Sunday Poetry: Love III, by George Herbert

Love (III)

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.

    – by George Herbert


This is kind of funny.

In the comment section after last week’s poem, a couple friends debated the role of ambiguity in poetry, and I defended it. Then a high school friend pointed out to me in another forum that I, myself, had missed a major allusion – Derek Walcott’s Love After Love is clearly written in reaction to the above poem, by George Herbert almost 400 years ago.

I confess that if I had ever read Herbert’s poem before, I had forgotten it. Thus, whatever depth is added by the comparison of the poems escaped me entirely. The subtlety of expression that frustrates XO and Les also resulted in me missing an important element in the poem’s richness. I have been hoisted on my own petard, I suppose.

There is room for all of us on the spectrum of poetical understanding, I suppose. XO insists that a poet should “say what he means”, and be done with all the word play and allusions. I imagine that XO enjoys a good limerick, though, and possibly a few other solid verses. On the other end of the spectrum is my high school friend, who is tremendously well-read and perceptive miles past my own understanding.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy poetry, and appreciate the sensation that the right words produce when describing real toads in imaginary gardens. I think, at some level, we all do, even if that is only in the form of a favorite pop song. To me, it’s kind of amazing that there’s so much beyond what I catch. I have to accept my own lack of fluency in the canon of English literature, but, at the same time, I can enjoy the allusions and depths that I do recognize.

2 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Love III, by George Herbert”

  1. les says:

    Yay, more opportunity for raging controversy; I knew you’d be back, Dan. So is the later work a homage to Herbert’s greatness? Intellectual theft? Or just Walcott’s statement that “I’m so cool, you can’t hope to understand me without fluency in centuries of prior work?” Whatever, it’s no encouragement to the casual reader; but it does support XO’s notion that the message is buried too deeply to be worth it. On the other hand, I freely admit I’m pretty much illiterate in these things, and haven’t ever had much taste for poetry, particularly of the fine arts variety.

  2. [...] few postings ago, I wrote about how Love After Love gained depth for me after I read Love III. Today’s poem is far less [...]

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