Posts Tagged ‘George Herbert’

Poetry: my choices

January 6, 2015

I looked at my shelves to see what poetry I have collected over the years, apart from the usual anthologies. Chaucer is there, representing for me the time when a recognisable English begins to flower into poetry, now deemed too difficult for our sixth form students, by and large. Shakespeare, obviously, though as I’ve opined elsewhere in these pages, it’s his dramatic rather than his lyric poetry that moves me most, and the lyrics of the metaphysical poets shine out most strongly to me from that time period – Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan. After that, there is a huge gap until the twentieth century, where I have been enchanted by Eliot, Cummings, Larkin and others… so I will not claim any kind of comprehensive knowledge or appreciation of poetry: it’s what I like and what speaks to me.

Poetry used to be narrative; Milton has always astonished me, and I’ve always been conscious of being in a very small minority here. Paradise Lost works best when read aloud – Anton Lesser’s stunning account on Naxos Audiobooks is highly recommended. Sounds, words, rhyme and rhythm, all the other poetic devices come alive in their full glory, as does Milton’s inventiveness with the language, rivalling Shakespeare’s.

Poetry has always been associated with love and passion; for sheer verve I’ll take The Sunne Rising or The Flea, by Donne, or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris, for tenderness Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning is hard to beat. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are very clever. As I taught Love Through The Ages as a unit in the sixth form I came to know and like much twentieth century love poetry for its honesty, frankness, passion and eroticism, its attempts to break out of the old and often rather sexist conventions.

The other side of that coin for me has always been religious poetry, with feelings running as deep, and  just as unfathomable. Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Herbert’s The Temple are obvious, but Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach speaks to a more modern age, an age of doubt and questioning, as does Larkin’s Church Going, which is probably my favourite, working on so many levels, very clever but beautifully understated…

I’ve written earlier about war poetry, portraying the unspeakable, and sometimes I have been struck by other, more ephemeral verse, about nature, natural beauty, different ways of seeing things. And this, for me, is poetry’s value and achievement: briefly I share someone else’s view of something, I stop and contemplate and wonder and am entranced…

John Drury: Music at Midnight

August 30, 2014

9780141043401Back to my roots as a teacher of literature for this one: an excellent biography of the poet George Herbert, whose works I never actually had the good fortune to teach, apart from using a couple of his poems to teach general practical criticism. Alas, his poetry nowadays, along with other Metaphysical Poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan, has been judged to be too difficult for today’s sixth form students… yes, I actually had an examiner say that to me, a few years ago.

And, reading this book did have me feeling my age, as Drury – an Oxford don – felt it necessary to explain so many small things to his general reader, things that I had as part of my general knowledge as a school student back in the distant past. Nowadays, so many cultural, historical, religious and theological glosses are needed. (Pauses to put on his dead colonel’s hat.)

It is a detailed, thoughtful and sympathetic biography of a wonderful poet with a masterly fluency with the English language, from that Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean period when the English language was bursting into full bloom. Herbert died , probably of consumption, before he was 40. He seems to have been the epitome of the Church of England clergyman, in the early days of the Church of England, before the Civil War, a man who was fortunately sheltered from the violence, torturing and persecution taking place in his time.

Drury weaves much careful exploration and revealing analysis of Herbert’s poetry into the story of his life; layers of meaning are teased out and new aspects revealed – to me, at least. It wasn’t an easy read, but an enlightening one. What comes across most strongly is Herbert’s deep religious faith and trust in his God, speaking from an age that we can nowadays hardly begin to comprehend. An excellent read, a book which refreshed my pleasure in Herbert’s poetry.

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