George Herbert, Poetry, and Incarnational Life

I am writing a book about the poetry of George Herbert, the 17th century Anglican priest whose work is broadly recognized as one of the English church’s greatest spiritual resources. Many readers will know his hymns, such as “King of glory, King of Peace,” “Teach me my God and King,” “The God of love my shepherd is,” and “Let all the world in every corner sing.” Not growing up in the Anglican church, I first encountered Herbert’s poetry in first-year university, when my English professor had us read “Love” (3), which begins “Love bade me welcome,” which Ralph Vaughan Williams has so wonderfully set in his Five Mystical Songs.

What my professor really wanted to talk about, though, was sex, and how what seemed to be a spiritual poem was actually filled with repressed erotic desire. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the poem, but there on the spot I offered that it wasn’t about sex, but about Communion. And there I was, unwittingly initiated into the world of literary criticism and the various competing interpreters of Herbert’s best-known poem.

I knew at the time—for she told us all about it—that this senior professor had gone to a Catholic girls’ school and had been taught by nuns, and for all the time and freedom since, she brought that child’s rebellion to her classroom. She was still trying to get even. I think this was what actually got me hooked on English. There was nothing neutral in these texts: she was still wrestling with those nuns and now with pip-squeak me for her soul, and for mine.

But what exactly were we disagreeing about? Herbert, even as he has been cherished, has been shrouded in a hagiographical haze. A friend of mine sent me a quotation to this effect, that “if you’re only going to read literature by people who have lived a perfect life, you should be prepared to spend a lot of time with George Herbert.” For my professor, the fitting way to puncture Herbert’s spirituality was to show how erotic it is. If it has to do with the desires of the body, then it obviously isn’t spiritual. She could bring him down to earth.

As I’ve come to see since, though, Herbert is already very down-to-earth. Read the poem.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
   Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
   From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
   If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
   Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
   I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
   Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
   Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
   My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
   So I did sit and eat.

Another professor told me a few years ago that one of his students had given a presentation on the poem, entirely assuming that it was a dialogue between two (human) lovers, and then had been deeply embarrassed to learn that it was actually about divine love. But isn’t this exactly right? Why would we think that a poem being erotic—that is, involving the attraction of bodies, of flesh—would be contradictory to its spirituality? Maybe you find my question disingenuous: we’ve probably all been taught somewhere along the line not to trust our sexual desires and maybe even to think of sexual desire as wrong. Well yes, and the first part of that is pretty important. The point isn’t that sexual desires ought to be trusted as a guiding light, and Herbert wouldn’t have said they should be. But at the same time, when he comes to tell the story of us meeting Jesus, we can fully feel this encounter. He doesn’t imagine some sublime radiance of pure light as our souls meet in a cosmic dance. He imagines standing as a guest, hesitating at the door, and a Host who comes to meet him, taking him by the hand and looking him in the eye. There is no poem here without the lovely meeting of bodies, and the young student who sees lovers here is on the right track. The poem is about that, and more than that.

Herbert in his poetry does theological work of profoundest sort. We might take him as a model. He very often wrestles with his human desires and limitations (and he is far—we might note—from perfect). But he never finally treats his humanity or anyone else’s as an obstacle to spirituality. “Love” (3) is a spiritual gem because it is so very human, so disarmingly and totally human. And the doctrine of the poem does not tear it away from our human experience, but gives that experience a blessing. In the center stanza, Love looks at the guest, but the guest cannot look back, and we’ve all been there. The guest feels ashamed. And shame is a bodily experience as well as an inner one: we feel it when someone is looking at us, or when we don’t want to be seen. Love takes the guest’s hand and says “Who made the eyes but I?” The Love going on here is lovely, and gently erotic, and it (because it is this) is also agape. I’ve thought of agape love as love without self-interest (and thus in contrast to the erotic), but Herbert shows that it is much more than that. This love is creative, and Herbert means it literally. This Love is not merely generous and forgiving, but is the very Maker of the guest.

The erotic does not undermine the poem because the poem is already fully erotic. But the poem does embarrass us. It brings us back to our bodies and our need for touch, and blesses us in just this way by pronouncing us created, loved.

Paul Dyck is Professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University and a lay preacher and vestry member at St. Margaret, Winnipeg. He lives in Wolseley with his wife, writer Sally Ito.
Photo: Kenji Dyck

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