Monday, 24 April 2017

Dr Vaughan, Dr Williams and Dom Sebastian

This post is not exactly a sequel to the last, but it continues on a similar theme. On Sunday 23 April, the annual Henry Vaughan Memorial Service took place at Llansantffraed Church near Brecon. In recent years, I've made an effort to attend on behalf of the Sassoon Fellowship, but this year was a particularly significant occasion, for two main reasons, the first being that it marked the official opening of the new Visitor Area inside the church, towards which the SSF made a modest financial contribution. The new information panels include a mention of Sassoon's visit - of course - and his poem "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan", which is read out at the graveside each year by Wendy Camp during the wreath-laying ceremony that follows the main part of the service.
The Usk Valley, near Llansantffraed
The other significant point about this year's service was the fact that the SSF, for the first time, became an active part of the wreath-laying ceremony. The Brecknock Society's wreath was laid by Glyn Mathias, OBE, former TV journalist and the son of Roland Mathias (1915-2007), renowned local writer and critic who, as it happens, also wrote a poem on the subject of the grave, though his is less well-known than Sassoon's. Our wreath was made and laid by Anne Penton, the great-niece of David C Thomas - who was himself an old boy of the local public school, Christ College, Brecon.
The presence of Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who, as he put it, "cut the metaphoric ribbon" to open the Visitor Area, made this an even more special occasion. The Visitor Area is not in its final form at the moment as the information panels are not set up in their final location, which will include a stand displaying copies of works by and about Vaughan.
Dr Williams also gave the address, taking as his subject the theme of "Life as relation: Vaughan's images of reconciled living". Beginning with the poem "Quickness" (in its archaic sense of "being alive"), he took us on a whistle-stop tour of Vaughan's ideas on the subject, which gave me pause for thought simply because these are very close to the concept of "mindfulness" which is so much in vogue in the 21st century. Many are following the lead of Eckhart Tolle, whose 1997 book, The Power of Now, is so much more than just another best-selling self-help manual, and are practising the discipline so ably taught by individuals such as Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Dom Sebastian Moore, who gave Siegfried Sassoon his instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, was a great admirer of Tolle, as I have discovered while reading his own exploration of faith, The Contagion of Jesus. Dom Sebastian was awaiting final publication of this book at the time I interviewed him in 2007. He talked to me about how it had come into existence as a result of a friend having collated a series of essays and sermons he had written over a long period and linked them into distinct strands of thought. At that time, because of my lack of knowledge of Catholicism, I had little idea of the content of the book. He did not mention Tolle, nor could he have mentioned him to Siegfried Sassoon during their acquaintance; Tolle was only 19 when Sassoon died.
So it was a pleasant surprise, after returning from the service, to return to The Contagion of Jesus and find Sebastian quoting Rowan Williams. Whether his ideas were completely in tune with Dr Williams's ideas, I cannot verify, but it's clear that Dr Williams sees Henry Vaughan as having had a revelation similar to that experienced by Eckhart Tolle. It just goes to show that there are no new ideas under the sun, just ideas which haven't previously received the appreciation they deserve. Henry Vaughan was well ahead of his time, and this helps to explain the ongoing revival of his reputation.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Dr Williams, Dr Vaughan and Reverend Herbert

It's possible that many of those reading this will not have come across the poetry of George Herbert. What I knew about Herbert prior to writing my recent pamphlet Siegfried Sassoon: At the Grave of Henry Vaughan, could have been written on the back of a matchbox. Like Vaughan, Herbert was a seventeenth-century writer, a forerunner of the so-called metaphysical poets, and best known for his devotional verse. His 1633 poem, "The Pulley", begins with the words:

"When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by..."

Barbara Pym used that phrase, "a glass of blessings", as the title of a 1958 novel, generally considered one of her best. That was the only reason I had taken any notice at all of George Herbert, who - much like Henry Vaughan - has fallen out of favour in recent decades. Nevertheless, among his fans is numbered Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Dr Williams also dabbles in poetry but he did not read any of his own work when I heard him give the Annual Sir John Lloyd Lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog on 24th March. (Sir John Lloyd (1861-1947) remains the most revered of Welsh historians.)
As well as taking an interest in George Herbert and his successor Henry Vaughan (also a doctor, but not of the academic kind), Dr Williams is Honorary President of the David Jones Society, and officiated at the Westminster Abbey Service to "mark the passing of the First World War generation", which Meg Crane and I were privileged to attend on behalf of the SSF in 2009. As well as referring to David Jones in his sermon on that occasion, Dr Williams drew attention to an anthology called The Winter of the World, which was later used by Vivien Whelpton as the basis for the programme of readings the SSF hosted at Heytesbury Church in 2014.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the subject of Dr Williams's lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog went by the title of "A Poet's View of Henry Vaughan". Vaughan was born just a few miles away, close to the River Usk, beside which is his grave, visited by Siegfried Sassoon in 1924. Dr Williams took this opportunity to talk about the relationship between Vaughan's poetry and that of George Herbert, who died, aged 39, when Vaughan was still a child. He would not have known Herbert personally, but his boyhood tutor, Matthew Herbert, was a relation and Vaughan was certainly well acquainted with Herbert's poetry. Vaughan acknowledged Herbert's influence on his work, but many consider him superior to Herbert as a poet.
Herbert became rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire in 1629, and remained there, a dedicated priest, for the rest of his short life, even forking out for the upkeep of the church when funds were low. (He came from a wealthy family; his father was an MP and he was related to the Earl of Pembroke.) He was also a musician, capable of setting his own verses to music. In fact, dozens of his poems have been set to music by other composers, in contrast with Vaughan; only one of the latter's poems, "My soul, there is a country", is a well-known hymn.
Dr Williams' lecture threw light on the similarities and differences between the work of the two poets. I have to confess that on times he got into theological and literary territory that was somewhat beyond the boundaries of my knowledge, yet he was always interesting to listen to. (Even if he had not been, his mellifluous voice would have made the experience worth while.) There were clearly many people in the audience who were well-acquainted with both Vaughan and Herbert, and some demanding questions were asked at the end of the lecture, which Dr Williams fielded with great erudition.