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Word from Wormingford

06 March 2015

Ronald Blythe recalls the development of an enthusiasm for Herbert

LONG ago, I would take over a remote Suffolk church and read George Herbert to a hustled-up congregation: myself, and three writers who lived in and around Colchester. They were my guru, James Turner; the South African poet R. N. Currey; and the Ulster poet W. R. Rodgers. There we would be, our breath clouding the cold nave, turning each ancient spot into another Bemerton.

Currey's family were distinguished Methodists; "Berty" Rodgers had been a minister; and I was yet to be anything, with everything to play for. Or to live for. I was, of course, writing - but secretly, my friends being older and established. I was pretty good at programming, and at being enthusiastic where Herbert was concerned.

And there would be my first visit to Salisbury; and, many years later, a kind of implanting of part of my life there. I entered Herbert's little church for the first time, holding on to the iron latch that he himself touched four times a day, and eventually giving his silver cup to those who were kneeling where he had knelt. It had been kept in a glass case in Salisbury Cathedral, but soon Canon Judy Rees would take it back to where it belonged.

And my friend Vikram Seth would buy Herbert's rectory, where, unbeknown to anybody, Herbert would write the greatest poetry in the Anglican language. And where he died in the room next to mine, one February day, choking with the fenny ague. Yet singing!

Vikram and I once strolled in the darkening Stour marshes, as I identified for him reeds and flowers. Herbert was a tall, thin, ailing man, who rode, not walked. "This is where he kept his horse," Vikram said, pointing to a small meadow. And we sat by his hearth, the logs spitting and blazing.

He sang his window-songs morning and evening, to the lute. To go to heaven at 39 would not have been an early death, then. His mother, Magdalen Herbert, a great lady, would sometimes lay a place for Jesus at her dinner-table. But Herbert would run into him at the "ordinary" in some inn. The ordinary was the main meal in a pub, where you sat down with everyone who happened to be there, and where there was no being above or below the salt.

It was the tradition for great folk to come to church at sermon-time only, but when his aristocratic family did this at Bemerton, Herbert locked them out. He wrote a rather severe guide to country worship, and to rural priesthood itself. Much of it still stands up.

My Herbert rule-book is his exposition on church architecture. Pevsner would have bewildered him. Being who he was, he could have had a Cambridge college, or some semi-wrecked cathedral, but all he asked for was a ruined village altar. It would last him less than two years.

Herbert was born, wed, and carried to his grave in February, too concerned with heaven to stand another English spring. The 17th century was nipped to the bone by ice and snow. The Thames - and the Wiltshire Stour - were frozen over for months at a time. I imagine him sitting by Vikram's fire, rubbing his dying hands, and calling for ink and paper.

The house was full of anxious women: wife, nieces, maids. But he was far away, thinking of Little Gidding, and that fat parcel of poems that had to reach there before another spring.

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