You are standing in front of a picture in an art gallery, working out what the picture might mean. Someone else comes alongside you – you don’t know him but you get into conversation about the picture. "What do you think it means?" he asks. Delighted to be invited to share your opinion, you suggest a meaning. Somewhat surprisingly, the man both commends your interpretation, and takes it further – with great authority.
Herbert found layers of meaning as he saw and reflected on the separate items of church furniture. The item here is the window. Truth can shine through glass, as he shows in his poem The Elixir. Here in Love-Joy, as in The Windows, truth is shown in picture form in annealed glass, a process whereby colour is burnt into glass.
In Salisbury Cathedral, Christopher Webb’s memorial window to George Herbert illustrates this poem. On the branches of the vine are numerous bunches of grapes, some inscribed with the letters J and C. The words Joy and Charitie are at the top of the central panel. Each side panel has two figures of angels, one playing a viol, one a lute, and others holding the related texts Rejoice in the Lord always and See that ye love one another.
Since 1953, when the window was installed, perhaps many have stood in front it, and similar conversations to that imagined in the poem have taken place. It is a nice thought.
Biblical allusions abound in this poem. Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Galatia that the fruit of God’s Spirit residing in human beings is love and joy. The vine is a picture used in the Old Testament by many of the prophets to describe God’s people – planted in fruitful soil, yet often bearing bad fruit. In John’s Gospel (chapter 15), Jesus is the true vine, so the poem sees in him the source of love and joy.
Perhaps hovering behind the identity of the one in line 3 are allusions to the messenger angels who came to Abraham (Genesis 18), or the figure who stood by (Daniel 7). But surely the man of the final line is the figure of Christ as found in John (chapter 14) – behold the man. Love and joy are found in him..
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