Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer poets: George Herbert

After an abortive career in what we would now call PR, and a short time as an MP, Herbert (1593-1632) left the heady world of politics for the role of rector in the countryside near Salisbury. During the three years before his death from TB he was known as a devoted pastor.

Here in one of his most famous poems, and climax of his work The Temple, Herbert combines the Old Testament story of Moses eating with God on Mount Sinai, and Jesus' hospitality to sinners, with the imagery of seventeenth-century courtly romance. Most strikingly, and in somewhat erotic imagery, God seems to be described in female terms encouraging a timid lover to take his given place and receive the intimacy offered.

Herbert gives voice to all those who feel unworthy of receiving divine love:

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 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.

(This post is part of a series or weekly thoughts over the Summer)

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