Reasonable Damnation, Unreasonable Love: Herbert’s The Temple

June 29, 2010

George Herbert

Anthony Esolen shares a reading of George Herbert’s poem “Love”, the final poem of Herbert’s volume, the Temple. In both biographies of Simone Weil (here and here) you will see the poem noted as one of her “anthem poems,” by which I mean it was a poem she lived her life by.

One of the problems of poetry is that it requires a certain discipline to read. Unless you spend time with a poem, constantly returning and re-reading, or getting a chance to listen to a poet perform the piece, the meaning may elude you. In this case we have a professional scholar sharing his interpretation of the poem. More than an interpreter, Esolen is a true blessing.

LET US BEGIN WITH the final poem of Herbert’s volume The Temple, as it will show us most clearly the love for which we have been made. In “Love (III) the soul is the “reasonable” party, and Love — Christ — is the gentle but firm ironist. The poem is a dramatic dialogue between the mere man, who is right about everything, and Christ, who makes everything right. Here is the poem in its entirety. (Here and throughout, I have modernized Herbert’s orthography,

Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
     Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling made reply,
     “Who made the eyes, but I?”

“Truth, lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
     “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down;’ says Love, “and taste my meat.”
     So I did sit and eat.

“Love bade me welcome,” says the speaker, and we should not be too hasty to personify this love. Christ bids him welcome, but as an act of love because there is no reason why the soul should be welcome. In truth, he is not well come,” and he knows it: “Yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin.” That soul may be timid, but its timidity is rational. It fears the center, as a poorly dressed man would fear the spotlight. It is afraid to be loved, and knows it should not be loved. How much more fitting it would be if the soul could slink away to the justice it deserves.

Fitting indeed, for this soul flatly cites Scripture to its own damnation: it is “guilty of dust and sin.” Into this one strange phrase (how is one guilty of “dust”?), Herbert compacts a theology of justice. He alludes to Christ’s parable comparing the kingdom of God to a wedding feast that a king gave for his son. When one of the guests arrived unsuitably dressed for the occasion, the king ordered him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness, where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22 11-13).

 To be “guilty of dust” is to be mortal, to suffer death, the wages of sin. The “dust” lies on the clothing of the arriving soul — but it is also what the body is made of, and what the body must return to is a consequence of sin. No sin, no offending dust; but there is sin, and so there is death, and so there is also the dust of a deeper  mortality that soils the garments we bring when we meet our Maker. We cannot fit ourselves for the wedding feast, just as we cannot bring ourselves to life. We are all that poor man in the parable.

The soul in Herbert’s poem would courteously spare the king the trouble. It sees itself in that shameful light, and is eager to fall away from Love and embrace the darkness. The love of God is more terrifying than his justice for in love his essence shines forth more radiantly. That love exalts dust. It raises the tattered mortality we are robed with, and it forgives sin when there is no reason in our natures or in the world why it should do either.

The trans-logic of God’s forgiveness is celebrated by Herbert’s daring reversal of the parable from Scripture. The soul flings Christ’s own words back at him, to prove why he should not show mercy. But, in seeming to violate his own just law, Love fulfills his just mercy, giving us what we cannot have expected, and thus, from Love, what is above all to be hoped.

Love is “quick-eyed” — as a solicitous bridegroom orchestrating the celebration, careful to observe any hesitation or discomfort among his guests. The lord of the universe, who spies the secrets of man’s inmost heart, is here a cheerful, tactful young man, the prime servant for the feast held in his honor. That homely reduction is part of the message of the Incarnation and the Atonement: who would have thought that God could or would become man?

The rational soul resists the invitation. No surprise our rational souls, in action, are but bundles of pride laced up with a thread or two of logic. We do not deserve the invitation, we say, when secretly we feel that the invitation offends high sense of our tragic insignificance. But if the soul will not move to the center, the center will move to it. So the young groom, the host of the feast, Creator of life and light, asks the stunningly understated question “Do you lack anything?”

How can such a question be answered? Love asks it, as if he were asking the newly arrived guest whether he needed a trifle, like a place to leave his coat, or a drink, or a chair. Yet, as with the phrase “guilty of dust and sin,” the question implies a theology. In the presence of its redeemer the soul lacks everything. Christ’s question is both invitation and gentle accusation. The speaker understands it so. What does he lack? Knowing that he falls infinitely short of the glory of God, and infinitely short of the love he owes to the Lord who has loved him, he fashions a reply which he thinks leaves no room for exception. “A guest… worthy to be here.”

The lack is not in what the speaker has, but in what he is. That lack is total. He himself, what God meant him to be, is lacking, is absent, all that remains is for the sinner he has become to make himself absent too. The speaker knows he lacks the slightest quality to merit the host’s attention.  But this host is called Love, and that literally makes a difference “Love said, ‘You shall be He.”

The sentence is not to be construed rhetorically. The soul will not simply be considered or named a worthy guest, but will actually be one, by the creative fiat of Love. What in an earthly host would be a polite pretense (“You are worthy after all.”) or a jocular exercise of authority (“You are worthy, because it is my day, and I say you are”) is here a command and an act. Love supplies the lack by making the speaker a worthy guest, drawing good not only out of evil but out of nothingness.

Still the soul holds to its view of the fitness of things: “I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.” Why should it be loved? It is not natural, for the soul has been unkind,” a perversion of its “kind” or “nature,” a frustration of its innate purpose. It is not just, for the soul has scorned or misused the free gifts of God, ungratefully returning evil for good. The last thing ingratitude merits is another free gift, another grace, the last thing kindness can arouse is the warmth of natural affection.

