Only lovers see the fall a signal end to endings a gruffish gesture alerting those who will not be alarmed that we begin to stop in order to begin again.
The Beautiful Changes By Richard Wilbur
One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies On water; it glides So from the walker, it turns Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes. The beautiful changes as a forest is changed By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it; As a mantis, arranged On a green leaf, grows Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows. Your hands hold roses always in a way that says They are not only yours; the beautiful changes In such kind ways, Wishing ever to sunder Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
The Wild Swans at Coole By William Butler Yeats
The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry, Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky; Upon the brimming water among the stones Are nine-and-fifty swans. The nineteenth autumn has come upon me Since I first made my count; I saw, before I had well finished, All suddenly mount And scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings… But now they drift on the still water, Mysterious, beautiful; Among what rushes will they build, By what lake’s edge or pool Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day To find they have flown away?
Theme in Yellow By Carl Sandburg
I spot the hills With yellow balls in autumn. I light the prairie cornfields Orange and tawny gold clusters And I am called pumpkins. On the last of October When dusk is fallen Children join hands And circle round me Singing ghost songs And love to the harvest moon; I am a jack-o’-lantern With terrible teeth And the children know I am fooling.
George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, ponderous, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.
The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each, and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here.
1 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 any thing.
2 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?
3 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.
In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert has labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.
Lines 1-2 Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.
In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next couplet explains why, but the opening line communicates Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).
Lines 3-4 But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,
Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?
Lines 5-6 Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.
Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.
Lines 7-8 A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.
The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack! He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.
Lines 9-10 I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, /I cannot look on thee.
The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).
Lines 11-12 Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, /Who made the eyes but I?
Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guiltbut toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.
Lines 13-14 Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame /Go where it doth deserve.
The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.
Lines 15-16 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.
Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20).
But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does.
Lines 17-18 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.
In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.
Why This Poem Speaks to Me
I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame.
Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.
So can you.
Contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.
The Bible employs a variety of literary devices to convey its message. This dynamic is especially true of Hebrew poetry, which often features an array of verbal imagery and artistry to express the writer’s theological meaning.
Perhaps even more so than straight prose, poetry captures the attention, stirs the emotions, and stimulates the imagination, thus helping readers discover new dimensions of familiar truths. Consequently, it also has the ability to provoke deeper reflection on, and greater appreciation of, those sacred truths.
Alexander Pope, for example, once described Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine with an evocative sentence that is nearly unparalleled in English. The line he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana of Galilee in a creative and memorable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed.
The profound theological message conveyed in this one line speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Narrative alone seldom attains to such levels of eloquence. In his book Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson writes:
“Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience. . . . St. John is a poet, not using words to tell us about God, but to intensify our relationship with God.”
While it may be true that we sometimes “murder to dissect” (William Wordsworth), in this study we will take a closer look at explanations and examples for:
Common Figures of Speech
Common Semantic, Rhetorical & Poetic Devices
Common Structuring Techniques
We do so not to “murder” the text through crass dissection, but to better understand and appreciate its inner workings—all in an effort to hear more accurately the biblical authors’ intended meaning.
Do note that multiple devices can be at work simultaneously in any give text. Note also that these artistic touches enhance the beauty and richness of the biblical composition, undercutting modern critical notions that the sacred texts were written hastily or edited haphazardly. Rather, they are carefully crafted works of art.