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
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
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.