Monday, 24 October 2016

Faith and George Herbert

The George Herbert window in All Saints’, Bishop Burton, near Beverley in Yorkshire:
 ‘Lord I have loved the habitation of thine house.’ 

An address given at Evensong on Sunday the 23rd of October at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne as part of a series on ‘Heroes of the Faith’.

[Poem: Superliminare]

Thou, whom the former precepts have
Sprinkled and taught, how to behave
Thyself in church; approach, and taste
The church’s mystical repast.

Avoid, profaneness; come not here:
Nothing but holy, pure, and clear,
Or that which groaneth to be so,
May at his peril further go.

The people who work on the other side of the hedge of the car park of this church come to learn there is life after politics. Or we hope they do. The poet George Herbert lived a life that could be described as before and after politics. “Power seldom grows old at court,” he says in one of his Outlandish Proverbs, and he experienced the truth of that saying in his own life. As a favourite of King James the First, Herbert was a great orator and may well have gone on to be a brilliant planner or diplomat for the newly formed British crown, anywhere in the known world. James conducted a court of best minds, in which open discussion of theology as well as the humanities of literature, statecraft and so forth, was encouraged. The authorised translation of the Bible, that has carried the King’s name ever since, was just one result of this ferment within the court.

When James died in the spring of 1625, Herbert’s chances of preferment slipped away and he chose to follow his other vocation and enter holy orders. I cite this as a first example of how we learn faith. Faith is about keeping the possibilities open in oneself and for others, about not narrowing our prospects in life, about being ready for what providence and chance, blessing and misfortune, may challenge us with. He once wrote

Why should I toil so perversely to be famous
When I could stand in silence for nothing?

This year the Australian theologian Ben Myers, who will speak in this place in a few weeks on Herbert’s starry contemporary William Shakespeare, listed on his Facebook page some of the writing that effected his childhood. And I quote:

“I read and learned many of [Herbert’s poems in his collected works called The Temple] during my early high school days. My mother was writing a PhD thesis on The Temple and she was always sharing some little morsel from Mr Herbert. I loved the poems because my mother loved them, and because of the plain speech. Later I loved them because I discovered that they were true. The Temple is still the most precise and honest account I’ve ever come across about what the Christian life is really like (not what it’s meant to be like: the problem with nearly all other books on this topic.)”

Unquote. Not many of us can boast of having the works of Herbert read to us by our mother by the age of 14, but it would have an effect. Our parents are likely to show, by example, as well as word, how to live inside faith, with the unknown, with God. Our parents are never going to give us everything, which is why as we grow we are drawn to others who may teach us about faith.

Lady Magdalen Herbert, George’s mother, was a civilised individual. It was she who wanted him to go into the church, rather than whatever else was the going thing. We can conclude that she herself perceived gifts in her son that he himself would only discover through time. The poet John Donne, who was a close friend of the Herberts and who delivered Lady Magdalen’s commemoration eulogy, praised her “loving facetiousness and wit,” as well as her “holy cheerfulness and religious alacrity.” Donne wrote: “God gave her such comeliness as, though she were not proud of it, yet she was so content with it as not to go about to mend it by any Art.” When we hear this description, it helps us understand George Herbert all the better, his own “holy cheerfulness” and lack of pretension. His mother instilled in him a focus on faithful living and on the potential for presenting this through words.

George Herbert was a kind of psalmist. He loved the Psalms for their variety of address to God: prayer, supplication, wonder, lament, argument, rebuke, wonder, praise. He left his English poetry in the care of his friend Nicholas Ferrar of the Little Gidding community, an act of faith in itself, and none was published in his lifetime. Yet it is how we know him best.

Herbert was fluent in several languages. He wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, which he himself regarded as better than his English poems. Only a classical antiquarian, or specialist critic, reads those now, while new imprints of the English poems come out about every other year. His gift to English poetry, and those desiring to learn more about our relationship with God, is its direct language, alive with subtleties of meaning and motion. He valued clarity, lucidity and transparency. He took from the Latin poets like Horace and Ovid the deft placement of words into structured  patterns: a few words doing a lot of work. In his day Latinate words were supercool and many of his peers dotted their poems, or rather lapidated them, with these features to look original and educated. What is marvellous, and even shocking, about Herbert is his indifference to looking supercool. The most ordinary everyday words are the quickest way to the reader, and to God.

[Poem: Love III]

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
            If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
            Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
            I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
            My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
            So I did sit and eat.

