One of the things we know about the 17th century metaphysical poet George Herbert’s life is that he was loved as a child by a vivacious and learned mother in a house filled with music and ideas, and that when he married at age 36, it was a happy union, all too soon followed by his death, at which he was surrounded by loving friends and family. Herbert often wrote of Love in his poetry, but in that context he used the word as a name for God, and his love for God was anguished. It was never enough.
The ambiguities and contradictions of love are the essence of George Herbert’s poetry. Isn’t love, after all, at times the simplest thing we do, and at many other times the most difficult?
At the end of Herbert’s exuberant poem A True Hymn he writes that though our words be scant and our heart :
sayes, (sighing to be approved); O, could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.
For all his wondering whether or not his love for God was sufficient, Herbert’s faith assured him that God’s love in return was unhesitating.
Herbert’s most well-known poem is probably Love bade me welcome. God welcomes the narrator of the poem presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered. But the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality, and the poem’s dialogue leaves the reader uncertain who is speaking one crucial line near the poem’s end. Following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness, it is unclear who then says: “My dear, then I will serve”, at which point Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God? Likely, in Herbert’s perfect Anglican world, both are true.
This Saturday, June 23 at 5:30 p.m., a choir from St. Alban’s will sing a service of Evensong in honor of our patron saint, Alban, whose feast day is June 22. In addition to a glorious setting of this Herbert poem, they will sing music of David Hogan, Gary Davison, Lee Hoiby and Richard Wayne Dirksen. They are preparing for a tour of England where they will sing eleven (yikes!) services at Coventry Cathedral, St. Alban’s Abbey and Wells Cathedral. Do come if you’re able and help to send them off.
St. Alban’s is beginning its own YouTube channel, and to introduce that, here is a link to another of the works being sung on Saturday.