Love bade me welcome: yet 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 did 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.
George Herbert was a contemporary of John Donne, and both men were priests by profession, poets by avocation. Unlike his friend John Donne, none of George Herbert’s secular poems survived to the present day. His collection of religious poetry shows a man trying to define his relationship with God in different ways and through different Biblical metaphors. The reader also gains several aspects of God through George Herbert’s eyes and beliefs, as their exchange is conducted through a dialogue and exchange, as a guest to a gracious host.
We are not given the name of the host, other than “Love”. However, the reader is almost immediately able to discern that God is the host, since the Holy Bible personifies God as love just as this poem does. “…for God is love.” (1 John 4:8 KJV).
This host named Love, or God, “bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.” (1-2). The initial interaction between host and guest is tentative on Herbert’s part, somewhat reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Present bids Scrooge enter a warm room filled with food, and the ghost greets him with hearty welcome and approbation. Scrooge drew back, feeling a stranger to such open-hearted love and friendliness, and Herbert does the same when he approaches God. He wants to accept, but feels the weakness of mortality (dust) and the weight of his sins and mistakes (sin) that are universal to mortal man.
Love, who is “quick-eyed” (3), meaning He is quick to see Herbert’s hesitancy, comes closer instead of keeping his distance, “sweetly questioning if I lacked anything.” (5-6) The impression that given the reader of God is that he is eager to put Herbert at his ease, and ready to help in any way He can. Truly Herbert did not believe God to be a distant figure, but One who is close and personable.
His next words might well have been spoken under his breath. What did Herbert lack? “A guest…worthy to be here.” (7). His response seems almost sarcastic, but there is nothing of the same sarcasm in the reply, which is “…You shall be he.” Is this a simple declaration of belonging, or something more? The response is interesting for the future tense it contains and what that may signify. God seems to acknowledge that, while Herbert may not be worthy to break bread with God in the present, he shall be at some future time. The intention is also obvious that God means to serve him now, worthy or not. George Herbert is not denied love from God because he is imperfect.
Herbert responds with disbelief and a laundry list of the reasons why he should not receive this love. “I, the unkind, ungrateful?…I cannot look on thee.” (9-10). Again, the response is nothing more than His name implies. God makes contact with Herbert in an intimate, personal and philosophical way. “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?” (11-12) Herbert’s protests are once again met with gentle persuasion, and some food for thought as well. Who better to determine what eyes should look upon than the Maker of those eyes?
Herbert acknowledges the logic behind the statement, but continues his resistance in the presence of a perfect being. His objection is that perfection cannot be sullied by the imperfections he contains. “…I have marred them; let my shame go where it doth deserve.” (13-14) Herbert’s continued protesting would throw confusion into any other person. Does he want to stay, or does he really want to go?
Fortunately, God also “knoweth the secrets of the heart” (Psalms 44:21 KJV) and Herbert’s host cuts right through his hesitancy to answer him with another question. “And know you not…who bore the blame?” (15) This is a direct reference to Jesus Christ and his act of atonement on behalf of the sins of all humanity, that was described so beautifully by the prophet Isaiah: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was wounded four our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5 KJV)
There is nothing more for Herbert to say, and Love will brook no further refusal. With all major objections overcome, the next statements come by way of a firm invitation, almost by command. “…then I will serve. You must sit down…and taste my meat.” (16-17). The master has become the servant, doing as He proscribed for his followers, when Christ said in Matthew 20:27 KJV “…he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” To “taste my meat” could be a reference to the Christian tradition of sacrament, or believers taking bread and wine as a representation of the body and blood of Christ, and accepting Him as Savior and Redeemer.
George Herbert finally obeys the command of his guest, with no more resistance. Whether he continues to feel unworthy or not we do not know, but he seems to sense that he cannot with grace refuse his Host any longer. “So I did sit and eat.” (18)
George Herbert’s poem, “Love”, along with his others, was almost destroyed. George Herbert had left his collection of poetry in the hands of a friend, with instructions to publish them if he thought someone would benefit, and to burn them if not. Fortunately, Herbert’s poems were published. The poem, “Love”, shows God as a gracious host, perceptive and tolerant of the unavoidable failings of his honest followers, full of generosity and goodness, who overcomes all of Herbert’s (and our) objections to uniting ourselves with Him. Herbert’s work is sensitive and honest, wanting to be joined with the Lord and enjoy His company, but unwilling to rationalize and get overly comfortable with His Creator.
The Holy Bible. King James Version: Cambridge University Press, 1995.