Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Love (I) - George Herbert

Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel'd out Thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which Thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th' infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

We typically think of love sonnets as being between two people, as with Shakespeare's famous sonnets, or Milton's sonnets of heartbreak and loss.  George Herbert's love sonnets are strictly in relation to the love between God and Man, and this one specifically addresses the way in which he feels the term "love" has been cheapened by the way it is used to describe the relationship between people.

In Herbert's theology, Love, the "Immortal Love" which is the cause of all life ("author of this great frame") is from God and God alone.  He thinks that man has so cheapened the word "love" that it's akin to throwing it on the ground, on the very "dust which Thou [God] has made."  He thinks it's a crime that mortal love gets all the glory and honor in art and poetry while God's love, that which powers the very universe, is discarded and ignored.  People use their brains, which Herbert notes, is God's workmanship, and use it to fancy beauty, which raises wit, and God is denied share in both.

Herbert cannot understand how God, whose "glorious name Wrought our deliverance from th' infernal pit" (Hell) is allowed to stand by, unsung.  "Who sings thy praise?" he asks.  He feels that mankind must be cold in absence of God's love, because he says "Only a scarf or glove Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love."  They are cold, and can only write of love because of man's contrivance, not because of the warmth and impulse of God's divine Love.

While I find the depth of Herbert's faith and devotion moving and touching, I'm somewhat taken aback at his barely restrained anger for the way in which love is expressed in human affairs.  Love of fellow humans is an extension of God's love for Creation, not a perversion of it.  While love can certainly be misplaced and abused (would we even have poetry if it couldn't be?), it's not necessarily an affront to a proper relationship with God as Herbert seems to imply.  Or maybe it is, and I'm on the express train to Hell.  I don't know.  I do think this is an exquisitely crafted, impressive poem, which provides much food for thought on the nature of Faith, Love (divine) and love (vulgar).

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