Love and Fear: A Stunning 17th-Century Poem About How to Live with the Transcendent Terror of Love
By Maria Popova
Love is both the tenderest mirror and the cruelest. How much and how well we show up for love reflects what we believe ourselves worthy of. What we desire reflects what we believe we deserve. What we long for reflects both our limitations and our restless yearning to transcend them. In love’s mirror, we are revealed to ourselves, stripped of the ego’s flattering self-image, our vulnerabilities and inadequacies laid bare — a revelation laced with the sublime, both beautiful and terrifying to the bone.
How to live with the transcendent terror of love is what the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, priest, and musician George Herbert (April 3, 1593–March 1, 1633) explores in one of his poems — poems composed in the hope that they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” Reaching across space and time the way only art can, the poem’s final line went on to inspire the final line of Derek Walcott’s superb “Love After Love,” composed nearly four centuries later.
by George Herbert
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 lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “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 marr’d 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.
Complement with David Whyte’s poem “The Truelove” and Robert Graves’s “Advice to Lovers,” then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love and Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.
Published May 15, 2023