Quick-Eyed Love

Quick-Eyed Love

This week’s choice by George Herbert celebrates Valentine’s Day which falls this week.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

George Herbert (1593—1633)

Poem 202. Love (III)

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 anything.
‘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.

This poem shows that no matter how unworthy we may think ourselves, true love cares about our imperfections and accepts them. I have always thought that a relationship is an equal partnership where two people work together towards their shared goals, whether that is raising children, building careers, or whatever. Each partner accepts and compensates for the other’s weaknesses, loving them for all they are.

In the first stanza, the narrator loves another but hesitates, feeling both physically and morally undeserving of love. Herbert imagines Love as a person approaching him and asking if there’s anything he needs.

The second stanza continues the discussion, with the poet admitting his feelings of unworthiness (“I the unkind, ungrateful?”) and that there must be another better suited. Love, however, asks sweetly who initiated the romance (“Who made the eyes but I?”).

In the third stanza, Herbert (who was an Anglican priest) equates Love with God (“Truth, Lord”) and confesses that he feels shame for his sins and that he should not be sitting at God’s table. This is countered by the argument that God absorbs the blame for human sins (a central tenet of Christianity) and, having no further objections to advance, Herbert sits with God.

The poem seeks to show the equivalence of God and Love and argues that God forgives all sins and therefore one who accepts Love into their heart will sit with God in the Christian afterlife.

I like this poem because it reminds me that though nobody is perfect, love does not seek perfection anyway and that we all can find the happiness we deserve. I like it also because it aptly captures the feelings we sometimes have when we are attracted to another—that they are out of our league. Accept the religious subtext if you will—I am content with a simple interpretation.

Just before Herbert died of tuberculosis, he sent a manuscript to a friend and told him to publish it his poems “might turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” I certainly found this poem appealing and I am going to look for more of Herbert’s verse.