Review by Christina Hardyment
‘Love bad me welcome, yet my soul drew back,/Guilty of dust and sin’; ‘When God at first made man,/Having a glass of blessings standing by, “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can’; ‘Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,/Makes that and th' action fine’.
Lines from George Herbert’s poems haunt the memory of all who have heard them. Now, thanks to John Drury’s pellucidly written and subtly imaginative book, their musicality and deeper meaning can be fully understood; so too can the motivation of the passionately devout yet delightfully down-to-earth man who wrote them.
George Herbert was born in 1593, late in the reign of Elizabeth I, and flourished in the reign of James I. A friend of both John Donne and Francis Bacon, he toyed with social prominence, winning the post of Cambridge’s University Orator. But in 1629 he opted, not without agonising, for devoting himself to a quiet country parish near Salisbury, where he worked, lute in hand, over his great legacy to literature: poems that still sing off the page. He died three years later, a month short of his fortieth birthday.
He could have no better biographer and expositor than John Drury, formerly Dean of Kings, Cambridge and Christ Church Oxford, and presently Dean of All Soul’s, who sets the poet four square in place and time as a man, and quadruples our appreciation of his work, both as poet and parson. Poems familiar and new are introduced and illuminatingly analysed at apt moments in Herbert’s life, and lovely domestic details of the proper conduct of a country vicar discovered in Herbert’s little-known prose masterpiece, A Priest to The Temple, or The Country Parson. Here’s a taster of his thoroughly pragmatic but kindly approach:
The Country Parson upon the afternoons in the week- days, takes occasion sometimes to visit in person, now one quarter of his Parish, now another. For there he shall find his flock most naturally as they are, wallowing in the midst of their affairs: whereas on Sundays it is easier for them to compose themselves to order, which they put on as their holy-day clothes, and come to Church in frame, but commonly the next day put off both. When he comes to any house, first he blesseth it, and then as he finds the persons of the house employed, so he forms his discourse. Those that he finds religiously employed, he both commends them much, and furthers them when he is gone, in their employment; as if he findes them reading, he furnisheth them with good books; if curing poor people, he supplies them with Receipts, and instructs them further in that skill, showing them how acceptable such works are to God, and wishing them ever to do the Cures with their own hands, and not to put them over to servants. Those that he finds busie in the works of their calling, he commendeth them also: for it is a good and just thing for every one to do their own business. But then he admonisheth them of two things; first, that they dive not too deep into worldly affairs, plunging themselves over head and ears into carking, and caring; but that they so labour, as neither to labour anxiously, nor distrustfully, nor profanely. Then they labour anxiously, when they overdo it, to the loss of their quiet, and health: then distrustfully, when they doubt Gods providence, thinking that their own labour is the cause of their thriving, as if it were in their own hands to thrive, or not to thrive.
Addicts of literary pilgrimages will find pointers to many places rich in Herbert associations scattered through Drury’s book. He grew up in the shadow of Montgomery Castle, Powys, seat of his illustrious relations the earls of Pembroke. Then splendid, it is now ruined, but has views as far as the Wrekin. His father, Richard Herbert, Lord Cherbury, married the brilliant and beautiful Magdalene Newport, and George was the seventh of their ten children. After Richard’s death in 1596 — marked by a magnificent canopied tomb in St Nicholas’ Church — Magdalene moved first to Oxford to educate her brood, where she began a lifelong friendship with John Donne, who became George’s godfather, and then to Charing Cross, a location conveniently close to Westminster School, where George was educated. To Magdalene, whose Kitchin Book still survives, should go the credit for creating a formidable literary salon full of inspiring mentors for her children.
Trinity College Cambridge was Herbert’s home for nearly twenty years, but his leaning towards the priesthood were evident in his close friendship with Nicholas Ferrar who had established a devout community in Huntingdonshire parish of Little Gidding, and the interest he took in the architectural arrangements of the restoration of the nearby church of Leighton Bromswold, of which he held the prebendary.
Finally and most famously, there are two humble churches in Wiltshire: Fugglestone, nestled close to the walls of Wilton Castle, the splendidly-appointed seat of the Herbert Earls of Pembroke, and a couple of miles away Bemerton, which were Herbert’s first and last parishes as priest. Bemerton Church is especially a shrine to Herbert’s memory. His vicarage, a step across the road, little changed since he occupied it. You can still walk, as Herbert did twice weekly, from Bemerton along the River Nadder to Salisbury Cathedral, and join, as he did, a sung evensong.
During his three years at Bemerton, Herbert revised the poems that are his everlasting legacy and sent them in a handwritten book from his deathbed to Little Gidding in the hope that Ferrar would deem them worthy of being printed. Ferrers did, reading it again and again, and saying — according to his brother — ‘he could not sufficiently admire it, as a rich jewel’. He set his daughters to make a fair copy fit for the printers, which they did, in the form of a folio manuscript which Drury calls ‘an ostentatious masterpiece of calligraphy’. Herbert’s own book has disappeared without trace, but the fair copy survives, and is one of the Bodleian Library’s proudest possessions.