Book Of A Lifetime: Poems, By George Herbert
Friday 14 January 2011
There are two books I cannot contemplate living without. The first is Dickens's 'Great Expectations' and the second the 'Poems of George Herbert'. I have taken my little Oxford World's Classics edition of the latter, bought in 1957, everywhere I have ever been. It has sustained, delighted and moved me in the heat of Australia and the ferocious cold of the American North-West. Herbert is the most sweet-tempered of the great Metaphysical poets and perhaps the most subtle too. Consider these lines from "Giddinesse":
Surely if each one saw another's heart,
There would be no commerce,
No sale or bargain passe; all would disperse
And live apart.
That might be the plot, in miniature, of many a novel, good and bad, for the Reverend George Herbert is no intellectual slouch. He think - you can almost hear him thinking - about what he is saying so memorably, so beautifully. He argues with himself and, occasionally, with his God:
Ah, my deare God, though Iam clean forgot,
Let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not.
What I love in Herbert's poetry is its sense of the luminosity of the ordinary. He writes of men and women, of food, of birds and trees and flowers, of each and every human thing. If you cannot believe, as he did, that the world has been touched by a divine hand, that shouldn't make you deaf to the verbal music with which he gives his belief expression. I know of no lovelier poem in the language than "The Flower", in which he rejoices in the passing of grief:
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...
It was in 1937, the year of my birth, that Simone Weil, the most widely read and educated of mystics, discovered Herbert's "Love", with its marvellous opening words:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick ey'd love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything...
"I learnt it by heart," she wrote to her spiritual adviser, Father Perrin. "Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer." This transcendental masterpiece ends with the the line "So I did sit and eat", when the unworthy guest accepts Love's invitation to break bread at the table. Simone Weil accepted that invitation, too.
George Herbert has been my constant friend and travelling companion for more than 50 years. He will be staying with me until the end.
Paul Bailey's new novel is 'Chapman's Odyssey' (Bloomsbury)
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Huawei Mate S and Huawei Watch: new products take on iPhone 6 Plus and Apple Watch
- 2 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 5 German police forced to ask public to stop bringing donations for refugees arriving by train
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
JK Rowling announces Harry Potter's son is starting at Hogwarts
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
Akram Khan: Choreographer says dance is 'as important as maths and being a doctor'
Common words you're probably misusing: From 'enormity' to 'ultimately', 'gambit' to 'fortuitous'
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up