Three Little Words

The two of us once hiked far into an enchanted forest in Italy called the Sybillini Mountains. From a deep ravine with dancing waters we climbed a path up and up through a stand of pristine trees, mostly some kind of birch I think. The path got steeper, the trees more uniform and a wind in the trees stronger, as if to send us a message through the living leaves. (I wish I could tell you what kind of tree.) At the remote-seeming peak, a vision: a classical stone chapel, open to us. Inside the small sanctuary, apparently maintained by monks but deserted when we entered, an altar had these Italian words engraved, “LA VIA, LA VERA, LA VITA.”

This is what Jesus said he was — “I am” — when Thomas asked him at the Last Supper (John 17), “How can we know the way?” How interesting that the three words have similar spellings in Italian (and Latin). The way, VIA, has the same first and last letters as the truth and the life. And the “Way” becomes the “Life,” in Italian, if you insert a “T,” which is sometimes taken as the Cross.

George Herbert, the 17th century poet and Anglican pastor, played with these three little English words in a poem that is set to the 20th century music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as Hymn 487 in the Episcopal Hymnal.

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.

Singing this, as we did last Sunday in church, you might miss the tight verbal patterns, let alone the packed meanings. The stanza is rhymed A-B-A-B. The second, third and fourth lines all start the same way, “Such a,” like three silver clasps of those jewels, Way, Truth and Life. But after the first line, the upper-case words that represent Christ Himself, become the lower-case generic words, as the divine became incarnate in the human. So, “Such a” connects the singular with the universal, the temporal with the eternal.

Look closer at the interior rhyme scheme. The last word of the second line, “breath,” is an off rhyme with the third word of the next line, “truth.” Similarly, the last word of the third line, “strife,” is rhymed with the third word of the next line, “life.” So the whole verse is woven together in an intricate almost mathematical design, exhibiting the idea that the sound and structure of language itself can reveal beauty that is nested within its meaning. When the meaning is metaphysical, the effect in language is what made George Herbert one of the Metaphysical Poets, as John Donne and some other contemporaries are called.

This tight pattern of English word-sounds is also maintained, remarkably, in the second and third stanzas of this three-verse hymn. Herbert invokes two new trinities to echo Christ’s self-naming triplet of the Way, Truth and Life, making an overall design of three. The second verse:

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.

And the third and final verse:

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 joys in love.

The ingenious design weaves like a braid, but it may be too much. It strains the meaning. Although “mend” can be an intransitive verb, meaning to increase in value, a feast that “mends in length” makes little sense, unless you take “in length” to mean lifelong, or eternal. What kind of joy can none “move”? What kind of love can none “part”? It is biblical language, of course, and the idiom may be partly lost to 21st century English. Also, to hold the design, Herbert needs “move” to rhyme with, or at least look like, “love.” And he needs “length” to rhyme with “strength,” which means he needs a one-syllable intransitive verb to connect with length. Since the feast is Christ’s eucharistic Body, maybe “mends” is the perfect and porous verb. But much of this poem doesn’t make sense.

How does such a strength “[make] his guest”? I think it means the Lord (“Strength”) makes (me) his guest.

This may be explained by a feast in another poem, “Love (III).” This most well-known of Herbert’s poems is from the point of view of a wayfarer who arrives, let’s say at a tavern on the road, and is welcomed by Love, the ultimate allegorical figure.

“Love bade me welcome,” the poem begins, “yet my soul drew back.” The poem is a dialogue, a tender disagreement, between Love and a guilt-ridden traveler. Love,“sweetly questioning” the dusty traveler, finally leaves him cornered. So he offers to serve. She (for “quick-eyed” Love seems very feminine here) abruptly cuts off the dialogue. “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit, and eat.” No more argument. He is made Love’s guest.

Those last two lines give me the shivers. This is the poem that the writer Walker Percy mentions as giving him a final push into his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Simone Weil, the French philosopher whose conversion to the Roman Church was never completed, describes reciting the poem to herself when she was suffering from intolerable headaches, and then having Christ descend and take possession of her. For me, studying the poem in a college class called “The Metaphysical Poets” was not that intense. But it may have been the start of something important in my life, on the way.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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