Word from Wormingford
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
"SNOW, snow," says the weatherwoman, "and the sky is dreary grey." But it
is buff pink like a pigeon's breast, and there is a sliver of sun. It is
mid-Lent, when George Herbert lay dying in Bemerton Rectory with the cold
Nadder glittering in his garden. He would have been 40 on 3 April. Once, trying
to come to terms with abstinence, as we all do, he wrote:
It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'th day;
Yet to go
part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
reach our Saviour's puritie;
Yet are we bid, Be holy ev'n as he.
In both let's do our
Herbert was born in Lent, married in Lent, inducted in Lent, and died in
Lent. It was a time, he thought, when good was especially "seasonable". But at
this moment - was it snowing in Salisbury? - he shocked everybody by rising
from his deathbed, calling for his lute, and singing,
My God, my God,
My music shall find thee,
And every string
Shall have his attribute to sing.
On 27 February, having sent all his poems in a small bundle to Nicholas
Ferrar at Little Gidding - "Desire him to read it; and then, if he think it may
turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not,
let him burn it" - "he breathed forth his divine soul, without any apparent
disturbance." The history of consumptive poets is one of burning transcendence.
The snow blows in from the east, vanishing blackly in the Stour and arriving
on the fields like a conqueror come to stay, each flake unique in itself. Or so
we were told at school when the set syllabus commended, "Draw a snowflake." No
two were alike, they said. Soon, a snowman would be peering from the
playground, a sad, lost figure too stout to join in that curious uproar that
snowfall produced in children. Eventually, he would melt away in a green world,
his stone buttons slithering from his overcoat, his face melting in torrents.
I am writing this by a window where my friend John Nash used to stand to
paint snow landscapes, using the glazing-bars as measurements. He liked to have
the plants greening through the snow, making their spring presence felt. In his
celebrated First World War picture Over the Top, the Artists' Rifles soldiers,
clumsy and weighed down by boots, khaki and weapons, struggle from their trench
to "fall", as being killed was called, in human drifts.
Doing sentry duty, he wrote letters to his girl, telling her not to think
that the spatterings on the lined paper were his tears - "just melting
snowflakes, my darling". Taken his tea in the morning - he was ancient now - he
would eagerly ask like a boy, "Is it snowing?"
The grandest snow poem ever written is J. G. Whittier's "Snow-bound" (1866).