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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 July 2022

George Herbert has inspired many contemporary poets, says Malcolm Guite

I HAVE been back in Cambridge for a much postponed conference of the George Herbert Society. It was a pleasure for me, but I think an even greater pleasure for the many North American scholars in that society, to walk the streets that Herbert knew as both an undergraduate and Fellow, and later as University Orator, and to recite and appreciate his poetry at Trinity, his own college.

But it was not all about nostalgic backward glances. I was struck by how many young people there were in the society, eager to learn more of Herbert, clearly moved by his poetry, finding perhaps that, even where they did not share his faith, they recognised in the disarming honesty, and the inclusive and accurate balance of his poems, something of their own inner life.

I couldn’t match the scholarship of the senior members of the Society, but I was there to share a poet-priest’s appreciation of another poet-priest, and, more than that, to suggest how generous and generative Herbert has been to many other contemporary poets, and especially to those who do not necessarily share his faith.

His infinitely suggestive poem, “Prayer (I)”, for example, has itself inspired new poetry from contemporary poets as diverse as Gwyneth Lewis, Ruth Padel, and Carol Ann Duffy. Herbert’s list of mysterious emblems for prayer, which begins:


Prayer the Churches banquet, angels age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in
   pilgrimage,

The Christian Plummet sounding heav’n
  and earth. . .


And it famously ends with the line “The land of spices; something understood.”
This has been reimagined by Gwyneth Lewis, in the opening of her poem “Homecoming”, like this:


Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won
by yielding; days emptied to their brim. . .


She goes on to remake some of Herbert’s phrases in entirely contemporary terms; so, “Heaven in ordinary” becomes “Now in infinity”.

Likewise, Ruth Padel, in her poem “Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool”, opens with:


Water, moonlight, danger, dream.
Bronze urn, angled on a tree root: one
Slash of light, then gone. . .


And then goes on to her own reworking of “Heaven in ordinary”:


. . . Haven, in the mind,
To anyone hurt by littleness. A prayer
For the moment, saved.


But it is perhaps Carol Ann Duffy who, in her famous poem “Prayer”, which owes so much more than its title to Herbert, re-embodies the spirit of Herbert’s poem most perfectly, opening her poem with the lines:


Some days, although we cannot pray, a
    prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and
   stare

at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.


Her poem ends beautifully with an evocation of the secular litany of the Shipping Forecast:


Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s
     prayer —

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

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