The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Love” (III), a relatively brief poem of three six-line stanzas, concludes the central section of George Herbert’s The Temple, entitled “The Church.” This collection of devotional lyrics is structured as a sequence that covers the inevitable fluctuations of religious experience as a person strives to lead a faithful life. “Love” (III) is the third poem by that name in “The Church.” The first two, appearing early in the sequence, lament the fact that earthly love tends to attract more attention than the much more deserving holy love. By the end of “The Church,” however, the persona created by Herbert is able to concentrate on sacred love, and “Love” (III) dramatizes a climactic meeting between a worshiper and God, imagined not as a remote figure of vengeance or stern judgment but as an inviting lover.

The speaker narrates an action that has evidently already taken place, but despite the past tense of the verbs, the experience described is powerful and immediate, in part because the poem is structured as a dialogue. Herbert is often thought of as a person of a secure and lasting faith, but many of his poems reveal that beneath such a faith is a large amount of tension and worry. In “Love” (III), the persona’s nervous uneasiness is gradually overcome by the gentle words of a kind lover who has an answer for every question.

Herbert seems to be saying that divine love compensates for all human weaknesses. Instead of...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Herbert is rightly regarded as a master of poetic form and language, and “Love” (III) is one of the best examples of how deceptively simple his lyrics are. Here Herbert reduces extremely complicated theological and psychological themes—the potentially devastating consequences of human sin and the avoidance of love—to a dramatic dialogue that is both a realistic debate and an allegory. One could call this a “love” poem, because in many ways it is deeply indebted to secular love lyrics, one of the most widely known and influential genres of Renaissance poetry. As in so many of his other poems, Herbert draws from this tradition basically to parody or reinterpret it.

The typical secular love lyric tells a tale of frustrated love, of a desiring man courting a mistress unable or, in most cases, unwilling to give in to his desires. Consummation of any sort is rarely achieved, and if it is, it prompts continuing worry rather than lasting satisfaction. Herbert’s poem turns this pattern around: The personified Love is no flighty or indisposed mistress but an attentive, generous, and gentle divine being whose existence erases rather than intensifies human incapacity. Much like the illustrated religious emblem books of the time, Herbert pictures an allegory of the wooing of Amor (Love) and Anima (the human soul), and the key issue is not whether one can seduce or win someone’s love but whether one can accept divine love that, unlike the love of a...

(The entire section is 578 words.)