17th Century Poetry, christology, Death, Feast, George Herbert, heart, Hope, John 14:1-6, John 15:10-11, John 1:1-13, John 6:35, John 6:35-40, John 8:12, joy, love, Names of Christ, poem, Poetry, Puritan Poetry, strength, The Call, Titles for Christ
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
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 joyes in love.
Meter & Structure: The poem primarily uses regularly iambic feet (unaccented syllable, accented syllable, “my WAY, my TURTH, my LIFE). However, the first foot of each stanza begins with a single syllable, the strongly accented “Come”. This gives the poem a quick movement and also emphasis the imperative, “Come”.
The first foot of lines 2-4 are stressed-unstressed-stressed; the amphibrach: “Such a Way”. The effect of the amphibrach is to set the first part off of the line off as the subject of the clause, “SUCH a WAY — as gives us life”. Also note that each noun in lines 2-4 has been introduced in line 1.
Each stanza begins with an imperatival prayer, “Come” followed by three nouns. In the first two stanzas, the nouns describe Christ and found in John’s Gospel. The third stanza describes the subject results of the relationship to Christ, joy, love, heart.
In all three stanza, lines 2-4 show the effect of each attribute, “Life which kills death”.
In addition to the end rhyme ABAB, Herbert has also embedded an additional in lines 2-4 of each stanza: The last word of the second line rhymes with the third word of the third line. The last word of the third line rhymes with the third word of the fourth line:
Descriptions of Christ: The descriptions of Christ would have been readily known to any contemporary reader of Herbert’s poem.
First Stanza: Way, Truth & Life: This comes directly from John 14:6. The scene is during the “last supper” of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is asked a question and answers. Here is the contex and the quotation (as found in John 14:1-6, ESV translation):
1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.
2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
4 And you know the way to where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Second Stanza: Light, Feast, Strength: This triad does not appear in a single verse; however it is a common set of associations in the gospel of John.
Light: The prologue to John’s Gospel makes repeated references to Jesus (the Word) being the true light:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.
8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:1-13
Jesus refers to himself as the “light” at a “feast”, which is recorded in John 7-8. In John 8:12, Jesus proclaims,
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The ESV Study Bible notes provides the background for this usage:
John 8:12 I am. See note on 6:35. Jesus is the light of the world (see note on 1:4–5; also 3:19–21; 12:35–36, 46). Jesus fulfills OT promises of the coming of the “light” of salvation and the “light” of God (e.g., Ex. 25:37; Lev. 24:2; Ps. 27:1; Isa. 9:2; 42:6; 49:6; John 9:5; Acts 13:47; 26:18, 23; Eph. 5:8–14; 1 John 1:5–7).
Feast: In addition to Jesus speaking at the feast, Jesus also said that he was the proper feast of humanity:
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Certainly this “feast” will be a demonstration of “strength”.
The ESV Study Bible notes here:
John 6:35 Jesus’ claim, “I am the bread of life,” constitutes the first of seven “I am” sayings recorded in this Gospel (see chart). Apart from these sayings there are also several absolute statements where Jesus refers to himself as “I am” (e.g., v. 20; 8:24, 28, 58; 18:5), in keeping with the reference to God as “I am” in Ex. 3:14 and the book of Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 25). Jesus is the “bread of life” in the sense that he nourishes people spiritually and satisfies the deep spiritual longings of their souls. In that sense, those who trust in him shall not hunger; that is, their spiritual longing to know God will be satisfied (cf. John 4:14 for a similar discussion of satisfying people’s spiritual thirst).
Strength: While “strength” is not an appellation used by John of Jesus, it is a common enough description of God. John unquestionably takes over the understand of God in the Old Testament and applies it to Jesus. Herbert, an orthodox Christian, would likewise have no hesitation to make such a usage. Here is an example of the usage from Exodus 15:2:
The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
Third Stanza, Joy, Love, Heart. This final triad differs from the first two in that these are not images derived from John’s description. Rather, these are responses of the worshipper to Jesus.
Joy: In John 15, Jesus says that he has come to produce love and joy in the hearts of his disciples:
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Herbert has taken over the effect (love and joy) and attributed the effect to cause (Jesus). Thus, by producing love and joy Jesus is Herbert’s love and joy.
This matter of joy was a serious concern for the theologian and pastor of Herbert’s day. While the Puritans are caricatured as dour, sour people, their concerns where quite different: joy was a constant concern and desire. In particular, joy was seen as the result of knowing God and the gift of God:
As it is not the great cage that makes the bird sing, so it is not the great estate that makes the happy life, nor the great portion that makes the happy soul. There is no true comfort nor no true happiness to be drawn out of the standing pools of outward sufficiencies. All true comfort and happiness is only to be found in having of an all-sufficient God for your portion: Ps. 144:15, ‘Happy is that people that is in such a case, yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord.’ And therefore, as ever you would be happy in both worlds, it very highly concerns you to get an interest in God, and to be restless in your own souls till you come to enjoy God for your portion.
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2, “An Ark for All God’s Noahs” (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 7.
(3.) Our love to God shall never be abolished.—“Love never faileth;”* the same kind of love, the same numerical love that was in gracious persons on earth, shall be continued in heaven, and receive its perfection presently after its delivery from the body of death. There will be a greater change in all our graces than in our love. A great part of our life is taken up in the exercise of those graces, that, I may in some respect say, die with us. The one-half of our life is, or should be, spent in mortification. The whole of our time needs the exercise of our patience. Our life, at best, is but a life of faith. Much of our sweet communion with God is fetched-in by secret prayer. But now, in heaven, there shall be no sin to be mortified, nothing grievous to be endured. Faith shall be swallowed up in enjoyment, and your petitions shall be all answered. So that now, Christians, set yourselves to love God, and you shall no way lose your labour. Other graces are but as physic to the soul,—desirable for something else, which when obtained, they are useless; but love to God is the healthful constitution of the soul,—there is never any thing of it in any sense useless. Most of the graces of the Spirit do by our souls as our friends by our bodies, who accompany them to the grave, and there leave them; but now love to God is the alone grace, that is to our souls the same that a good conscience [is],—our best friend in both worlds.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 1, “How May We Attain to Love God With All Our Hearts, Souls, and Minds?”, Rev., Samuel Annesley, LL.D., (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 606.
Heart: The final image of Jesus being one’s “heart” is a traditional English usage for that which is most important to one. While Jesus is never said to be one’s heart in the Scripture, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians states that Jesus will dwell in a believer’s heart. In fact the entire complex of images used in Paul’s prayer may have an additional source of Herbert’s imagery for this poem:
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith-that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19.