The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

“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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

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 Petrarchan mistress, is freely given.

The language of “Love” (III) is, at least on the surface, remarkably transparent and direct. Herbert uses a relatively high proportion of monosyllables throughout the poem, increasing dramatically toward the end: About three-quarters of the words in each of the first two stanzas are monosyllables, and in the last stanza, only one of forty-seven words has more than one syllable. This heightens the colloquial sound of the poem and makes it read like an overheard conversation. Beneath this colloquial simplicity, however, is a subtle design. For example, Herbert structures the poem using alternating line lengths, and this formal technique helps convey the persona’s evolving mood. One of the problems of the persona is that he tends to say too much: Instead of accepting, he argues with Love. His protests, however, gradually become quieter and briefer. In the first part of the poem, his voice dominates, at least insofar as he speaks at length while Love’s brief statements fill only the short lines of the stanza. This is reversed in the final stanza, where Love speaks the long lines and the persona speaks the short ones, underscoring his move toward satisfaction and silence.

Unlike many other poems by Herbert and the so-called Metaphysical poets with whom he is usually linked, “Love” (III) does not rely heavily on elaborate or ingenious metaphors, but the poem gains resonance by his use of sacramental and biblical allusions which confirm that “Love” (III) is about no simple invitation to love or dinner. If the persona is a “guest,” Love is implicitly the “host,” not only a kindly benefactor but the substance of the Communion ceremony. The entire scene recalls Luke 12, where a guest is gently urged to sit and be served by Christ. Finally, especially in its place at the close of “The Church” and directly following a poem entitled “Heaven,” “Love” (III) may also call to mind one’s final entrance into heaven, described as a feast in Revelation 19:9.

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