Let Me Not Love Thee If I Love Thee Not

George Herbert

Spiritual Sunday

It’s been a while since I shared a poem by my favorite religious poet, George Herbert, so here’s one where he grapples heroically with “Affliction,” a current concern of mine given my ailing friend Rachel Kranz. I’ve posted on “Affliction” before but now, after seeing Rachel’s cancer up close, the images of illness hit harder.

I admire Herbert because of his willingness to go toe to toe with God. When he is suffering, he doesn’t hesitate to let God know.

Herbert reports that, as a young and healthy man, he found it easy to love God. He remembers his cockiness in the early days of his belief—“I thought the service brave”—as he focused on God’s blessings:

I looked on thy furniture so fine, 
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

Then, however, things took a turn for the worse, undermining his too easy confidence:

My flesh began unto my soul in pain, 
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

Even when he himself recovered, things continued bad as he saw friends taken down, turning him into a  “a blunted knife”:

When I got health, thou took’st away my life, 
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

I don’t entirely follow Herbert towards the end but it sounds as though he accuses God of a bait and switch, early on by making him think that belief will be easy and later by making possible a successful academic career at Cambridge to compensate for thwarting his court ambitions (“Thou often didst with Academic praise/Melt and dissolve my rage.”) Herbert finds himself so entangled with God that, when the going gets tough, he’s too far committed to pull out: “I was entangled in the world of strife,/ Before I had the power to change my life.”

By the end of the poem he is sick again and is so beaten down that he describes himself in uncharted territory: “Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me/ None of my books will show.” He wishes he were not human but a tree.

Regrouping, he tries to resign himself to God’s will. “I must be meek;/In weakness must be stout.” This doesn’t work, however, and he threatens to leave God altogether: “I will change the service, and go seek/Some other master out.” He makes this same threat in other poems, most notably “The Collar,” where he writes:

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
                         I will abroad! 

As in “The Collar,” however, he recognizes this as a temper tantrum rather than a serious threat. As I say, he is so entangled with God that though he feels abandoned (“though I am clean forgot”), he can’t help loving God. Life would be so much easier, he says, if he didn’t. “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not” is a way of saying, “I am tormented by not loving you as fully as I feel I should so please help me stop loving you altogether.”

God won’t allow this, however. Or rather, Herbert can’t leave God no matter how tormented he may feel. One finds Herbert periodically thinking, in his poetry, that life would be easier if his heart were a stone, but God seems always to find a way in, often through back door entrances. As Herbert writes at the end of “The Collar,”

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.

God watches us in our torment and loves us. Why do we find it so hard to get out of our own way and accept that love?

Here’s “Affliction (1)” in its entirety:

Affliction (1)

By George Herbert.

When thou didst entice to thee my heart, 
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served?
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,
Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me; not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

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