by George Herbert
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, the 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.
I first read this exquisite, mysterious, powerful puzzle of a poem as an unseen poem for my written test to get into Cambridge. I wish I had the exam I wrote about it then, but as I read it now, it is still so fresh and so simple and yet so difficult and complex at the same time.
How ingenious it is to name God, or Christ, simply “Love.” How often we hear the statement that God is Love, but the simple substitution of “Love” for “God” personifies that ultimate Love, that overwhelming, gorgeous, enormous Love that created all things. It is not personification in the literary sense; it is more like an embodiment. It is, in fact, the incarnation. God, Love, in the person of Christ who stands at the door and lets the persona in.
Love is gentle and kind, quietly observant of the persona’s hesitancy, and his questioning is not interrogative but “sweet”–it invites the persona to bare his insecurity. It is such a revelation that we feel unworthy of love, especially of Love, its bright burden of perfection against which we are “dusty” and “sinful.” The discomfort and feeling of unworthiness is the appropriate response, and yet Love condescends to the persona, coaxing him gently and drawing out truth with every word.
When the persona protests that he “cannot look on” Love out of his feelings of unworthiness, Love asks the rhetorical question of “Who made the eyes but I?” In that line, the rhyme of “eye” and “I” echo the relationship between “looking” and the purpose of the “eye”, drawing attention to the fact that the eyes were made for looking–and in particular, most truly, to look upon the maker of the eyes. The truth of this relationship rings in the rhyme. Love is insisting that this is the relationship the persona was made for. The “marr’d” eyes, before they were marred, were created to look with joy upon God. So in this stanza we delve into the mystery of the relationship between the Creator and the created.
In the final stanza the persona pronounces himself fit only for hell–“where it doth deserve.” And this hell is out of the presence of Love. The loveless realms, out of relationship with Christ, away from the welcoming stranger who is at once so sweet and familiar–outside the room, into the darkness. But Love bids him closer again. In his admission of guilt and confession, the persona is converted. Love questions again–“who bore the blame?” Another rhetorical question: it is Christ who bore the blame for the sin that has marred the persona’s eyes, and his very self.
The persona’s response to his forgiveness is increased intimacy–he calls Love “my dear”, and his response is to “serve.” And then the poem climaxes with the Eucharist–Christ offering His flesh to the persona, and the persona finally accepting the invitation of the beginning and consuming it. It is a mystical, mysterious moment: the ultimate intimacy, in which Love enters the persona. The persona experiences Love, not merely by sight, or by hearing, feeling or smelling, but by actually tasting it, ingesting it, taking it into his own body. He becomes of the body of Christ, and Love dwells within him.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God … Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:7, 8, 10-11)
First published at the Harvard Ichthus