In my experience, music is a great route to poetry. I’m fairly sure it was through the Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams that I first discovered the works of George Herbert – the poet and rector of Bemerton, on the outskirts of Salisbury. Since his death in 1633 at the age of 39, Herbert has become known as one of Britain’s most loved and respected writers of religious verse.
Herbert’s words have been put to music by many composers. But in reading these poems, I’ve found the Vaughan Williams settings especially hard to shift from my mind. They contain some of his loveliest melodies, with a natural ease that perfectly marries Herbert’s deceptive simplicity. Take for example The Call, set in the Five Mystical Songs. Vaughan Williams takes up the skipping rhythm inherent in its first line, and makes it a defining feature.
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.
John Drury’s Music At Midnight is a fascinating biography of Herbert, full of literary insight that has helped me to better understand his poetry on its own terms. He also adds some clarifying light to the rather saintly reputation that has been cultivated around Herbert, particularly by Izaak Walton, who wrote the first biography a few decades after the poet’s death.
Herbert may have become a parish clergyman, but he was born into a wealthy family – lords of Montgomery Castle on the Welsh borders, and part of the same branch of Herberts as the Earls of Pembroke.
His father died when he was young, and he moved with his mother to Oxford and then London. Bright and studious, he went on to Trinity College Cambridge, becoming a fellow there and rising to the prestigious role of ‘Orator’, which involved making official addresses and correspondence on behalf of the University.
Herbert’s journey to the priesthood was far from inevitable. A great career in public office might have come to pass, and when he finally became rector of Bemerton, just three years before he died of suspected tuberculosis, he had agonised over his calling for some time.
Ironically, he was never publicly known for poetry – in English at least. His Latin poetry was published, but the verse so widely loved today was kept to himself: revised and reflected on in private, refined to his particular style of lean precision.
Nonetheless, when Herbert’s poems were published soon after his death in a collection called The Temple, they became a huge success. He influenced a whole new generation of poets, and his words were soon being put to music by composers such as John Jenkins and Henry Lawes. Some made expressive solo songs, such as Purcell’s version of Longing, or John Wilson’s Content. More substantial is a choral verse anthem by George Jeffreys which sets Easter, the same poem that opens the Five Mystical Songs.
What is interesting is that these early settings don’t seem nearly as concerned with Herbert’s most celebrated poems today. Among these is Love (III), better known by its first line ‘Love bade me welcome’. It exemplifies Herbert’s habit of finding religious metaphors in aspects of everyday domestic life – in this case, the hospitality culture he was raised in. Here’s the first stanza, and a beautifully simple choral setting by the New York composer David Hurd.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
Enthused by Drury’s marvellous book, I decided to take a drive to Bemerton and see St. Andrew’s church, where Herbert ministered. It’s a small and modest building. Across the road stands the rectory where he lived – a much grander structure with grounds along the river Nadder, a tranquil chalk stream that glides east towards Salisbury like a quiet prayer.
Entering the church, I was pleased to find a stone carving of ‘Love bade me welcome’ at the door. There is also a nice stained-glass window of Herbert, memorialised beside his friend Nicholas Ferrar, who has earned the eternal gratitude of Herbert fans by ensuring The Temple’s posthumous publication.
It’s a pleasant place, but beyond these features there isn’t much to see. So I quickly went on to Salisbury cathedral, walking the half-hour route that Herbert must have known so well. As the well-kept front gardens of Bemerton gave way to a drab industrial estate, the great spire came into view – the tallest in the country. I soon arrived at the idyllic water meadows where the Nadder joins the Avon, a vantage point immortalised by John Constable. Today the same west front of the cathedral bears a statue of Herbert, dedicated in 2003.
Salisbury is a lovely city, and on such a beautiful May morning – young leaves glowing in spring sunlight, bluebells and cowslips crowding the verges – it was hard not to think of Herbert’s poem Vertue.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.
Like The Call, the rhythmic pulse of that first line was set to a beautiful melody by Vaughan Williams. But Hubert Parry also composed a choral setting of Vertue with its own mellifluous charm.
There’s an interesting connection here too. As it happens, Parry married Elizabeth Maude Herbert, whose brother (another George) was the Earl of Pembroke. So Parry joined the same family tree as our poet, two centuries after he died.
The St. Andrew’s window depicts Herbert holding a violin, and without doubt music was hugely important in his life. He played lute and viols, and it’s said he sang his own settings of his verse, though no notation of them has survived. His was a golden age for music in England as well as literature, and he would have known it – during his childhood in London, the composers John Bull and William Byrd visited his home, and John Donne was a family friend.
What’s more, musical metaphors ring through his poems with remarkable abundance. One of the most striking occurs in Easter, which alludes to the ‘three parts vied and multiplied’ of the harmonic triad, and compares the sinews of the crucified Christ to lute strings.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
But poetry, of course, has its own inner music. Diane Kelsey McColley has described the way that Herbert’s apparently simple arrangements of words are precisely ‘tuned’ to create multiple resonances:
Linear arrangements of words form vertical consonances whose overtones, as well as fundamental meanings, are in tune […] not only do thematically related concepts and images form vertical chords, but also the partials or secondary meanings – puns, etymologies, allusions, and the like – are in tune as the partials of natural tuning are.
