A guest, worthy to be here
Here’s one of my favourite poems of all time:
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 anything. "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?" "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.
Tentative, complex, dramatic, puzzling and pleasing, it’s a poem that yields many different readings. As I write this, the one that comes to the fore is the idea that we are guests here on earth, and that we really should be tucking into the banquet that has been offered to us, instead of hesitating for who knows what reason.
Yesterday, I went to an event in celebration of George Herbert in the wonderful setting of Southwark Cathedral organised by Poet-in-the-City. It featured Herbert’s biographer, John Drury, poets, Wendy Cope and Gwyneth Lewis, actor Timothy West, reading the poems and settings of George Herbert sung by the cathedral’s Merbecke choir.
The whole event was elegant, reverential and like Herbert’s poems, serious and light at the same time. John Drury provided commentary on some of the poems. Wendy Cope talked about Vikram Seth’s experience of buying the Old Rectory at Bemerton, where Herbert lived. Gwyneth Lewis is a descendant. Both talked of what was valuable to them as poets in George Herbert’s poems. I’m not a great fan of actors reading poetry. Timothy West has such a powerful presence that it was difficult to hear the poems ‘through’ his voice. The last time I saw him in the flesh was as a magnificent King Lear in, oh my goodness, 2002. He read the poems beautifully of course but during some he clenched and unclenched his fists, reminding me more of a mad king than a country parson at prayer.
Serendipitously, Start the Week, broadcast yesterday but recorded ten days previously, also featured John Drury talking about his new book. The presenter, Andrew Marr commented how reading poetry, especially George Herbert, had become important to him as he recovered from a stroke. The other guests were Jeanette Winterson and John Tavener talking about their own relationship to spirituality and formal religion. John Tavener described how his engagement with different forms of Christian practice had enriched him in different ways, and quoted the Presbyterian minister as described in this interview in the Telegraph. ‘Tavener’s thoughts are returning home in other ways too. “I’ve been thinking about the Presbyterian minister who had guided me as a youth,” he says. “I remember he was a man who struggled with doubt, and that impressed me. He used to quote an old Zen Buddhist line to me: ‘Life is a creeping tragedy. That is why you must be cheerful’.”
I’ve just read with great sadness that John Tavener has died but how cheerful he sounded in that final interview. Certainly he was a guest worthy to be here.