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.

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