The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.

George Herbert. 1633.

Now this is interesting. While Herbert tends in his poems (as does Christina Rossetti) towards a kind of genteel dualism (a phrase I coined in order to describe this non-revolutionary, non-confrontational, but quite unconventional Christianmystical dualism which is also very English and very middle class), here we see a very interesting arrangement in these three stanzas. Note the pattern, which seems at a glance to be rigidly followed throughout, but other than the use of three capitalized nouns per stanza and ABAB rhyming at line-ends, this is not the casse. Appearances deceive (let that be a genteel mystic’s lesson for you). In stanza 1 (Way-Truth-Life), the pairs are all nouns, subject-object: Way-breath, Truth-strife, Life-death. In stanza 2 (Light, Feast, Strength), all nouns: Light-feast, Feast-length, Strength-guest. Stanza 3 (Joy, Love, Heart) mixes it up by pairing the three main (capitalized!) nouns with two verbs (move, part) and one noun (love): Joy-move, Love-part, Heart-love. Also notice that in the second and third stanzas we find some repeats of the main words. In stanza 2 (Light, Feast, Strength), we have Light-feast. In stanza 3 (Joy-Love-Heart), however, the last line of the stanza (and of the poem as a whole) reuses all three of the main nouns, with the homograph ‘joy’ as a verb: ‘Such a Heart, as joys in love.’ So, the pattern is there, but is not so rigid as we are led to believe at a glance. Another striking, and intentional, usage in this poem relates to the capitalization. Note that the main three nouns of each are all capitalized, while other nouns are not, which is striking in the case of the nouns, as they were generally still typically capitalized into the later 17th and early 18th century. So this uppercase-lowercase usage is intentional, and, in fact, is rather an ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ thing: the capitalized nouns all refer to the the heavenly ‘He,’ while the lowercase words are terrestrially situated with the ‘I’ and ‘We’ characters. Also, don’t miss the trinitarianism: three capitalized nouns per stanza, and three stanzas. Also, the four of lines per stanza generally (in these sorts of Christian poems) reflect the four Gospels, while the total of twelve lines is probably rather the Twelve Apostles rather than the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So, those are some interesting bits about its organization and pattern, but the capitalizations are also interesting in that they draw on biblical texts.

The stanza 1 The trio Way-Truth-Life appears in John 14.6: ‘Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ (We’ll just pass over the absence of the second half of the verse in this poem, problematic as it is.) The rest of the capitalized nouns in the poem similarly represent Christ. In stanza 2, Light and Strength are paired in Psalm 27.1: ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ Feast is probably a reference to the communion meal. In stanza 3, Love and Heart are found in Matthew 23.37 parr alluding to Deuteronomy 6.5: ‘Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ The connection with Joy is uncertain. One suggestion is Matthew 25.21, 23, end: ‘…enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Lastly, the “Come, my…” in the first line of each stanza perhaps reflects the final words of Rev 22.20, lending a bit of apocalypticism to the poem: ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’

With those in mind, we have a better idea of what is going on in each line of the poem.

Stanza 1, line 2: a Way would normally tire people out, taking their breath away, not giving it. So here already we’re already seeing the strange, counterintuitive result of the mixing of the uppercase Divine and the lowercase human(s). Line 3 may be an oblique allusion to Hebrews 6.16: ‘For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.’ Line 3 goes further, ending all strife. And the last verse of the stanza is both the most counterintuitive and most dualistic in the poem: dualistic because of the subject-object pairing of Life and death, counterintuitive because of the sentence: ‘And such a Life, as killeth death.’ This, of course, is a twofold reference to Christ, who can be said to have defeated (though not killed) death through his resurrection, and is to actually kill death in the future, as depicted in Revelation 20.14: ‘And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.’ In paraphrase: ‘Come, Christ, you who overturn reality, stronger than all, stronger even than death.’

Stanza 2 is a little trickier. The Light showing a feast is also a communion reference. ‘Such a Feast as mends in length’ means ‘Such a feast that gets better as it goes’. So the first two verses really work together: the Light illumines the way to the communion/feast, which keeps getting better and better. The last line of the stanza relates to the Feast, as well: ‘Such a Strength as makes his guest.’ That is, the Strength invites to the Feast. So, in paraphrase: ‘Come, Christ, who lights the way to the ever-better communion feast, inviting whom you will.’ And this Feast, I think, with consideration of the Revelation allusions, is probably meant to represent an eternal Feast.

Stanza 3 is the culmination of the increasing closeness depicted in the poem stanza by stanza. Stanza 3 is a full-blown love poem: Christ the Joy that cannot be removed, the Love that no one can separate away, and Heart that rejoices in love (whose is unsaid; does it matter?). In the end, the world-overturner is your Lover forever.

It’s rather astonishing that all of this is packed into a mere twelve lines!

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