12 February 2016

‘Love bade me welcome.
Yet my soul drew back’

George Herbert (left) with two other Cambridge theologians, Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (centre) and Henry Martyn (right), in a window in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The part-time MTh students are back for a residential weekend this weekend. As this weekend also includes Saint Valentine’s Day, some of us are going as a tutorial group to visit Whitefriar Street Church in inner-city Dublin tomorrow morning [13 February 2016], to see the shrine of Saint Valentine.

As a tutorial group, we have been looking at great Anglican poets, and have already discussed TS Eliot (7 November 2015), John Betjeman (5 December 2015) and John Milton (16 January 2016). This weekend visit interrupts that theme, but we return to that theme next month, when we look at the poetry of George Herbert (1593-1622).

However, the themes of love and poetry come together in the poem ‘Love bade me welcome’ by George Herbert, which the tutorial group has asked me to read at Evening Prayer in the chapel this evening.

This also the third of the Five Mystical Songs set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1948) between 1906 and 1911, and that received their first performance at the Three Choirs’ Festival in Worcester in 1911.

This love poem recalls a dialogue between Love and the poet. At this level, Love is but a human lover or a friend. In the first stanza Love welcomes the poet to his or her house for an intimate dinner party for two. The poet hesitates, feeling unclean. Love senses this and proceeds slowly with the courtship, asking if he needs anything.

In the middle stanza, Love tries to reassure the poet that he is worthy to be a guest in the house. The poet calls himself “unkind, ungrateful,” almost trying to prove his unworthiness.

The last stanza is the turning point when Love overrides the poets augments. Love stresses to the poet that regardless of his faults he is always welcome at this table. The dinner invitation is extended once again and the poet accepts.

Herbert’s true genius shows through in his complex metaphor: Love is God. By taking love and giving it a body, Herbert helps us to relate to the known, albeit partially understood truth of love to the more complex idea of God. This relationship is further strengthened through the use of the common place dinner setting for two.

The poet is a lost soul who God is courting and trying to reassure. In the last stanza God tells the poet to “sit down… and taste my meat,” inviting him to take Communion. The house is Heaven and the host or God is not serving food but love, acceptance, and understanding, God himself. The poet sees himself as too unclean to sit at God’s table and partake of his love.

Finally the poet accepts God’s sovereignty as well as his own faults, “So I did sit and eat.” This last line again alludes to the Eucharist, as the poet takes God/Love into himself.

‘Love bade me welcome’ by George Herbert

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 answer’d, ‘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 marr’d 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.

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