Poet's Pick April 9
George Herbert: "Love (III)"
Selected by Victoria Chang
National Poetry Month 2017

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Victoria Chang's Poetry Month Pick, April 9, 2017

"Love (III)"
by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                       Guiltie of dust and sinne.
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 unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                       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, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                       My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
                       So I did sit and eat. 


* Victoria Chang Comments:
George Herbert has been top-of-mind lately since a friend sent me a wonderful lecture he delivered at Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers on Herbert.  I was immediately drawn to one of Herbert’s most well-known poems, “Love (III).”  In fact, I’m interested in many of Herbert’s poems because of their unabashed speakers—speakers who openly and honestly wrestle with their relationship(s) with God.  Although Herbert, a pastor, overtly wrestled with his faith in many of his other poems, “Love (III)” is certainly one of his more subtle poems.

“Love (III)” was apparently the final poem in the collection, The Temple, likely meant to represent the climax of the speaker traveling into heaven, but even within this final poem, there’s a sense of tension and resistance, a refusal to fully submit.  Beyond the more obvious oscillating dialogue between God/Love and the speaker in all three stanzas, there are other more subtle aspects of the poem’s construction that evoke the speaker’s sense of tension and ambivalence. 

The poem consists of three stanzas with an ababcc rhyming pattern and the lines alternate between long lines and shorter lines.  The lines alternate between iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter.  Everything superficially appears to be relatively regular.  But looking more closely at the poem, one begins to see how the structure of dialogue and narration mirror the speaker’s resistance and difficulty of mind.  “Love” or the persona of God is still polite in the first stanza.  Even when Love “speaks,” he speaks through the speaker in the poem: “Love…Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,/ If I lacked anything.”  In the second stanza, the speaker and Love are more equal, with each receiving three lines of either description or dialogue.  But in the third stanza, although the speaker ultimately gives in, the speaker still receives more of the weight in the beginning of the stanza where two lines are allocated to the speaker who attempts to argue with Love.  Love is only allocated two lines of the six, but they are the longer iambic pentameter lines of the last four lines.  Even though the speaker seems more passive, allocated only the trimeter lines, there’s still resistance and an ambivalent resolve.  For the final word isn’t the Lord’s word, but rather the speaker’s “submission:” “So I did sit and eat.”  Some have written about this last line’s glorious submission to God, but others have noted the ambivalence, which I tend to agree with. 

For one, the entire last line contains monosyllabic words, evoking a sense of flatness.  The diction is also colloquial with the presence of “So” in the last line.  The hard consonance of the “t” sound at the end of both “sit” and “eat” adds emphasis and reminds me of a mother wagging her finger at a child saying: “Sit down and eat your vegetables.”  It’s as if the speaker is forcing himself and scolding himself to follow the Lord, despite not fully buying into the fact that the brussel sprouts are good for him.  There’s also a tone of submission at the end of the poem, but a reluctant submission.  The trope is one of host (the Lord) and guest (the speaker)—or of seducer and seduced.  Before the unworthy speaker has submitted fully to partake of the Communion Supper, he has already agreed to partial submission in the third-to-last line: “My dear, then I will serve.”  But this partial agreement is still not sufficient for Love.  He orders the speaker to do more, as an overly gracious host might leave no options for a guest who really prefers to skip coffee and head home: “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat….”  The “must” is certainly emphatic.  Interestingly, after “meat” exists a colon versus a period or a comma.  The colon is used to indicate that what follows is an elaboration or summation, whereas a comma would indicate a division, and a period would indicate a sense of finality.  The colon in the penultimate line evokes a sense of fluidity, emphasizing the speaker’s lack of choice.  It’s as if the speaker does not even have time to intellectually consider the command, only enough time to instantly and robotically follow the order.  This implies that there’s a simple giving in and with more time or more thought, the speaker might still not submit.  “Love (III),” like many of Herbert’s poems, are wrought with subtle tension and ambivalence and his poems remind me that the accumulation of subtle craft and construction can greatly impact, influence, and enforce a poem’s holistic being.

Victoria Chang:
Victoria Chang's fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2017.  The Boss, her third book, published by McSweeney's, won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award.  Other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle.  She also published a picture book, Is Mommy?, illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.  She lives in Southern California and teaches at Chapman University and Orange County School of the Arts.  You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.

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