“Love (III)” is a three-stanza poem by George Herbert that imagines a conversation between a human speaker and divine Love, personified. It is written in three stanza of six lines, alternating between iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter with an ABABCC rhyme scheme.
In stanza one, divine love, personified as Love, welcomes the speaker in. However, the speaker feels that he is too “guilty” and sinful to receive divine love. Love, sensing his shame, comes closer and asks him what he lacks.
In stanza two, the speaker answers that he lacks the worthiness to be near divine love. Love tells him he can cure this ailment. When the speaker demurs that he cannot even look at Love, Love answers that he himself created the speaker.
In stanza three, the speaker agrees, but says that he has “marred” the eyes that God created, and deserves only to be ashamed. Love asks if he knows who truly bears the blame and invites the speaker to sit at his table and eat. The speaker agrees.
From the outset of “Love (III),” the relationship between the speaker and God is described in terms of a flirtatious, even erotic encounter. The poem personifies Love as “quick-eyed,” and the first stanza has been read to imagine Love “as a solicitous woman” (Walby) who welcomes the speaker in. Love observes the speaker “grow slack,” a possibly phallic image, and seeks to remedy his lack of enthusiasm and confidence by coming closer. The ABABCC rhyme scheme, here, closely ties together the end rhymes of both longer pentameter lines and shorter trimeter lines, which could be seen as reflecting, in the poem's form, the reciprocal coming-together of God’s more ample love with mankind’s smaller, more circumscribed love.
The second stanza continues the comparison of divine love to human courtship. While the speaker suggests that he is unworthy, expressing a sort of shyness, Love comes in closer and makes physical contact, taking his hand. Love’s smile contrasts with the speaker’s downcast eyes. However, just as present as the erotic imagery is the clarity that this poem is about religious experience. Love asked, “Who made the eyes but I?” The speaker is afraid to lift his eyes, but Love reminds him that God has made these very eyes: why would Love reject his own creation?
The third stanza further describes the speaker’s shame, as well as reaches both a religious and an erotic resolution. Here, the speaker addresses Love as “Lord,” and goes on to protest that even if God created his eyes, the speaker has marred them and made them unworthy. He asks to “let [his] shame/Go where it doth deserve”: to remove himself from God’s sight in shame. However, Love takes responsibility for this sin, demonstrating God’s infinite forgiveness. Love even suggests “then I will serve.” Next, Love entreats the speaker to “sit...and taste my meat,” and the speaker agrees. Read in erotic terms, this could be an image of sexual union; of touching, tasting, and enjoying. In Biblical terms, it is an image of sacrament, just as men take Christ’s body in the form of bread in church. It can also be read to describe man's ascension into heaven, where man experiences the promise of paradise.
The complex relationship between the erotic and the sacred in this poem has been a site of debate for many scholars. Some view the poem’s seemingly sexual imagery as a mere accident, and others view it as an important strand of Christian thinking—an argument that the body and the soul are truly one. The final scene, of God and the speaker eating at a table, has been compared to the Biblical Song of Songs ii 4 ("Let him lead me to the banquet hall/ and let his banner over me be love.") and to Luke xii 37 (...the Lord "shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them").