This post is part of a series. To see Part 1, click here.
“Love (III)” is one of my favorite poems because it speaks to the heart of the matter: what does it look like to be loved by God? Composed by George Herbert in the 17th century, it is his most celebrated poem. It also concludes the main section of The Temple, the collection of Herbert’s English poems.
Here is the poem in full (it belongs to the public domain), with the spelling modernized:
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 lacked anything. 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 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.
I love this poem because it’s not just another description. It reads more like a play than a poem. It’s a short drama that draws the reader into dialogue with Love—with Jesus Christ. Herbert offers the reader to take up the “I” of this poem’s narrator. You in fact can’t read it without becoming the “I” who dialogues with Love.
With this literary strategy, Herbert invites you not only to read about love, but to experience it, to be drawn into its narrative, to receive it. Herbert is the broker of an exchange between you and Jesus Christ himself. When you read this poem, Love speaks to you.
There’s a sort of dance that is happening throughout this poem. All of us hide some degree of shame, insecurity, regret, guilt, fear, as well as feelings of inadequacy. This last one especially is something I struggle with. I often feel like I don’t have what it takes to—what? Really, to do anything meaningful in life, to write anything meaningful, to learn enough, to do well at my job, to impact people’s lives in a way that matters, to love and be loved. And this broad feeling of inadequacy translates to all those other things: shame, insecurity, fear, etc. Can you identify with that at all, or is it really just me?
Sometimes when I read this poem, it brings tears to my eyes. The idea that there is One who knows the difficult feelings I feel better than I know them myself, and who is so attentive to the movements of my soul and concerned to make me feel welcome and valued. So often I feel like the narrator of this poem: where’s the person that’s actually worthy? I know it’s not me. And Jesus Christ’s answer is: In fact, you are. You are just the guest I was hoping would arrive.
There is really no way I can do this poem justice. But what it expresses is the Love of God.
Take some time to reread this poem. If you would, take a few moments to meditate on your shame, guilt, and inadequacy, and let Herbert introduce you to the Christ who finds you infinitely worthy nonetheless.
Next post, I want to distill for you four principles about God and God’s love from this poem.