Yet the soul, overcome with shame and love, utters its truest and least calculated phrase: ‘“Ah my dear.” In this phrase the speaker acknowledges the transcendent worth of Christ he is ‘dear’ or “priceless,” the one whose precious blood redeemed or bought us back from the bondage of sin.  He also confesses that he longs for Christ as the only object of his deepest and truest love. Yet he uses the phrase as a way of excusing himself from love!

One endearing irony of Christian love is that it should be at once so modest and so bold, the bride in the Song of Songs who, drunk with love, dares to ask her Creator and Redeemer for a kiss. With the exclamation ah my dear the soul wavers in its small rationality. It moves uncertainly between the shy bravery of true love and  the proud diffidence of rejection. The soul is that of a sinner, caught between desire and disdain; wanting much to be loved, and wanting much not to be loved. On its own it can do nothing. All is up to Love, who takes the speaker’s hand. The gesture is firmly paternal and gently respectful of the poor sinner’s dignity. Then Love fixes the speaker’s gaze with a smile, and, not scorning to use the lowly pun as an instrument of grace, asserts his sovereignty over all things material and spiritual “Who made the eyes but I?”

At this, the speaker’s last hold upon his paltry dignity slips away. A note of desperation enters his abrupt reply “‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.” Herbert touches upon a psychological profundity that only the strongest believers or the strongest resisters perceive: most sou1s would find it more comfortable not to be saved. The speaker does not plead justice, though that is the logical content of his plea. He begs for mercy, the mercy of mere justice! He argues for justice as a strange form of compassion. “Look at how filthy I am;” says the embarrassed beloved. “Please, please let me leave this place I deserve no better” But the soul leans upon a straw, in calling the name of justice for mercy’s sake, and instead is reminded that the claims of justice have already been mercifully fulfilled “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

Of course the soul knows, to its anguish. Beaten from his last ward, the speaker capitulates, but upon condition: “My dear, then I will serve.” I will agree to my salvation, so long as I retain the appropriate judgment attendant upon my sin. Since I do not deserve to be here, if I must be here, let me be saved only somewhat. Let me, in a dainty reserve that looks like humility, serve the others, and thus not be so searing a focus of Love. Yet even that will not do. For Love is jealous, and will have all. “You must sit down; says Love, and taste my meat.” You must submit to your exaltation. Emptying yourself of all self-centered judgments of worthiness or unworthiness, you must allow yourself to be the center of Love’s attention. You, Simon Peter, must have your feet washed. You must be served by Love.

It is fitting that Herbert should recall that moment at the Last Supper. In “Love” we have the servant, Christ, present at his wedding feast, at which he himself, the Paschal sacrifice, is served. As Love by his own power supplies the :worthy guest, so Love himself is the feast he serves. Christ’s giving of himself is not figurative. When Love insists that the soul taste “his meat,” he means not the food that belongs to him, but the food he is: “For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55).

Love invites the soul to taste of Love, to be nourished by it, to be refreshed and re-created by it. So it is both true and misleading to say that the salvation of an individual soul is the center of Herbert’s Christian universe. The soul attains that honored rank, or rank is granted that honored rank, by emptying itself, rejecting the decisiveness its sin, and accepting Christ, who is center and circumference both. The human is subsumed in Incarnation: in sharing this great communion, it is not the man who assimilates the food to himself, but the food that assimilates the man to itself. Of all the mysteries of Gods love for his people, this is the improbable. There is nothing left to say. The poem and Herbert’s volume end on a note of submission and sublime simplicity “So I did sit and eat.”

Why should God so love the human soul? I do not know. If I thought I knew, I would not be Christian.

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  1. Oh my, this convicts me. How good is God, how merciful, how humble!

  2. Nice poem, helpful commentary, but of course as to the ultimate nature of things, pure speculation. Maybe this love god set in motion the development of beings that feel imperfect for having animal impulses that the evolutionary process left them with. Of if there is some kind of love god, maybe it likes having these weak, desparing beings around so it can have something to be loving to. i guess this love god would be bored without some people to take pity on. Very catchy lines that can be understood on other levels than the christian mytholodgy, e.g., the yearning for love in general.

  3. Derek, lovely: this sounds familiar: was this IN Magnificat recently? Or maybe I read it on Esolen’s website…

    “Herbert touches upon a psychological profundity that only the strongest believers or the strongest resisters perceive: most sou1s would find it more comfortable not to be saved.”

    Now this is very deep. And I think there are two reasons we don’t want to be saved. One, because we’re afraid of the responsibility, of what we might be called to. Two (and this is something of what I was maybe trying to get to about Simone Weil): being saved is too plebeian for us. In a certain light it detracts from what we perceive to be our “specialness,” our unique torment and existential loneliness. But over all, I think we’re probably simply terrified of being loved.

    “Why should God so love the human soul? I do not know. If I thought I knew, I would not be Christian.”

    This is simply beautiful. To never know WHY he loves the human soul, simply THAT he loves the human soul…

    Anyway, I am going to take your advice to heart and memorize the George Herbert. (I do know a few poems by heart and recite them to myself. One is Emily Dickinson’s:

    Exultation is the going
    Of an inland soul to sea,
    Past the houses — past the headlands –
    Into deep Eternity –

    Bred as we, among the mountains,
    Can the sailor understand
    The divine intoxication
    Of the first league out from land?)…

    I look forward to perusing more of your blog.
    Good to know of you and your work,


  4. [...] Without a special revelation from the Author of the law, it is impossible to know whether the possibility of forgiveness is real. Therefore we look away; unable to accept the truth about ourselves, we may keep the law in the corner of our eye, but we cannot gaze upon it steadily. We are simply unworthy, our damnation more than reasonable. [...]

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