I’ve been going through some of my old college notes and came across this essay that I originally wrote as partial fulfillment of Dr. Horton’s Literary Criticism class in October 2001. This poem reminds me so much of Psalm 23 and is still one of my all-time favorites. I hope you’ll enjoy the poem and the analysis.
“Love (III)” by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d 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.
Thesis: George Herbert’s “Love (III)” is an allegory of spiritual conversion.
I. “Love” and His actions allegorize God’s part of salvation.
A. God’s initial call to salvation is allegorized by Love’s welcoming the soul and drawing near to him.
B. God’s continued working in the soul is allegorized by Love leading the soul by the hand.
C. God’s free offer of an abundant life is allegorized by the Lord’s paying the debt and inviting the soul to “sit down” and “taste . . . meat” as a guest.
II. The “soul” and his responses allegorize man’s response to God’s call.
A. Man’s initial rejection but tacit interest is allegorized by the soul drawing back because of sin but still entering in.
B. Man’s desire to be saved is allegorized by the soul recognizing his desire to be a guest.
C. Man’s feelings of hopelessness are allegorized by the soul’s realizations of his own unworthiness and his own deserving of hell.
D. Man’s full trust and benefits of salvation are allegorized by the soul choosing to “sit and eat.”
Essay: “Allegory of ‘Love (III)'”
The great religious poet George Herbert wrote many poems using symbolism and allegory to relay his own evangelical protestant beliefs. Herbert’s greatest work is “The Temple,” a collection of religious poems concluding with “Love (III).” Many critics interpret this final poem to be an allegory of receiving communion. In relation to the preceding poem in the series, “Heaven,” this does not seem to be the best interpretation. Also, this poem is a description of a private occasion, rather than a public one. There is no mention of other guests or observers. George Herbert’s “Love (III) is more likely an allegory of spiritual conversion.
“Love” and His actions allegorize God’s part of salvation. God’s initial call to salvation is allegorized by Love’s welcoming the soul and drawing near to him. God continues His work, through Love, by “sweetly questioning” the soul. He takes the “hand” of the beloved and gently leads him to His home. Love is pictured as a gracious host who shows unmerited favor to His guest. God’s free offer of an abundant life is allegorized by the Lord’s paying the debt and inviting the soul to “sit down” and “taste . . . meat” as a guest. If this poem were an allegory of communion, the host would be the priest, and the recipient would kneel rather than “sit.” Love uses rehtorical questions to confirm Himself as the Great Creator and Cleanser who “made the eyes” and “bore the blame” of the soul’s shameful sin.
The “soul” and his responses allegorize man’s response to God’s call. Man’s initial rejection but latent interest is allegorized by the soul’s drawing back because of sin but still entering in. The “first entrance in” implies at least curiosity on the soul’s part. Man’s desire to be saved is allegorized by the soul’s recognizing his desire to be a “guest.”
When asked by Love what the soul “lack’d,” the only response was to be “worthy” of being His “guest.” In the Anglican Church, receivers of Communion had to prove themselves worthy of the ordinance. This, however, is not the case here with the soul. The soul does not have to prove his worth; he merely claims the unmerited favor of God. Man’s feelings of hopelessness and total depravity are allegorized by the soul’s realizations of his own unworthiness and his own deserving of hell.
In the first stanza, the “soul drew back” because he knew he was “guilty of dust and sin.” When Love tells the soul he will be “a guest,” the soul questions Love in startled unbelief, “I the unkind, ungrateful?” The soul feels unworthy to look on Love with his “marr’d” eyes.
The soul then realizes his reasonable duty is service, but Love responds, “You must sit down,” implying that Love will serve the soul. Man’s full trust and benefits of salvation are allegorized by the soul choosing to “sit and eat.” The doctrine of God’s irresistible grace is inferred here as the soul finally succumbs to “sit” after initially resisting God’s call. The guest does not merely “taste” God’s meat but sits down to “eat.” While communion offers a small portion of bread and wine, salvation offers fulfillment and satiety.
That the allegory is of spiritual conversion in “Love (III)” is clearly a better interpretation than that of allegorizing the ordinance of Communion. Although parts of the poem may relate to communion, they only do so as communion on earth symbolizes the believers’ future communion with God in heaven. Only by the love of God may any of us receive salvation and be able to commune with Him.