father rushes the prodigal son to the banquet table, the son protests “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19). The Father doesn’t let him finish his speech. He isn’t arguing the case. He is too busy calling the neighbors to the feast.
Love is through arguing, as well. Love’s case is ultimately not based on reason. It is based on Love. Love’s feast is not to be debated, or even understood. It is to be eaten. “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 34:8). “You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat.” Love speaks the invitation in words resonant with Isaiah’s call to Israel, “Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:2).4 Jesus depicts the heavenly feast God prepares for his servants, when “he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).5 For the first time, the guest has no words. There is nothing more to be said. Love has the last word. In a grand understatement, typical of Herbert, the soul silently assents, “So, I did sit and eat.”
This dialogue between God and the soul takes its imagery and themes from the Bible. Allusions, which tickle the memory and bring up a whiff of another story, another passage, bring us to a deeper understanding of the text. We can see how deeply present the language of the Bible was in the minds of the poet and his readers and how powerfully it can be used in a devotional reading where the words of Scripture are spoken as our words, where the stories of the Bible are retold as our story, my story. And in Herbert’s new parable with old images, we, too, sit and eat.
A previous version of this article was presented on October 22, 2011 at Walla Walla University for their day-long event, “Celebrating the King James Bible: The 400th Anniversary of the Translation That Changed the World (1611-2011).” This is the second of a two-part sequence on George Herbert’s use of biblical allusion in the poetry of The Temple. The first part, “Thy Words Do Find Me Out: Herbert’s Devotional Reading of the King James Bible,” was published on SpectrumMagazine.org, Spirituality Section, December 1, 2017.
Notes & References:
1. F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941). This is the definitive edition of Herbert’s works, though many others are available. All quotations from Herbert are from this edition.
2. William G. Witt, “George Herbert’s Approach to God: The Faith and Spirituality of a Country Priest,” Theology Today 60, no. 2 (July 2003): accessed October 2, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/004057360306000206.
3. Chana Bloch, Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 98-127. This book is a masterful study of biblical allusions in The Temple and focuses here on “Love III.”
4. Chana Bloch, “George Herbert and the Bible: A Reading of “Love (III),” English Literary Renaissance 8, no. 3 (Autumn 1978): 336.
5. Bloch, “George Herbert and the Bible: A Reading of Love (III),” 331.
Beverly Beem has recently retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash
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