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Word from Wormingford

by
15 July 2016

George Herbert’s poems make Ronald Blythe think of St Luke’s Acts

WARM, soft summer winds, the ones that rock the barley. They bring back the exhilarating Julys of boyhood. I can feel old Mr Cardy’s crops scratching my bare legs. Or Captain Cardy, as he liked to be called.

Although it was incorrect, many temporary officers of the First World War liked to retain their title. They had become chicken farmers, and their wives walked to market, pushing prams laden with eggs, and passing tramps pushing prams piled high with all they possessed as they trudged from workhouse to workhouse.

This was the land fit for heroes. Not that I understood such things.

Suffolk, for me, was a wild paradise of abandoned corn fields, brilliant with weeds such as daisies and poppies. I cycled through it to visit the great wool churches, which were shrines of another age, and which bore witness to prosperity, art, and learning — although the ten-or-so-mile coastal belt and the Forestry Commission’s fine woodlands made its edges look like Russia.

My first writer-friend was a poet named James Turner, who introduced me to George Herbert. We would give readings from him in enormous naves to handfuls of listeners. We never asked permission, but simply entered these glorious empty spaces and read.

Later on, I would be the guest of Vikram Seth at Bemerton Rectory, near Salisbury, Herbert’s home; and Vikram, in his enchanting manner, and I, in my quiet English way, would speak Herbert in his own countryside, and I would imagine him riding the river lanes.

Herbert teaches a companionable Christ, one who is a dinner-guest, a fellow gardener, and a close friend. They call him “Holy Mr Herbert”, but no one knew that he was to become the greatest poet of the Church of England.

Sending a Cambridge friend a fat rolled-up bundle of writings, Herbert said: “Burn them if they’re no good.” His friend gave them to the best publisher in Cambridge.

I always think of St Luke’s treatment of the Acts of the Apostles when I recall what happened to Herbert’s poems. It opens with: “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and preach.” Actions and language.

The Acts begin with a lottery. Somebody has to complete the sacred circle, now that poor Judas has betrayed Jesus, and then himself, because suicide is a kind of betrayal of hope and continuity. I have always thought that the Lord’s love will take Judas to that heavenly table.

Summer fills the old farmhouse. Hollyhocks stare into the bedroom windows. They remind me of those that lined the village street of Helpston, John Clare’s immortal village, where the buildings do not moulder as they do in Suffolk, but stay grey and rigid, and are propped up by hollyhocks, the tallest imaginable. But it is a dizzy year, with some plants high enough to see what is going on in the next-door parish.

Down towards the river, they are digging up a Roman villa. Did those who lived in it walk in what is now Wormingford? Did their children dive in the deep end of what is now our Stour?

”Once ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I,” wrote A. E. Housman. Historians say that our Romans came from what is now Romania. What did they sing — and all in Latin? And, with this notoriously cold reputation, were they amazed that it could be so warm and so Italian, if only for a week or two?

It is what one misses abroad: a changing climate, rarely two days alike. On a hill, the horses graze and graze on warm grass without diminishing it.

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