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26: GEORGE HERBERT

May 24, 2014

#26:  GEORGE HERBERT.  “Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart / Could have recovered greennesse.”  In 1998, after a visit to Charleville, Rimbaud’s birthplace in northeastern France, I went to Bemerton, near Salisbury in England, where George Herbert lived and preached the last three years of his life.  Rimbaud hated Charleville and was repelled by its Sunday-dinner respectability; he wanted only to escape it, and the day I spent there, wandering alone, left me troubled and saddened.  In contrast entirely, the modest church of Saint Andrew’s in Lower Bemerton seemed a perfect and moving mirror of Herbert’s work and character; seeing the altar beneath which Herbert is buried, I was moved to tears of gratitude.  Christianity permeated the great English poetry of the seventeenth century and no one succeeded above Herbert in letting it be the whole and everyday life of his work.  From Donne he inherited the intellectually and syntactically knotted style that Johnson mockingly dubbed “Metaphysical,” and Donne is perhaps a poet of greater moments, of greater range and intensity.  But Herbert goes with us on our way:  his poems are more trimmed and homely than Donne’s, Traherne’s, or the Catholic Crashaw’s, more vividly ordinary than Vaughan’s.  With the pastorate at Bemerton, Herbert abandoned connection and courtly ambition; the choice delivered him, and shaped and reflected his best gifts.  He can be startlingly modern in diction, as when he calls prayer “Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices; something understood.”  But the informing modesty, the love and gratitude over elemental things, can seem both special to his time and a rarity in any day.

      One of the best entries in the recently resuscitated Everyman’s Library from Knopf is Anne Pasternak Slater’s edition of The Complete English Works of Herbert:  it includes the verse, prose works, letters, an entertaining collection of “Outlandish Proverbs,” and Walton’s biography; the introduction is good and the notes are excellent and helpful.  For a lovely and keenly-felt appreciation, read “George Herbert and the River Valley Route,” the sixth chapter of Ronald Blythe’s Divine Landscapes (Harcourt Brace, 1986).  Still the best anthology of the Metaphysicals is the one edited and introduced by Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (Oxford, second edition 1967).

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