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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)