Articles, sermons and whole books have been written about these 126 words. But what do we find? How do we individually ourselves find them? We find that for Herbert faith is about relationship. Most of his poems, including ‘Love III’, describe or enact a relationship between himself, that is anyone, you or me, and God. God is “quick-ey’d Love”, the one who made the eyes to see, also the one who invites the perhaps worthy individual to the table because he makes them worthy. We find the psychological acuity of guilt, the to-and-fro that will develop if we only persist in our openness to change, to our simple readiness to accept and serve. We find a poem that describes the action of the Eucharist in just a few lines, where each line leads convincingly and truly from the one that preceded it to the one that follows. Because indeed it is Love that invites us to the mystery and does so wherever we happen to be in time and space, in our own difficulties. There are no rules, no favouritisms, no denials, only the possibility that the worthy yet unkind and ungrateful self may respond favourably to Love itself, in the person of the Lord who first welcomed us.

Like many in his day, Herbert set his words to music and played them on the lute. It is one reason why they are still so easy to sing. But, like musicians then as now, Herbert was a better performer and composer than he was an archivist. We don’t know the kinds of composition he employed, but we can guess because we hear the movement of the simple language, where the stresses fall and how the metres run, in the poetry.

[Poem: The Call]

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
            Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
            Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
            Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
            Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
            Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
            Such a Heart, as joys in love.

Today, though we all encounter poetry at special times in our life, poetry itself is seen as a minority or even elite art form, the realm of romantic and modernist experiment, a means to self-expression but also to secret codes and private games. Herbert and his peers like Shakespeare and Donne would have found this peculiar, living in a society where such language art form was common and essential.

Why write poetry? Herbert flourished in a society where community life within a local parish was central. Knowledge of Scripture and regular engagement with English liturgy informs all of his poetry. Furthermore, he expects and believes his readers to know the same. We read his words and hear in them the ongoing life of faith, whether in affliction or beatitude, whether in company of others or in solitude, whether deep in prayer or simply experiencing everyday existence.

Herbert was a fortunate inheritor of the reforms of the English Church. As the biographer John Drury puts it, “Herbert was pre-eminently [a godly man, fit to be called forth for his talents], conscientious but pragmatic, who valued his Church’s stance between the extremes of dogmatic Calvinism and elaborate catholic ritual.”

While clearly poetry was Herbert’s gift and a matter of persistent play, when he handed his manuscript to Nicholas Ferrar prior to his death at the early age of 40, George Herbert said this poetry “may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” I hear a priest saying these words, a priest who has gone somewhere outside Salisbury to work amongst those given into his charge, someone whose own prayerful experience of life in God has found its way into poetry. His time as a country parson was short. He would say he was going “to hide in Christ”, which is where faith, hope, and love may be found. He didn’t even know if anyone would read his words after him. And so I conclude with a reading of the second of two poems he entitled ‘Jordan’, a summary of the life of a certain kind of poet.

[Poem: Jordan II]

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excel,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did run,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begun;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun,
Much less those joys which trample on his head.

As flames do work and wind, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense,
But while I bustled, I might hear a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d:
Copy out only that, and save expense.


Drury, John. Music at midnight : the life and poetry of George Herbert. Allen Lane, 2013

Herbert, George. The complete English works, edited and introduced by Ann Pasternak Slater. Everyman’s Library, 1995

Myers, Ben. The 7 best books I read before I turned 25. Facebook entry, 15 September 2016. Also on his blog ‘Faith and Theology’ on the same day. 


Thursday, 20 October 2016

Crossing sixty: Louise Nicholas, Andrew Sant, Susan Varga

Review first published in the Australian Book Review
October 2016

Louise Nicholas THE LIST OF LAST REMAINING Five Islands Press, rrp $25.95, 85 pp. 9780734051998

Andrew Sant HOW TO PROCEED : ESSAYS Puncher & Wattmann, price, 132 pp. 9781922186805

Susan Varga RUPTURE : POEMS 2012-2015 UWA Publishing, rrp $22,99, 95 pp. 9781742589091

Poetry as the solidifying of memory, poetry as a survivor’s sanguine amusement, takes a lifetime. Louise Nicholas relates autobiography through strongly considered moments in time. Her childhood is tracked by the small fears, confusions and elations that only later feel like turning points.

Aged thirteen,

          in the same year but not the day
that President Kennedy was shot in Texas,
I sit on the sidelines at my first high school social
wondering what to make of a new betrayal:
the flowered bodice of my favourite party frock
straining to contain an embarrassment of breasts
where once there was little more than the rise
and fall of my breath.

[‘Aged thirteen’]

Nicholas displays an accomplished skill with voice and line, has an unhurried delivery, and a hint of mischief. Travel to places like Israel, death of parents, the intrusion into private life of world events, these and other transformative experiences are addressed in turn with a pleasurable mixture of measured tone and telling detail.

