Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

The problem of love is central to Herbert. Throughout the poems of “The Church” he repeatedly analyzes and dramatizes various aspects of this problem, particularly the recurrent failure of humankind to love God properly. Many poems catalog human evasiveness (“The Agonie”), attachment to earthly rather than heavenly ideals (“Frailty”), unwillingness to serve God (“Miserie”), and habitual (to use the titles of some other poems) “Unkindness,” “Ungratefulness,” “Vanity,” “Giddiness,” and “Affliction.” To be sure, humankind has positive strengths and moods as well, and there are poems of “Assurance,” “Grace,” “Praise,” and “Prayer,” but the impression one may have after reading through “The Church” in its entirety is that the devotional life is a gradual ascent, often interrupted, to a precarious peak. Nothing seems to be accomplished “once and for all” in Herbert, including love—perhaps especially love.

This pattern puts much weight on the final poem of the sequence, which is in some respects both a triumphant ending and a conclusion in which nothing is concluded. The persona in “Love” (III) is chastened by a sense of his own sin. On the one hand, this is a lesson constantly reinforced by the poems of “The Church,” and perhaps it is meant to be a good sign that the speaker at last apparently has no illusions about the limits of human power. Yet even at this late stage in the sequence, knowledge has not yet become wisdom. He has learned only half of the lesson: He is indeed “Guilty of dust and sin,” but in the last analysis—and in the last moment of time—this does not matter. Human perfection or worthiness is not required by God, who simply smiles at the thought that anyone could actually deserve heaven on merit alone. The persona is so convinced that sin cancels love that he is blind to the basic Christian belief that love cancels sin. This should be a comforting doctrine, but Herbert suggests that it is nevertheless difficult to accept. Almost to the very end, the persona tries to assert his power and play a role in the ceremony. His offer, “My dear, then I will serve,” is a touching confession of obedience but also a willful resistance to acknowledging that his primary role in the affair is to be loved, not to love, to be served by a figure of divine love that far overshadows any possible human love. One suspects that this is a lesson that needs to be learned again and again.

As uneasy and challenging as the poem is, it is still a triumphant conclusion to “The Church.” The sequence of lyrics ends not on a fine point of theology but with what is simultaneously a subtle and commonplace observation about emotional and spiritual life: Love is difficult, chastening, and critical—“quick-eyed,” in short—but all-embracing, redemptive, and the ground of humankind’s being, if one can accept it.

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