We are all familiar with the word 'bittersweet': it decribes something having both and a good and a bad side, and in emotional terms mixes joy with sorrow, or perhaps satisfaction with regret. It is this sense of paradox that George Herbert captures so brilliantly in this short poem.
Bitterness and sweetness are such basic tastes that the verbal combination of the two to describe conflicted feelings was probably in common parlance in George Herbert's time, and no doubt well before. Not perhaps as a single word and certainly not so much as in the present day, when it has often been used in music, film and TV titles, and for good reason - it signifies mixed emotions that most people instinctivly understand.
So when he wanted to crystallise in verse the tortured nature of his relationship with God that underlies so many of his poems, he could not have settled on a more descriptive title than 'Bitter-sweet'. It is clear that his religious belief involved him in an unceasing struggle to reconcile God's unfailing love with all the ups and downs of life and the problems that so often beset him, not least his recurring ill health.
Of course, this concept of contrariness was not confined to devotional verse. Much of the love poetry and many of the ballads penned by Herbert's secular contemporaries dwelt on the ficklemess or lack of consistency on the part of the females to whom they were addressed. But that was just human nature. Herbert was more concerned with the deeper mystery of how his God could be so benevolent, and yet give humankind such a hard time. No doubt many religious believers of every faith are asking themselve much the same question now, when the world is in the grip of a viral pandemic.
Herbert starts the poem with the phrase 'Ah my dear' - the very same words he uses in two of his better known works 'Affliction I' and 'Love III'. This is his affectionate and intimate approach to God, whom he immediately goes on to describe as 'angrie'. His implication is that man's sinfulness constantly attracts retribution, that God is for ever bringing to heel his ungrateful creation. And so he accepts the ability of the deity to both afflict and love him at the same time, and through his faith to support him in times of suffering.
So George Herbert draws the conclusion that it is perfectly in otder for him to behave in a similarly paradoxical way. Though he can and, in his poetry, frequenty does rail against his God or question why he encounters difficulties in so many aspects of his life, yet he sustains himself with the the certainty of God's omnipotence, demanding his adoraion and praise.
And while he feels that he has every reason to complain to God about his afflictions (five poems) and his lack of what he considers to be suitable employment (two poems), he cannot help but recognise ('approve') that he gains spiritual strength through adversity. This is another recurring theme in his verses; for example, in 'Paradise', where he uses the analogy of hard pruning to encourage growth, and in 'The Flower' - 'after so many deaths I live and write'.
He concludes that these mixed feelings and contradictory emotions are with him for life. They cannot be reconciled other than through the one overarching emotion that pervades all his devotional poetry, and that is 'love'. It is entirely fitting that this is the poem's closing word.
Modern critics have praised the quality of this little poem and recognised its significance; one of them called it 'as superb a piece of poetry as was ever compressed into eight short lines'. To many, it seems to summarise the essence of the whole collection of poems in 'The Temple', described by Herbert himself as "a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul" according to his biographer Izaak Walton. No doubt that is why, in his 2013 book 'Music at Midnight' about the life and works of George Herbert, the author John Drury chose 'Bitter-sweet' ss its concluding poem.
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