On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published postunously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today I offer this sonnet, part of a new series I am working on called ‘The Household of Faith” which will be a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons. As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
On New Years Eve a group of us will gather in the mediaeval Bell Tower of St. Edward’s church in Cambridge to pray, and reflect, and to ring in the new year. We will be participating in a long tradition. George Herbert imagined Prayer itself as ‘Church Bells beyond the stars heard’ and the great turning point in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s great exploration of time and eternity, mortality and resurrection, doubt and faith, comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and his famous and beautiful lines beginning ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,’ and concluding:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be. (For more of this passage and my talks on Tennyson click Here)
I love to hear our bells, the oldest of which has chimed in our tower since the fifteenth century, and so I have made my own small contribution to the poetry and meaning of bell ringing in the following sonnet, which is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.
At the request of various members of St. Edward’s Church I recently preached one of Lancelot Andrewes‘ great Christmas sermons. In this one he reflects on what it means to say ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory… full of grace and truth’
Here is a soundcloud link to a recording of the sermon, preceded by my brief introduction and kindly recorded and posted by Honor Clare White. This is the full Seventeenth Century Monty, so if you want to hear it all. you’ll need about an hour! There’s also quite lot of Latin and some Greek, but almost always Andrewes translates as he goes along, so you dont need Latin to get this, though you’ll enjoy the sound and the word plays I hope. as an encouragement I should mention that in my view this sermon is the source of some other great poetry and writing. I believe it contains the essence of what became, George Herbert’s poem Come my Way my Truth my Life, it is the starting point for TS Eliot’s lines about ‘The word without a word’ in Gerontion and Ash Wednesday, and I think it may also be the original locus for the children’ first glimpse of Aslan emerging from his Pavilion in the midst of the encamped Narnians. (It is also the source for two lines in my song ‘Angels Unawares’; ‘Its right here in the dirt, where we’ve all been loved and hurt, tat Love Himself has come to pitch his tent’. If you have a chance sometime over Christmas I hope you enjoy it.
I preached the sermon from Latimer’s pulpit, which was made in 1510 and may well have been seen in St. Edwards by Andrewes who was Master of Pembroke, just round the corner. The famous pulpit was already over a hundred years old when Andrewes preached this sermon in 1611, the year in which the great Authorised Version of the Bible, which he had done so much work on, was finally published
Since my book Faith Hope and Poetrywas published by Ashgate in the Autumn of 2010 a number of people have been asking me when, if ever, there would be a paperback version. This was both because the hardback was very expensive(£55 -their policy not mine!) and also because even the hardback sold out by the middle of last year! Well the good news is Ashgate agreed to a new paperback edition, which costs a lot less (£16.19 from their site!) and it is out now! Official publication date is March the 21st but it is actually available now both from Ashgate and from Amazon. Here is Ashgate’s own ‘flyer’ for the book, which gathers up some of the kinder things that have been said in the various reviews and also gives a link to their page. If you get to the site and the price is in the wrong currency for you then there is a button in the top right hand corner you can click to toggle between Europe and America (wouldn’t it be great if one could also toggle oneself between europe and North america at the touch of a button!) so here’s the flyer:
Faith Hope and Poetry takes you through an exploration and celebration of some of the greatest poetry in the English language, its really just me sharing my enthusiasm for these poems. But I had another purpose too. At its heart this book is a defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential but sadly under-used way of apprehending the truths we need to know to flourish as human beings I tried to sum it all up, at the end of the book, in a two paragraph conclusion and I am going to paste that in here, the final words of the whole book, to give you an idea of what you might be in for if you decide to read it:
This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears. In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it. We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity. For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God. Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’. Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown. Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.
This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.
Another long-haired, lute-playing, Anglican priest
Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the
city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us
new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting Wednesday
May 11th I will be exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now.
May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,
May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’
June 1st Tennyson and the insights of doubt,
June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the insights of science
So here is number two in the series. As always you can hear the recording either by clicking on the ‘play’ button, if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. I am also posting, below the link for the lecture, a copy of the poems read and discussed, together with a written commentary on the poem “Prayer” which covers some of the same ground as this talk and which is taken from my book Faith Hope and Poetry
softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood
O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
Strongly and sweetly movest! shall I write,
And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
To hold my quill? shall they not do thee right?
