George Herbert personifies God as love – a fundamental tenet of the Bible – but then goes further, as the more sexual heat
"God is love". It's probably the least controversial statement in the Bible. But it is also one of those assertions that can easily be heard as an almost meaningless platitude. Does it simply mean that God is loving, nice, kind? And that Christians should therefore be loving, nice, kind, and inoffensive?
Those are good things to be, of course. But the idea that God is love is much more than simply applying a pleasant adjective to God. In Herbert's best-loved poem, Love (III), he deftly explores the question of whether "God is love" is a transitive statement. If God is love, does it follow that love is God?
"Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin."
As John Drury observes in his recent biography of George Herbert, Music at Midnight, this poem would lose almost all its emotional force if the first word were "God" instead of "love".
Herbert personifies God as Love, and enters into a dialogue with him – or her? No pronoun is used, but to me the voice of Love in this poem sounds tantalisingly female. Love welcomes the poet in at the door and invites him to sit down to eat. (S)he is described as "quick-ey'd", noticing the poet's hesitation, and draws nearer, "sweetly questioning / If I lack'd anything". (S)he refuses to accept the poet's humble statement "I cannot look on thee" – a reference to the Old Testament idea that to see God's glory directly is death. In direct contradiction to this notion, and in what feels like a deeply maternal moment, "Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?"
The poet first addresses Love as "my dear", and only at the beginning of the final stanza uses the familiar male title, "lord". This title shifts the focus of the poem to the crucifixion, economically both dismissing the poet's shame at his own unworthiness, and referring to Jesus's death as the ultimate act of love: "And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?"
The very satisfying conclusion of the poem has the poet first acknowledging and accepting Love's arguments, and responding with what might seem appropriate humility: "My dear, then I will serve".
But Love will not allow humble bowing and scraping to be the last word, and insists that the poet take his place at the banquet – "So I did sit, and eat".
The very simplicity of the vocabulary and rhyme scheme echo the beautiful simplicity of the idea of God's grace.
As the numbered title suggests, Herbert wrote two other poems entitled Love. Both explore the contrast between the way the word love is commonly used, particularly in love poetry, and what it means to say that God is love.
In Love I, Herbert deplores the way in which human beings have "parcel'd out thy glorious name... / While mortal love doth all the title gain!"
The word and concept "love" has been emptied of its primary meaning – God – and is commonly applied only to human attractions such as "beauty" and "wit". Even though love has given us the greatest gifts of all, both creating us and saving us, poets devote their energies almost exclusively to hymning such minor tokens of a lover's affection as "a scarf or glove".
Love II goes even further. Here, Herbert explores the connection between love and lust. If we can say that God is love, can we trace lust, passion and sexual desire back to God's innermost being too? With astonishing audacity, Herbert opens this poem not by addressing God as "Love", but as the unmistakably sexual "Heat": "Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame Attract the lesser to it".
Herbert's treatment of lust itself is relatively conventional in this poem. It is seen as "usurping'" our true desire for God, and God is asked to "Kindle in our hearts such true desires, as may consume our lusts".
But the idea of conceptualising God not just as the ultimate object of human desire, but as desire itself – and not in an anaemic, abstract sense but as heat, which will make "our hearts pant [for] thee", shows Herbert flexing and testing the metaphor of God as love, pushing it to its limits.
I can't help feeling that all the church's current agonising over sex and sexuality would be rather different if we took the idea of God as love – not just loving, but love, heat, passion – so seriously.