“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 instantly accepting Love’s invitation, the persona is hesitant, painfully aware that he is “Guilty of dust and sin,” and is therefore unworthy to be in the presence of such a perfect host. As Herbert imagines it, however, divine love is not conditional: It does not deny the fact of human inadequacy, but renders it inconsequential. Humankind is indeed “unkind” and “ungrateful,” but the resulting sense of shame serves no useful purpose. In fact, it reinforces one’s turn from God: “Ah my dear,” says the shameful man, “I cannot look on thee.” Distance from God, not human weakness or guilt, is the real spiritual problem, and Love tries to remedy this by drawing closer and closer through the course of the poem.
One of the deepest ironies here is that the persona clings so resolutely to his sense of guilt and unworthiness. Despite every gentle assurance from Love, man seems to revel in confessing his own wickedness and yearns for punishment: “let my shame/ Go where it doth deserve,” he says, even after Love takes him by the hand and smiles. Herbert shows much psychological insight in dramatizing how deeply embedded is the human resistance to love, a resistance that—at least in Christian terms—may only be overcome by the exemplary and loving sacrifice of Christ. Only when Love reminds the persona that he “bore the blame” for all human guilt by taking human form and suffering the Crucifixion is he properly humbled and prepared to accept the love he so desperately needs. The poem ends not on the painful spectacle of the Crucifixion, though, but on the joy of Communion, a celebration of God’s love. After being exhausted by relentless, self-doubting questioning and gently overwhelmed by a divine figure who will not be outsmarted in debate or denied in love, the persona announces his capitulation and assent in a simple, monosyllabic assertion—“So I did sit and eat”—that is characteristic of Herbert’s dramatic art of understatement. To say the least, this is no ordinary meal. In fact, it marks the intersection of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the human and the divine, desire and fulfillment.
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 1,184 words.)