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Tag Archives: George Herbert

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Writing about the importance of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice Maurice Blanchot suggested that the musician and distraught lover who has lost sight of his beloved did so “because he desires her beyond the measured limits of the song”. Thinking of how art can only recall the lost world, a recovery of something from darkness, he suggested that “art is the power by which night opens”: it is the art of the musician or poet that allows the mind to penetrate the darkness and “His work is to bring it back to the light of day and to give it form, shape, and reality in the day”. This art of “eternal inertia” prompts me to think of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where the vase is associated with “silence”, “quietness” and “slow time”. The “Cold pastoral” which is wreathed about the shape of the urn is the distillation of the Orphic journey the quality of which is what one is left with as one winds the way upwards from the darkness beneath. Orpheus’s error “is to want to exhaust the infinite, to put a term to the interminable” and he suffers from failing to realise that in order to master absence one must make it of another time, “measured otherwise”. In a way poetry is like a Möbius loop in which the movement forward twists round on itself, curling back on its own progress: lost time is transfixed in stillness.
David Rushmer’s powerfully evocative poetry explores precisely this type of movement:

“you fall into
the space of me

body caressed
by a graveyard of sky

filled the air
with your bones”

As Orpheus returns from the world of the Dead he approaches the sky which rounds the cave’s mouth and this is the moment he turns with a failure of nerve. The body of the dead can only be “caressed”, felt and cared for, in the light of a sky which is itself the graveyard of what can never be brought back in its lost form. The poem is the distillation of the self’s understanding of what can never be recovered. The body’s bones “filled the air” like George Herbert’s contemplation of the dead as “shells of fledge souls left behind”. Rushmer presents us with

“mouth drawn open
in the rain”

and the poet’s inbreathing of imaginative experience

“inhaled you
like sunshine”

This is remarkable poetry: intense and compacted, “Remains to Be Seen”. Quoting again from Blanchot’s ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ Rushmer heads one of his poems with an epigraph: “one can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through the space opened up by the movement of writing”. Here is a darkness which “opens its wings to us” and “the instant / of flame” is “held in your hand”. Art’s magical stilling of the moment appears as

“you look at me
the earth disappears

a movement of birds
contains us

where the night
speaks our skin”

Peter Gizzi writes on the back of this disturbingly evocative poetry that within the pages of Remains To Be Seen we “find a carefully crafted rendering of a voice in the world, each syllable of this drama earned.” Peter Hughes adds that the poetry “can come as a shock” with its “primitive, elemental feel”. This is haunting poetry which leaves its effects upon the reader far beyond the time when one has put the book down.

Ian Brinton, 13th May 2018

George Herbert’s Music At Midnight

George Herbert’s Music At Midnight

John Drury’s Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Allen Lane 2013) is an excellent addition to Herbert studies. Colour plates, integrated illustrations and maps of the places in Herbert’s life, lavishly augment the book, which is the result of extensive immersion in the life and its world.


Unlike Herbert’s contemporary, John Donne, there has been no new biography since Amy Charles’ A Life of George Herbert in 1977.  There is a lack of documentation of Herbert’s short life, the last four years of which were spent as rector of Bemerton with Fugglestone, just outside Salisbury, midway between Wilton House and the Cathedral. The Wilton House, home of the earls of Pembroke, archive now at Trowbridge Library, is sadly depleted of references to Mary, Countess of Pembroke and her poetic school, which attracted Spenser and Drayton, let alone Shakespeare who may have performed As You Like It there in 1605, and Herbert. Of the earliest biographies, Izaak Walton’s was no more than fifty pages of notes, published in 1670, and, John Aubrey’s, also written decades after Herbert’s death, is unreliable in terms of historical accuracy. From scanty information, Drury weaves the known details of Herbert’s life into its cultural world and his poetry, which existed only in manuscript form until The Temple appeared in 1633 after Herbert’s death.


Drury centres his understanding of the poetry in the movement towards, ‘Love III’, the pivotal poem in Herbert’s oeuvre,  ‘Love bade me welcome: but my soul drew back/ Guilty of dust and sin’ exploring the inherent conflict in the life towards the final realization that God wishes man to return to pure love as a token of his non-conditional love, as being ‘saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth England’. Herbert is shown as a man torn between worldly ambition and the spiritual life of love recording his inner journey through the anguishes of grief, disappointment, hope, despair, anger and longing in his poetry.


Drury is good in setting out the relationship between poetry and music, the state of the Church of England, impact of the King James Bible, Herbert’s family and educational connections to poetry and music, the ways that words were enunciated during Herbert’s life and the way Herbert’s poems breathe. I love the dramatic and musical nature of Herbert’s poetry, their plain speech, which draw the reader deeply into their conflicted world, and have walked the terrain of his final years between Bemerton and the Cathedral many times. St. Andrew’s Church at Bemerton, which has a literary heritage after Herbert, is tiny; a holy enclave now surrounded by roads, with a distinct atmosphere. It is well worth visiting for a compact sense of Herbert prostrate across the floor before the altar. It seems to hold the drama of Herbert’s poetry intact. The old rectory, a few steps away, is now a private house. The water meadows, with their irrigation system of channels, ditches and sluice gates, between Fisherton and Harnham mills, from where John Constable painted the Cathedral views, are still functioning and recently flooded in much the same way as in Herbert’s time. Drury is good at showing how experience of the waterways, intensive sheep farming, entered Herbert’s poetry in the form of metaphor. The winter soaking of the meadows provided good sheep grazing in the spring. ‘Sheep eat the grass and dung the ground for more’ as Herbert noted in the poem, ‘Providence’. Drury is good at reading less well-known poems in relation to Herbert’s understanding of music’s role and function, and the music of Dowland and Byrd, which Herbert would have encountered inside and outside of Salisbury Cathedral.


Drury offers close, informed readings of most of the poems as well as adding flesh to the outlines of Herbert’s life, his handsome bona roba wife, Jane Danvers, and connections. It is a fine book.


David Caddy 9th March 2014


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