Friday’s poetry seminar

Last Friday was my final encounter with Richard Strier - a three-hour seminar on a single Herbert poem, “Love,” which I've posted before.  I thought three hours seemed like a lot for one short poem, but the Professor said he could easily have spent a week on it.

We spent the first hour on the poem's form - the rhyme scheme (ABABCC), line lengths (10,6,10,6,10,6 x 3), metre (mostly alternating iambic pentameter, trimeter), and syntax (a move from longer to shorter phrases, from softer to harder punctuation). I confess this left me a bit cold - or perhaps I should say it found me cold; I'm never one to dive into group discussion before it's properly warmed up, and I felt terribly rusty on the technical stuff; my grasp of all those Greek terms (trochees, iambs, dactyls) has always been tenuous. I think form is tremendously important, but to plunge into it before any work on the meaning or tone of the poem felt premature, putting the cart before the horse.  How can we know what's significant about the form, I thought, until we know what the poem's about? Perhaps it showed a lack of intellectual courage on my part.

Then we moved on to meaning. Word by word and line by line, we went deeply into the poem's emotional, social, theological, and intellectual world. We felt the courtesy and hospitality of the poem's atmosphere. We found it odd in the beginning that the speaker would “draw back,” from Love's welcome. We noted an increasing urgency and assertion in his resistance to Love's lovely invitations, his insistence on his unworthiness to the point, in the final stanza, of demanding to be sent to hell, rather than be Loved. A sort of paraphrase of what Milton's Satan says: better to reign in hell than be served in heaven. In the end, Love insists: you must sit down and taste my meat. And in the end, the speaker sits, submits, allows himself to be served, to eat, to be satisfied, to no longer be “ungrateful” but to be the willing object of grace.

In some ways a complex and prolonged analysis sits uneasily with a poem of such breathtaking simplicity. But the beauty of such poetry is that however much you break it open, it is never broken. Relentless interrogation will not weary or stale it, and there is no limit to the number of times or ways to encounter it. Like grace, it is new every morning. Like love, it always bids us welcome.