So many poems mean so much to me, and have helped me so much, that I have been loath to pick just one. But this poem by George Herbert is one I return to again and again in times of need. It reads like this:
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.
It’s dangerous territory really, writing about a poet as extraordinary as Herbert. Even being on the same page as this greatest of poets feels almost sacrilegious.
For whatever I will go onto say about why this poem means so much to me, there’s a bit of me that’s screaming ‘Shut up. Let the poem speak. Let the reader decide. There’s nothing you can possibly say that can be helpful compared to letting the poem stand on its own in all its profundity and glory.’
I’m doubly nervous as I’m no literary critic and didn’t study English at university. Why then am I emboldened to share why I adore this poem so much? First, I think because it was a lifesaver to me, and if it helps one other person, then I’m prepared to be humiliated by attempting to comment on one of literature’s all time greatest pieces of art.
Reason two: I know others have been helped by this poem too. For the last few years, I’ve run poetry workshops for mental health charities like Mind and Depression Alliance. Time and again, this poem strikes a chord.
I first read this poem at school as part of studying the metaphysicals. It passed me by. But the second time I heard it, read by mother, I was in the middle of terrible depression. My reaction was shock. All the hairs on my arm stood on end because what Herbert describes felt so familiar to me.
He perfectly depicts the two voices that on occasion can clash in my head. One voice is a frightened and anxious one. When it speaks, my soul ‘draws back’ and I feel guilty of ‘dust and sin’. What a perfect description of feeling depressed.
The other voice in the poem is very different from the unkind, ungrateful, shamed voice. It is more compassionate and gentle but also a firm voice. It is the voice of ‘Love’ and it speaks of forgiveness. In the end it is love that matters. God is love.
The subject of the conversation between these two voices in the poem also hit me like a struck gong. The poem is set in the hall of a substantial household, with Love trying to persuade the other person in the poem (me) to ‘sit and eat.’ I couldn’t believe it! That’s what I most wanted when I was ill. To sit down and eat with my family. My anxiety was so high, and my reaction to the antidepressants and sedatives and sleeping pills so extreme, that I felt horribly nauseous. And lonely too – separated from my two children and family. I just wanted us all to get around the kitchen table again.
I love the way Herbert so brilliantly exploits the pattern of the syllables in the words. So the first line is all alacrity, with a stress on the first syllable. Then in the second lines ‘my soul drew back’ has three stressed syllables, making the line drag and Love speaks in light-footed metres, and the soul is heavy and slow, just as I was, pumped full of all those drugs.
Rhyme is brilliantly used by Herbert too, especially at the end of the poem. The stress falls on ‘sit’ and ‘eat’ at the end, ‘eat’ rhyming so happily with ‘meat’.
Partly, the poem works like all good poetry, engaging me beyond my own drama by describing someone else’s experience. The poem speaks of the universal.
And partly it gives me the words for a gentler inner voice when I lack them. I am soothed by the figure of Love.
Finally, the poem makes me calmer by helping me become more tolerant of others. For me as a Christian, only Love, who bears the blame for all of us, is perfect. Of course there is a Christian reading of this poem too. On one level it is about sitting and eating at a table. On another, it’s about the sacrament of eating and drinking, Holy Communion. I didn’t read it like this, but it’s good to know.
After all, Herbert was a priest. He was going to destroy all his poems, which had mainly been written as prayers, at the end of his life. But he was persuaded by a friend that they might be ‘of use’ to a ‘poor dejected soul.’ Thank Goodness for dejected souls everywhere that he did.