Most clearly of all, Herbert’s poetry celebrates the essential goodness of music. His Antiphon (I) joyfully exclaims ‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’, which rounds off the Five Mystical Songs in rousing fashion. It has been set to several hymn tunes, and George Dyson gave it an appropriately sunny treatment in his Three Songs Of Praise.
Much more contrasting to the Five Mystical Songs is Roxanna Panufnik’s imaginative setting of The Call. Whereas Vaughan Williams makes these words noble and affirming, Panufnik creates an atmosphere of sensual mystery, with harp arpeggios wafting up like clouds of incense.
The composer Judith Weir seems particularly drawn to Herbert – her several settings include a beautiful version of Vertue. But when Weir was commissioned to compose the opening piece for the 2011 BBC Proms, she chose three particular lines from the poem Man.
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head.
With the formidable musical forces of Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass at her disposal for the concert, Weir turned these quietly nocturnal lines into a grand public statement, with organ and brass blazing bright. Stars, Night, Music And Light anoints the world’s largest classical music festival, announcing a long summer of dazzling nights under the stars.
A very different kind of selective quotation appears in the sonorous choral piece Contrition by Ola Gjeilo. He sets the final line of Perseverance in his central section: ‘Thou art my rock, thou art my rest’, and repeats it meditatively, a deeply felt mantra.
Herbert’s short life was marked by frequent poor health, and there is something moving in the fact that the late John Tavener turned to this poet after a period of illness in his final years. The Three Hymns Of George Herbert incorporates his earlier choral setting of Love (III), but he expands the forces, calling for a ‘large, resonant acoustic’, with a choir and string orchestra offset by an ‘echo choir’ and string quartet at a distance. Bells and gongs sound from a gallery above.
The use of this spatial arrangement becomes apparent in the first choice of hymn: Herbert’s ‘echo poem’ Heaven, which cleverly repeats the last syllable of each line as a new answering word to its preceding question.
A commercial recording of the Three Hymns is yet to be made, but the 2013 world premiere can be heard below. Herbert’s words traverse the far spaces of Washington Cathedral, with all the time-stopping stasis that Tavener does so well. The temple becomes an instrument. Its every corner sings. How wonderful it would be to hear this work under the great vaulted ceiling of Salisbury, while Herbert’s statue gazes west, out across the water meadows to his tiny church in Bemerton.
The antiphonal effects of the music reverberate just as Herbert’s poetry, locked away during his lifetime, has echoed down the centuries since his death. These words, rich in their musicality, remain fertile ground for inspiration.
Talks and concerts related to Herbert’s life and work continue to be held in the Salisbury area. But the story of Bemerton has one especially pleasing literary and musical epilogue.
The novelist Vikram Seth, author of An Equal Music among other works, has been an admirer of Herbert since his youth. When he heard that the old rectory was going up for sale, he made a visit, and was so taken by the place that he decided to buy it in 2003.
After the purchase Seth wrote Shared Ground: a series of poems in homage to Herbert, formally modelled on his favourite examples. These were set for voices by the composer Alec Roth. In his note to the Hyperion recording of the piece, Seth wrote about his experience of inhabiting Herbert’s physical space, much as he had inhabited his poetic forms:
At the beginning I felt his presence hourly, both within the house and outside. As time passed, I began to think of it as being somewhat more my own, but still, indefinably, shared.
Of these poems, Host is a response to Love (III). Here Seth creates a dialogue between himself and the location in which he felt so strangely welcomed. Roth sets it to alternating tenor solo and chorus. Both poems can be read here, but Seth’s opening stanza is below.
I heard it was for sale and thought I’d go
To see the old house where
He lived three years, and died. How could I know
Its stones, its trees, its air,
The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:
“You’ve come; you’ve seen; now stay”.
But Roth adds something else to Host. At its close, the choir sing a few more lines which, according to Walton, were once inscribed in the hall of the rectory, marking the completion of repairs during Herbert’s tenure. The little poem no longer remains, but it was titled To My Successor.
If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy Cost:
Be good to the Poor,
As God gives thee store,
And then my Labour’s not lost.
These words was also set for choir by James MacMillan, to be sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Several years later, Williams visited St. Andrew’s for a festival about Bemerton’s famous priest. A poet himself and a long-standing admirer of Herbert, he blessed the welcoming stone at the church door.
It seems that Herbert has many successors, of different sorts. And it’s surely no bad thing that I discovered the works of this fascinating man through the music of Vaughan Williams, however hard it may be to disrobe his verse from that melodic clothing.
For Herbert, music ran not only through his poetry, but his whole life. So it is deeply fitting that this particular entrance bade me welcome to his private world. What is clear is that Herbert’s legacy resounds in singing notes as much as it lives on in printed words. ‘Such a Way, as gives us breath’.
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