Our school hymnbook was Songs of Praise (without music). I still have my copy, and I honestly can’t remember whether it was mine to keep or whether I stole it (the latter by inadvertence, because I was far too Goody-Two-Shoes to have done so deliberately). As with some many things that one learns by rote in childhood, I can recite many of those hymns in full and without hesitation, while I have great difficulty in remembering my current car registration number.
I realised only quite a bit later that many of my favourite hymns were either written by or adapted from George Herbert. ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, ‘King of glory, King of peace’, ‘Teach me, my God and King’, and especially ‘Come, my way, my truth, my life’. Many of my friends found this one completely dreary (and we did sing it to a very dreary tune – apologies, Dr Vaughan Williams!), but I loved the apparent simplicity of the words (all monosyllables except ‘killeth’),but wound together with so much paradoxical subtlety of meaning, chains of internal rhyme, and complexity of sense. (It occurs to my that two other of my favourites, Bishop Ken’s ‘Awake, my soul’, and ‘My song is love unknown’, by the almost forgotten Samuel Crossman, both clergymen from the generation after Herbert, have the same quality of deceptive simplicity: does Crossman’s hymn actually refer back to Herbert’s long and complex poem, ‘Love unknown’?)
I would not dream of trying to say any more about the poetry, except that my affection and admiration have grown the more I have read and learned. It is one of the great glories of Cambridge University Press that it published Herbert’s The Temple, the verses he entrusted on his death on 3 March 1633 (1632 in the old style) to his friend Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding. He instructed Ferrar either to arrange for the poems to be published if they might ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’, or to burn them.
Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel, printers to the University, brought out the first edition in 1633: there were several more in the course of the seventeenth century, and Herbert’s work was to influence poets from Richard Crashaw to T.S. Eliot and beyond.
There are also many biographers of Herbert, from Ferrar’s introduction to The Temple, via Barnabas Oley’s 1652 introduction to Herbert’s Remains (which includes The Country Parson), to the enthusiastic but not necessarily reliable Izaak Walton (in whose household the orphaned Thomas Ken was reared) in 1670, to Herbert’s distant cousin John Aubrey, to the wonderful Music at Midnight, by John Drury (2013). For an approach to the multitudinous criticism, there is a useful short bibliography on the Poetry Foundation website here.
The most recent (and best) edition of the English poems was published (also by Cambridge University Press) in 2007, and I was lucky enough to go to the launch of the book, at Sarum College in Salisbury Cathedral Close, with two dear friends (they know who they are) who had been closely involved in the publication of the book; another dear friend (ditto) was sadly unable to attend. The launch was part of a conference on Herbert, and many of the attendees were planning to walk along the river and through the water meadows to Bemerton, where Herbert lived at the rectory for the last three years of his life, and restored the church. Sadly, we had to return home the same day, but I put it on my List of Thing To Do, and last weekend, I did.
Herbert walked into Salisbury at least twice a week, to attend the cathedral (he was a talented musician, and must have enjoyed the organ music and the sung services).
It is not certain what his route was (and roads and building have obviously changed since his day), but Him Indoors had downloaded the map supplied by the Friends of St Andrew’s, Bemerton, and we set off on a sunny (at last!!) Saturday afternoon, after spending time in the (excellent) Museum, and in the Cathedral, where the Herbert memorial window is less visible that it might have been because of the socking great memorial to the exotic Elin Ulfsdotter Snakenborg, maid of honour to Elizabeth I, Marchioness of Northampton, later Lady Gorges, who left 98 living descendants on her death in 1635, as well as a barley-sugar tomb.
Herbert is also depicted on the outside of the church, in a fairly recent sculpture based – as are all the images of him – on the portrait drawn and engraved by Robert White in 1674 for Walton’s biography.
It is not clear how accurate the likeness is, or how much it is derived from Herbert’s own statement, in ‘The Size’: ‘… not a corpulent, but a thinne and spare / Yet active strength: whose long and bonie face / Content and care / Do seem to equally divide, / Like a pretender, not a bride’; or his description of the ‘ideal’ county parson, who abstains from excessive eating and drinking, and strictly observes fast days.
(By the way, in The Country Parson, I was fascinated to discover these strictures against expensive, foreign medicines: ‘So, where the Apothecary useth either for loosing, Rubarb, or for binding, Bolearmena, the Parson useth damask or white Roses for the one, and plantaine, shepherds purse, knot-grasse for the other, and that with better successe. … Accordingly, for salves, his wife seeks not the city, but preferrs her garden and fields before all outlandish gums.’)
The walk from Salisbury begins at the edge of the city, and goes through the water meadows by the side of the Nadder, which flows into the Avon nearby.
The meadows are still managed with dykes and sluices so that sheep may safely graze in them in summer, and from them, looking back, you can see the view of the cathedral which John Constable (among many others) captured.
Beyond the meadows, you come to Harnham mill, a brick and flint complex of buildings which may date from the twelfth century and was in use as a paper mill in the sixteenth.
It is now a very alluring pub, but we were strong and unallured, proceeding on our way along a road from which the footpath to Bemerton leads off into the wild again, meandering through a belt of trees and wildflowers, and crossing the river at the Spring Bridge.
On the way there, we met a spaniel taking endless delight in retrieving a stick from the water, and on the way back some boys with fishing nets, equally enthusiastic about a bullhead they had caught and were about to release back into the stream.
More, smaller bridges brought us out on to the road at Lower Bemerton, from where it is a short walk to St Andrew’s church, and Herbert’s rectory opposite. We were lucky enough to meet the Rev Judy Rees, a Herbert scholar who it turned out had been at the 2007 launch (and we apologise to the family of little Rose, whose preparation for her christening the next day we rudely interrupted).
The church is tiny, the rectory, six steps across the road, considerably larger. The surrounding graveyard is also tiny, restricted by the meeting of two roads just beyond. Herbert himself lies in the chancel, with no inscription on his gravestone. According to John Aubrey, ‘He was buried (according to his own desire) with the singing service for the burial of the dead, by the singing men of Sarum.’ The cathedral choir presumably took the same path to the funeral that Herbert himself knew so well.