Nicholas is most comfortable with the one-to-one of human encounter, be it person, object, or another poem. For example, she expects the following ‘On becoming my mother’:

Soon I’ll take to pinning my greying hair
in forties curls to grace the top of my head
then, lacking my mother’s years of practised flair,
wake to the pain of a bobby-pinned bed.

She knows what to say and when to stop. She begins ‘Window’, a poem shaped like the object it addresses, “Here’s looking at you, window, you square-eyed go-between.” Common sense toys with absurdity. “You capture the clouds and waylay the wind. You frame the moon and apprehend the sun,” she lauds, before getting more worldly, “Peeping Tom is your raison d’être, defenestration is your guilty secret.”

Her ripostes to poems express the same delight in personal engagement. ‘My Last Duke’ lets Browning’s Duchess have the last word from the grave, her satire ‘Sharon Olds is smiling’ gives that poet’s obsessive eroticism (“who sees sex / in a grain of sand”) a serve, and even manages to do something new, arresting and humane with Robert Frost’s most famous poem in ‘Two Roads Untravelled’.

Poetry as risk-taking, poetry as outcomes of self-knowledge, combine in intensity. Andrew Sant, a philosopher-poet, takes a break from such immediacy of expression through essay writing. Sometimes a poem refuses to be made from the load of thoughts, the time is not right, thoughts are too divergent or abstract for the present of poetry. We know Sant is a poet here by his selection of words, but more significantly by the pacing of his thoughts.

‘On Consuming Durables’ relates the ordinary delight of op shopping. One ‘opportunity’ was new furniture for his Melbourne residence, “But I kept the place TV free: more reality without one.” More reality without one could be a guiding principle for Sant, who shows every effort to go in contrary directions to convention, with a sense that the mystery will never find complete explanation.

‘On Curiosity’ extols the “chain of connections” that might lead to “a lifetime interest”, while warning against “its dubious relative, obsessive interest.”  Sant here is a great observer. Geared up with five hypersensitive senses, his mind filled with the minutiae of perpetual self-education, he observes the world with precision and delight.

And in the title essay, Sant opens with the view it is best to trust your own instincts rather than what you are told, to give “himself permission to think freely for himself, to go it alone,” only then to conclude with that most amusing and confusing long day’s journey into night, asking for directions in rural Ireland.

How to proceed is a quandary understood by poets. The creative act is not like baggage handling at Essendon Airport (Sant has done this).  It goes in fits and starts, usually a start followed by a fit, or nothing at all.

Not surprisingly perhaps, he goes on literary pilgrimages and his charmingly haphazard accounts of finding the holy sites in the lives of heroes like D.H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bishop is another reward of this poet’s self-analysis.

Sant comes across as sane and solitary. He escapes total solipsism, being always too much in the world. He is a novice phenomenologist. He knows how to be the observer observed. As with Louise Nicholas, this collection slowly reveals secrets in his life that enlarge our appreciation. His mother’s suicide, his restless search for a sense of place, his philosophical reflection on a broken marriage, come as illuminating surprises, altering how we hear him and understand both his predicaments, and our own.

Poetry as therapy, poetry as a daybook of recovery, has uses. Susan Varga suffered a stroke, which is where her collection starts, in the ward. (“Sounds, words, sentences/ disappear like tumbleweed.”) Reconstructing memory is shared by poets and stroke victims; she pieces together those parts of the past she knows into verses of varying effect. Like most writers arriving late at poetry, there are hits and misses.

Varga is good with small details, summing up people and situations, settling in with the diagnosis. Her free verse thought patterns, when they work, give the reader enhanced insight into the daily individuality of existence. Like Nicholas and Sant, Varga has crossed 60, able to speak more forgivingly of others and of herself. She may track a difficult emotion, as in ‘Enemy’ (“Embedded in folds of skin/ sunk deep in red tissue/ imprinted in bones/ my enemy lies”) or renew affirmations (“Like a dog dozing/ waiting for night to/ swallow the hours./ Survival.”)

‘First Poem’, dated December 30, 2011, outside the time frame of the collection, explains the compulsion:

An old garden seat,
a new bed of plants
flowering into the New Year.

Old fears, new fears.

Small shoots of thought
sustain me.
Help me, words –
you always have.

Reading Varga raised for this listener the dilemma of how we hear the voice in poetry. Poets with a tale to tell want transferred the effect of their individual voice, something the page can flatten out. With Sant and Nicholas it is the chosen forms that aid in hearing their voice.  With Varga, the shifts in her attention, the exclamation marks, the small ironies that might be sincerities, rely for their impact on knowing her own speech. Some of the poems are obviously best done in performance, but how to learn her timing was sometimes a difficult ask. There is time yet for her to notice more “small shoots of thought”, perhaps by trying new forms.