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise.
Beasts fain would sing; birds dittie to their notes;
Trees would be tuning on their native lute
To thy renown: but all their hands and throats
Are brought to Man, while they are lame and mute.
Man is the worlds high Priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as springs use that fall, and windes that blow.
Wherefore, most sacred Spirit, I here present
For me and all my fellows praise to thee:
And just it is that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.
We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendent, and divine;
Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,
While all things have their will, yet none but thine.
…..Thou art in small things great, not small in any:
Thy even praise can neither rise, nor fall.
Thou art in all things one, in each thing many:
For thou art infinite in one and all.
Our first impression is of the sheer wealth, almost over-abundance, of beautiful images contained in striking and memorable phrases we are being offered. This is not the honing and concentration on the single vision, but a kind of rainbow refraction of many insights, a scattering of many seeds broadcast. For each of these images is in its own way a little poem, or the seed of a poem, ready to grow and unfold in the readers mind. And the different seeds take root at different times, falling differently in the soil of the mind each time one returns to this poem. I have been reading it for over thirty years now and I still find its images springing up freshly in my mind and showing me new things. For the purpose of this Introduction we will delve in and examine four of these little seeds, these poems in themselves within the images, before we take a wider view and see how they all fit together in the larger poem itself.
‘Prayer the churches banquet’.
This opening phrase carries, with the choice of the word ‘banquet’, a picture not of some puritan modicum, some strict or grudging allowance of necessity, but rather of largesse, generosity, and the good measure of a royal occasion. It’s a phrase that sets the poem’s tone, for of course a banquet is exactly what Herbert gives us; course after course, and layer after layer, of nourishing images. In fourteen lines he heaps up twenty-seven different images of the experience of prayer. But the phrase ‘churches banquet’ alludes to and summons up the rich complex of feast and banquet imagery in Scripture and the Church’s life. Behind this passage lies the covenant meal of the Old Testament, the great wedding feast with which Jesus so often compared the kingdom, to which we must bring ourselves ‘well drest’, but most importantly the Last Supper and through it the Holy Communion which is the foretaste of the banquet of heaven, to which, in another of Herbert’s poems Love himself bids us welcome.
‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’
This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last
. Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:
And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord.
‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’
This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, much as we saw in the Heaney poem, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a canon shot at God, since the other ‘engine’, the siege tower, is already covered in the phrase ‘sinners tower’. Herbert uses this image even more explicitly in his poem ‘Artillery’ where he says:
The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his friend John Donne:
‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’
But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ.
‘The six-days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear’;
Transposition is very much what poetry and all literary art is about. To hear snatches from the huge unknowable symphony of experience, to catch them and transpose them to a key that resonates with our understanding, so that at some point they harmonise with that unheard melody from heaven we are always trying to hear, that is the purpose of poetry. ‘Transposition’ for Herbert in this poem involves taking of the whole story of creation and a reworking of it within our individual life of prayer. Meditating on the six days of creation as a key to understanding ones own place in the order of things was a tradition which had begun for the West with Augustine’s beautiful meditation on Genesis at the end of his Confessions. It had been continued in Herbert’s age by his older contemporary Lancelot Andrewes whose private devotions were ordered around the governing images derived in each day’s creation, and there is a beautiful contemporary example of ‘the six days world’ transposed literally in ‘an hour’ in a sermon of John Donne’s ‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth’, which takes us symbolically through every step in the genesis creation narrative and was written to be heard in exactly an hour.
These transpositions lead to the making of ‘a kind of tune’ and if this is true of prayer it is also true of poetry and of this poem for here again is Heaney’s ‘music that you never would have known to listen for’.
One might take each of these twenty-seven images in turn and find as much fruit in them: the window on the mysteries of communion in ‘exalted manna’, all the sense both of life and sacrifice packed into ‘soul’s blood’, the evocation of the riches of the enchanted and far away in ‘land of spices’, and perhaps most tellingly the superb compression and paradox in ‘Heaven in ordinary’, a phrase which in itself sums up the heart of the Gospel in God’s incarnation in a stable, but also stands for the heart of the kind of poetry we will explore in this book. It is precisely the restored vision that sees the ordinary afresh, and allows us to see heaven in it, to be with Blake in ‘The Auguries of Innocence’;
or as we were with Heaney, to enter heaven through the ear of a raindrop.
