An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Eight: Tuesday after the Second Sunday of Advent
Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
And kindle in our hearts such true desires.
As may consume our lusts, and make thee way:
Then shall our hearts pant thee, then shall our brain
All her invention on thine altar lay,
And there in hymns send back thy fire again.
Our eyes shall see thee, which before saw dust,
Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blind:
Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kind,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:
All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise him who did make and mend our eyes.
There is no evidence that Love (1) and Love (2) were written to be read together, but whoever put the poems in their final order – Herbert, or perhaps Nicholas Ferrar – has presented the final products in this way. There is another poem with the same title – Love (3) – but it is not a sonnet and it comes at the end of the central poems in The Temple, called The Church. This third poem is also a narrative, whereas this one addresses God directly.
The two poems, yesterday’s and today’s, have been referred to metaphorically as a diptych. A diptych is a adornment with two panels, normally above an altar, relating to a common theme. If the first poem compares human romantic love with human love of God, this poem addresses God as well but only to answer the question “Who sings Thy praise?” and, perhaps, goes further to explain how the poet can become able to sing God’s praise.
In yesterday’s sonnet God is “Immortal Love, author . . .”. In today’s God is “Immortal Heat”. Perhaps the important thing here is that the Immortal Heat is Immortal Love.
Heat does several things. It attracts a lesser flame to it – it seems to draw it towards it, an aspect of air pressure in a literal flame. It consumes things – a process of oxidation in modern scientific language. Drawing on the descriptions of fire on the day of judgement in the Old and New Testaments, the poet asks God to tame the fire so that rather than destroying human beings entirely it “kindles . . . such true desires” so that lusts for material things or people are burnt away, leaving space for the deity. This having happened, the poet expresses his conviction that human brains and hearts will praise God with fiery, poetic hymns of praise.
Whereas in yesterday’s sonnet humanity parceled praise on “dust which thou hast made”, in today’s sonnet the human sees the dust as dust which had made both eyes and wit (wisdom) blind. God takes back that which usurping lust has taken, knees bend in worship, and wits rise to praise God.
Today’s sonnet reads as a resolution to the first. It uses the image of fire – an image not unaquainted with lust and passion – but uses it to undermine ungodly lusts. Herbert, in a curiously chaste way, asserts the erotic in love for the divine, and that human gifts of wit and beauty are rightly directed towards God.
The modern reader will ask for more. Is the erotic and passionate in a human being only to be directed towards the divine, or can it be directed towards another person? How does this relate to the passion one has for one’s sexual partner. Herbert was married, and apparently happily so – does this impact on his understanding of love for God and others? Of course, Herbert married late – perhaps this was written before marriage, and so reflects that restrained understanding. Does this passion have to be sexual, or can it simply be altruistic, desiring the common good and the relief of the most afflicted in society? In the dust that God made can we find the reflection of the Creator?