Love Unknown by George Herbert

I’m going to try to reopen comments starting with this post.

I’ve posted a new poem by Herbert entitled Love Unknown. You can read the text without comments here, but since it is long I thought I would walk you through it. It is a little difficult the first time you read it.

The poem is written as if Herbert is telling his friend a story. The friend’s words are in italics. Herbert narrates the poem as if it is something that happened to him, but it is symbolic or allegory, a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.

Dear friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad:
And in my faintings I presume your love
Will more comply, than help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds, which may improve,
I hold for two lives, and both lives in me.

This introduction is a little obscure. There seem to be double or triple references here. (Pasternak says: “Unconvoluted, the sense runs as follows: I have a Lord some of whose grounds I rent, in return for my two lives. The two lives are life on earth and life in the hereafter; the grounds belonging to the Lord are the speaker’s soul, which may improve with the repentance about to be detailed.” But this does not explain the “both lives in me.”) At any rate, he brings his lord a dish of fruit, and the picture seems to be that the lord passes all dishes of food to his servant before partaking of them. However, the dish (or offering) has Herbert’s heart in the middle, and the servant sees that his heart needs some serious medicine, because it is a wicked heart. It needs the washing of the blood of Christ:
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day,
And in the middle placed my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Look’d on a servant, who did know his eye
Better than you know me, or (which is one)
Than I myself. The servant instantly
Quitting the fruit, seized on my heart alone
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issued from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and dyed,
And wash’d, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. Your heart was foul, I fear.
Indeed ’tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault more than my lease will bear;
Yet still ask’d pardon, and was not denied.
But you shall hear. After my heart was well …

The friend, in italics, observes that Herbert’s heart was foul, and Herbert admits it. But there is more to come:

But you shall hear. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one even-tide
(I sigh to tell)
Walk’d by myself abroad, I saw a large
And spacious furnace flaming, and thereon
A boiling caldron, round about whose verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION
The greatness show’d the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which I did fear grew cold.

The greatness showed the owner: that is, it was owned by the Lord. Herbert goes to his “fold” (i.e. sheep fold) to get a sacrifice…
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart that brought it (do you understand?),
The offerer’s heart. Your heart was hard, I fear.

The friend makes another observation.

Indeed ’tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug, than scalding water,
I bathed it often, even with holy blood,
Which at a board, while many drank bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Even taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardness.
[”supple” = soften]
Herbert realizes the problem, and he regularly bathes his heart (again) in the healing blood of Christ. Of course this is all figurative. We must take our hearts again and again and cleanse them before God in the forgiveness and healing of Christ. You thought the Gospel was just for the unsaved? No, my brother, it is to heal you daily also.

Note his interesting comment that many, when they approach, drink “bare wine.” In other words, without faith, the mere partaking of the outward symbols of the Christian faith has no more effect than drinking ordinary wine. The “friend” who mixes in blood is probably the Holy Spirit, in Herbert’s thinking.

…To supple hardness. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed:
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults,
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff’d the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Dear, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures even my rest was gone?
Full well I understood, who had been there:
For I had given the key to none but one:
It must be he. Your heart was dull, I fear.

The friend again gives his helpful observation!

Indeed a slack and sleepy state of mind
Did oft possess me, so that when I pray’d,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behind

Herbert ends with his confidence that all his misdeeds are atoned for by his Savior. Then the friend wraps it all up with an extended explanation:

But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took the debt upon him. Truly, Friend,
For aught I hear, your Master shows to you

More favour than you wot of. Mark the end. [”wot” = knew]
The Font did only, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each hour, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be, new, tender, quick.

How can we not love Herbert, who sees that “And now I am happy all the day” is not at all a description of the true Christian life! Friend, are you worried and afflicted? God is merciful to you! Seek him in the affliction, not simply to escape the affliction. If you need a Font, a Cauldron, or Thorns, the Lord knows to give them to you.

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