An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Seven: Monday after the Second Sunday of Advent
Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.
This is a sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Pasternak Slater observes that it is one of many of his poems that contrasts divine love with romantic love, and also that it is one of five in the whole of The Church that mentions hell.
While from our perspective Herbert lived in a profoundly more religious age than our own, the point of the poem is that more attention is paid by poets to romantic love than God’s. Who was he thinking of? Shakespeare and his sonnets, which are entirely devoted to themes of romantic love or related issues? The young John Donne? Since Herbert does not say, we do not know, but the impression that is given is of a very serious, pious young man whose brilliance is put to service in this complaint.
Anthony Martin, in the essay “Herbert’s “Love” Sonnets and Love Poetry” (George Herbert Journal; Spring 1994; 17, 2; pp. 37-49), points out that Herbert unusually describes God as an “author”. This suggests that God is a poet, too, whose words are spoken and become act. Thus, the gift and skill which human poets have is “sprung from that beauty” which is God’s. God made the heart and the brain and the dust out of which human beings are made, as well as the wit and beauty which conspire to celebrate each other while ignoring the divine.
The last two lines of any sonnet usually introduce a new theme, a twist even, and this is true here. Martin notes the enigmatic quality. What is with these gloves and scarf? Martin spends several pages considering options, and notes that in Herbert’s time a “scarf” could also be a veil, and that in conventional love poetry of the time much was made of ladies’ veils and gloves. Herbert mentions them, only to subvert this allusion, speaking of them being his own. Martin eventually concludes:
The question “Who sings thy praise?” is neither rhetorical nor so simple as to be left unanswered. Rather, a complex strategy is indicated: that the poet who wishes to sing the name of love necessarily adopts conventional imagery — “only a scarf or glove” that the poet needs such convention — “Doth warm our hands”; and that it it is only through the adoption of such a submissive, secondary position that the poem can be written — “and make them write of love.” Thus the uneasy position regarding eroticism which the young Herbert expressed in the early sonnets has now been accommodated into a mature vision in which the transcendent Author, or his name, effectively underwrites any expression of love.
This sets us up to consider the poem which immediately follows “Love (1)”, namely “Love (2)”.