I AM glad that George Herbert’s day falls as it does, just at the end of February. Although this February has been unseasonably mild, it’s often wintry enough; but it’s also often just as February turns towards March that we get some glimpse or premonition of spring: a warmer wind; the earth breathing forth her flowers, as January’s snowdrops are joined by aconites; and, in their delicate and translucent pinks and rich purples, crocuses open outwards and upwards, spreading their petals to woo the warmer sun that they know is there, even though we sometimes cannot feel it.
I think of this as Herbert’s time of year, not just because we keep his day on 27 February, but because, for me at least, one of his most perfect and most personal poems, “The Flower”, returns to my mind in this season, with its opening exclamation:
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring.
It is supremely the poem of return and recovery, as those first returning blossoms in the outer world express, for Herbert, an inner recovery from the experience of depression:
Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground. . .
It’s not that Herbert doesn’t know that he will have to go through the cycle of loss and recovery many times in this life; not that he doesn’t lament, and long for, that final recovery and resurrection which Christ has promised:
Oh that I once past changing were,
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
But still he knows that each of these recoveries keeps the promise, and brings its fulfilment a little closer.
This poem also brings a happy memory for me of another poet, and of a day I spent with Seamus Heaney at Little Gidding, the haven to which Herbert had sent the precious manuscript of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, while he lay dying in Bemerton.
Heaney was there to read Eliot’s great poem in the chapel that inspired it, but he was just as happy to revel in its associations with Herbert. Heaney had himself been in hospital and recovered, and. at one point. he looked at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and spontaneously quoted from this poem:
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing.
I will never forget with what relish he spoke the words “And relish versing”, tasting them on his tongue. And now in age I relish versing, too, and offer to Herbert afresh the little sonnet I wrote for him and published in my book The Singing Bowl:
Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials
With all that passed between you and your Lord,
That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles
Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.
Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,
Has been entrusted now to every soul,
We make a new beginning in your end
And find your broken heart has made us whole.
Time has transplanted you, and you take root,
Past changing in the paradise of Love.
Help me to trace your Temple, tune your lute,
And listen for an echo from above.
Open the window, let me hear you sing,
And see the Word with you in everything.
The Common Worship calendar today commemorates George Herbert. This article by B.C. Boulter was published in the Church Times on 24 February 1933, to mark the tercentenary of Herbert’s death.