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"Quick-ey'd Love": Regenerate Eyes and Spiritual Body in Herbert's "Love" (III) by Celestin John Walby Many readers of Herbert's "Love" (III) apprehend sexual imagery in the poem in which the love between man and God is depicted as an erotic love between a man and a woman. Love (God) is portrayed as a solicitous woman, who observes man (the soul) "grow slack" (1. 3) from his "first entrance in" (1. 4); Love is "quick-ey'd" (1. 3) and makes "eyes" (1. 12) to her beloved, "sweetly questioning, / If I lack'd any thing" (11. 5-6), reassuring the speaker of his worth by taking his "hand," "smiling" (1. 11), and telling him "You shall be he" (1. 8).1 But even those critics who acknowledge this sexual imagery and the conflation of gender in the characterization of God often confine their reading to the first stanza and dismiss its sexual implications as incidental or accidental in the poem. Chana Bloch, for example, although she cites the Song of Songs as a strong biblical precedent for Herbert's portrayal of divine love in human erotic terms, declares that the poet has been "unconsciously guided by the memory or imagination of a human sexual encounter," for "it is unlikely, in view of his other poems, that he would have intended an explicitly sexual scene."2 With such a conscientious and self-conscious artist as George Herbert, however, the "unlikely" scenario here is just the opposite; it is unlikely that Herbert would have "unconsciously" constructed a sexual scene. Not surprisingly, then, more recently, critics have begun to admit frankly the sexual implications of the soul's "detumescence " and Love's benevolently seductive gestures in the poem, but have not said much to explain the presence of these elements other than to point out simply that it is a "conventional" example of "analogical predication" (predicating the divine by human analogy) or of sacred parody.3 In addition to not saying much about specific sexual images, such explanations assert a dichotomy between body and spirit that is of questionable value in reading a poem that has the final consummation between God and the individual Christian as its central theme. What has been neglected in previous approaches to "Love" (III) is the integration of body and spirit by means of typology. Herbert and "Love" (III)59 The most thorough analysis of the eroticism of the poem to date, however, takes a different approach. In his recent book, Prayer and Power: George Herbert andRenaissance Courtship, Michael Schoenfeldt finds that sacred parody, the poetic strategy of allegorically or figuratively representing divine love in terms of mundane human love, does not fully explain the sexual imagery of Herbert's religious lyric. The poet's portrait of his encounter with God, Schoenfeldt contends, is invested with such firm "physical referentiality" that "a purely spiritual or allegorical reading of the poem [is] difficult to sustain."4 Finding a "deeper eroticism" than that which is ordinarily employed in the convention of sacred parody, Schoenfeldt reads "Love" (III) more broadly as an expression of Herbert's love for God articulated "by means of a complex set of homologies among divine, social, and sexual courtship" which "were in large part the product of the particular political situation of the English Renaissance."5 Although Schoenfeldt may be right in claiming that sacred parody alone does not provide an adequate reading in this case, asserting "a complex set of homologies" does not resolve much either. The problem with sacred parody, allegory, "analogical predication," and even "homologies" is that they all ask the reader to interpret the poem as dealing in "likenesses" only, postulating nothing "literally" about the divine; but the imagery is so compelling on multiple levels that it is hard not to read the poem literally in some way. Every assertion of similitude between sacred and profane, even when deeply enrichedwith political contexts, inescapablyentails its opposite as a condition of the comparison, an implication of dissimilitude.6Hence, critical approaches to the poem that make some version of this assertion, however modernized and complicated, deny Herbert the poetic aim of articulating one of the central mysteries of Christian faith; namely, that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 58-72
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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