Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
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 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 marr’d 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.
This is George Herbert’s most well-known and best-loved poem. It is also the poem which completes his collection The Temple and so is a fitting conclusion to our little journey through his work and in many ways sums up the spiritual struggle to which his poems give witness.
What is perhaps most evident is his constant sense of sin and unworthiness. He feels God’s call, he experiences the reality of Love but he constantly struggles to embrace and receive it. This, of course, is the theme of his whole collection: a constant struggling with God, a deep sense of unworthiness and a piercingly honest confrontation of his own disappointments with God. Herbert twists and turns, argues and complains – laying before God his naked soul, but finally comes home to receive the Love which is being offered him.
It is, perhaps, worth reminding ourselves that these poems were a private exercise for Herbert. He showed them to no one during his lifetime and he must, I think, have wrestled long and hard with whether to send them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar before he died. Would anyone else be interested in his morbid introspection and rantings? Was his personal spiritual journey really of value to anyone else?
Time has answered a resounding Yes! But his work is still difficult and challenging. Maybe what it above all challenges us to do is to be honest in our relationship with God, not to smother our lives in a veneer of respectability and cheerfulness but to enter deeply into the challenges of what it means to be a human being.
- How easy do I find it to be honest with God?
- Poetry was George Herbert’s way of coming before God in all his complicated humanity. How do I bring all of myself before God?
- How do I respond to the call of Love?