Through Lent With George Herbert
Holy Saturday – Easter Eve
This is the last poem for this series of posts. This day, Holy Saturday, is the last day of Lent, the fortieth day from Ash Wednesday. Yesterday was Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. Tomorrow is Easter, and Lent will be over. Today is an in-between time, when Christ is in the tomb.
This is also the last poem in The Church, the long middle section of the The Temple, which is the proper name for the whole book, being book-ended by The Dedication and The Church Porch at the beginning (and arguably, Superliminare) and concluded outside The Church by The Church Militant and L’Envoy.
Love (3)Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew backGuilty of dust and sin.But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slackFrom my first entrance in,Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,If I lacked any thing.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 shameGo 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.
Ralph Vaughn Williams set this piece to music as one of the Five Mystical Songs. A decent performance of it can be found above. The first four pieces are meditative, and include The Call, and it concludes with the exultant Let All The Earth In Every Corner Sing. While that piece and The Call can be sung as hymns, this piece is more like a lieder, and so is not so well known outside of being an anthem or a concert piece. When I was part of the Niagara Chamber Choir in the early ‘nineties we sang all five pieces in a concert.
The poem is a dialogue, like yesterday’s poem, only told in the first person. Here the dialogue partner is not Death, but Love. Given that God is Love, this is a way for Herbert to personify God without falling into the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or naming God as God, or Jesus. It allows for him to approach God in a different kind of way.
Indeed, Love here, while never exactly given a gender, may well be feminine in Herbert’s mind; while amor is mascuine in Latin, αγάπη in Greek is feminine. Love questions “sweetly”, and the guest addresses the host(ess) as “dear”. It is not explicit, but the impression is given of a woman who runs an inn, who welcomes the guest, and pays close attention to his needs. Her invitation to eat and be her guest is very ordinary – but also extraordinary, given that she is Love.
The guest in the poem feels unworthy. He is “guilty of dust and sin”, “unkind, ungrateful”, who has marred creation (his eyes), full of shame, and he cannot bear to look upon Love. Love counters by welcoming him, observing him, drawing closer, sweetly questioning about what he needs, takes him by the hand, smiles at him, and reminds him of truths that he already knows: that she created his eyes, as Creator, and bore the blame of his sins, as Christ. The guest says, “My dear, then I will serve” but it is Love who is the servant here, and bids the guest sit down and eat, and he does just that.
The poem celebrates not the sacrament in the visible Church but the final communion in heaven when God “shall gird himself and make them sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)
the Church’s great sacrament of eating and drinking, the Holy Communion, is powerfully present. (Music at Midnight, p. 3)