Once upon a time, when I was a literature major, I took survey classes, seminar courses, and wrote reams upon reams of undergraduate “literary criticism.” Oddly enough, it was an introductory survey course covering 17th to 18th century literature–mostly poetry–which I remember the most. The class was taught by Dr. M, who took his literature seriously, but presented it with a dry sense of humor. As a result, I still remember some of the cultural ideals which influenced the structure and form of the poetry we read, along with Dr. M’s conclusion (arrived to after reading an article about the most common subjects of poems) that, if we wanted to author a famous poem, we should write about an owl perched on the tombstone of Lincoln’s grave, as seen by the light of a full moon–or something like that. I still remember the cavalier poet’s love of sprezzatura, the studied attempt to create poetry sounding spur of the moment–and explanation which always conjured images of a man riding poetry while riding on a horse to woo a fair maiden–or some nobleman’s wife). Then too I encountered the holy–and not so holy–products of John Donne’s scientifically artistic mind.
It was in Dr. M’s class that I met George Herbert–or at least the author as revealed in the poetry I read. Dr. M seemed to find Herbert interesting–an unbalanced yet productive type. I think that he arrived at this conclusion based on how Herbert’s poetry ranges from religious devotion, to doubt, to confidence, to impatience, to trust. However, Herbert to me seemed only as unbalanced as the writers of Psalms. In Herbert’s poetry, I read–and still read–heart-cries. Honest explorations and confessions of a heart which knows God as savior and yet still struggles with living on earth with this now-and-yet-not-yet truth. In Herbert’s poems, I see the struggles of my own heart as a person whom I know Jesus has redeemed, is redeeming and will fully redeem–out of His great love.
Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on George Herbert. In fact, I cannot claim to have read more than what is contained in an anthology purloined from my parents’ house. However, among those poems which I have read, Herbert’s poem, “Love,” has resonated as I have found myself time and time again in the speaker’s position: arguing against the love of God–a love so encompassing, so great that it will not brook a refusal.
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 anything.
“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.