There is nothing like a satisfactory meal. The only thing which can possibly improve on it is a meal with people you love and value. Or, even greater, people who love and value you. The food, the drink, the pleasure of good company can somehow make an ordinary moment transcendent. The world is full of fast-food fixes; there is often too little time in the modern need to be productive to move away from the flickering screen to eat, let alone to make the most of company, of relationships, of love. I suppose the internet, social media and a society obsessed with data and results and productivity did not affect George Herbert a great deal. There is much we can still learn from the past, even from a seventeenth-century poet. His masterpiece is possibly the greatest poem on love in the English language. Simone Weil called it ‘the most beautiful poem in the world’. It is hard to disagree. Here it is:
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 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 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.
Another thing that our world, or the western world at least, seems to have little time for is theology. That wasn’t the case for Herbert. His life, like many of his contemporaries, was wrapped up in the bible and in theology. When you consider the richness of the culture such people produced – just think of Herbert’s contemporary, John Donne – not only in poetry but in art and science and philosophy, we may have been a little presumptuous in throwing God out of our lives so quickly when the opportunity arose. For Herbert, theology was not simply an area of study. God was not a dictator who had given a set of rules which must be kept. Or else. The stress on the first word of the poem sums it up: ‘Love’. ‘Lord’ and ‘Love’ are synonymous in this dramatic poem as, for Herbert, God is love.
But there are two halves to that opening line. While ‘Love bade me welcome’, ‘my soul drew back’. The poem follows this conversation between God and the poet. The poet feels all those things we feel when we are faced with someone so good we feel unworthy, embarrassed, ill-at-ease in their presence. This is not a meeting of equals. Herbert is worthless, ‘Guilty of dust and sin’, ‘unkind, ungrateful’, ashamed and undeserving.
This is real love, however. The love we all crave for, the love we all need. Love which notices our needs before we even put them into words. A ‘quick-eyed Love’. A love which will draw nearer, despite our undeservedness. After all, ‘Love’ doesn’t say to the poet to be so foolish, that he’s got the wrong view of himself. It’s a love which will not judge. Indeed, it’s a ‘Love that took my hand’: personal, gentle, caring. A love that will bear ‘the blame’. A love which forgives. A love which forgets. A love which makes up our ‘lack’.
I wish I was loved like that. I wish I loved like that.
The greatest is still to come though. The poet accepts the welcome but cannot conceive of doing anything more than serving. I guess we might all have been forgiven but the coldness has lasted a while longer. Not here. The rhyme is conclusive. There is something better which real love offers. It offers to ‘taste my meat (feast)’. The poet must ‘sit and eat’. The rhyme and those verbs, ‘sit’, ‘eat’, are satisfying to the poem’s dialogue and satisfying to our ears, to our senses. There is resolution. And not just an answer. It is a resolution so rich in sensory pleasure. The sound of the poem, its finality and the thing it describes: the joy, the pleasure, the beauty of sitting and eating with those we love and those who love us. It is nourishing and life-giving.
For Hebert it is made transcendent because it is the very definition of Love for him who sets the food before him. It is God himself. Face-to-face with such love, Herbert feels that he is worse than he can comprehend. But he also feels that he is loved more than he can comprehend.
We all need love. It is, as many have noted, our constant concern. Rarely has the power that love can bring and what it does to the individual been described so beautifully as in this poem. So beautiful that is survives in our godless world as an echo of what resonates in all our hearts, whether we believe or disbelieve. To love and to be loved unconditionally is, ultimately, what we all need. Is all we need.