The Integration of the Poem as Whole:
We could meditate further on these individual images but I want to turn now to look at how they are related to each other and to the poem as a whole, for the ability to feel the energy that arises from the forces and tensions within the poem is part of what we need to rediscover in order to enjoy poetry at depth. Looking at the poem as a whole it seems almost modern in the way Herbert allows himself freedom from syntax and logic. The poem is technically a single sentence with only one full stop at the end of it bringing us to a rest after the roller-coaster ride through the images, with the quiescent phrase ‘something understood’. But it is a strange sentence. There is no main verb. It makes no statement. Its meaning is not carried on the surface of its grammar. It is a world away from Sprat’s ‘bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as we can’. No, the meaning of this poem is carried not by the syntax of the sentence, but by the images themselves, by the way image speaks to image in point and counterpoint. For here there is both a congruence, which gives the poem flow and unity, and also a disparity, which gives it tension and energy. There are lines of congruence between ‘banquet’, ‘softness’, ‘manna, and gladness, well-drest’, ‘land of spices’, all suggesting sumptuousness and celebration. There is congruence between the music imagery of ‘transposing’…’kind of tune’. and ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’, but there is a power in the tension of a poem which in lines 4 and 5 has the loud violence of ‘engine against th’almighty’ and ‘reversed thunder’ yet has moved in line 9 to ‘softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss’. At the end of the poem something is understood precisely because the poem has been able to hold these extremes in tension with each other, which is of course exactly what the life of prayer does for the practising Christian.
Then there is the whole subtle achievement across this poem of transposition and paraphrase, both terms mentioned in the poem itself. The theme of giving back to heaven what heaven first gave, which is what prayer essentially is, is transposed across a series of different keys from ‘breath returning to its birth’ through ‘reversed thunder’, to its fullest expression in ‘exalted manna’, the offering to God of his own gift in the Eucharist. When Herbert speaks of prayer as ‘the soul in paraphrase’ he is using that term to describe the way in which through prayer we find a new language, a new set of terms in which to express ourselves and in paraphrasing ourselves to God in our hour of prayer we are, through the terms of our paraphrase, seeing ourselves afresh in His light. And this in turn is what the poem itself does. Each of the twenty-seven images it offers is itself a paraphrase of the experience of prayer. Between them they offer us a series of new understandings of who we are and what we are doing when we engage in prayer. These notions of ‘transposition’ and ‘paraphrase’ will be a key to understanding much of the poetry we encounter in this book.
The other thematic key which we have already noted both in this poem and in ‘Rain Stick’ is paradox and reversal, the sudden setting of things on their heads, the ‘reversed thunder’, the ‘up-ending’ of the rain stick. Through the break in our world made by the shock of paradox there sometimes flows a new light.
It is the combination of all these things, working together within the subtle unity of the poem which enables us to hear ‘a kind of tune’, that stirs ‘The souls blood’, and leads at last to ‘something understood’.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity…
“Drear-nighted December” Keats’s felicitous phrase sums up the way many of us feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed, it is just because those bleak rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and still retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of all their former green-ness that they will unfold into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.
It can be the same with us, we manage to get through the winter, and also through the heart’s severer seasons, because we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem “The Flower”:
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
But Herbert knew, even in the depth of winter that “grief melts away/like snow in May/ as if there were no such cold thing” and so in this great poem of recovery he writes: And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live …
And what about us? I think that we too, in drear-nighted December need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do at Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, The Life within us and the seed of light is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that True Vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when for many of us our hearts feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of advent I pray for Him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said: “He may with one word make all green again”.
It’s been a long time coming. My book Faith Hope and Poetry has been a labour of love over the last decade, written slowly in the midst of the many demands of pastoral, priestly, academic and family life, but it is here at last. I am immensley grateful to the many people who have helped me on this road, not least the sudents whose ideas and questions have always reminded this teacher that he cannot teach unless he is a student too.
At the heart of my book is a celebration and defense of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential means of grasping reality, not a subjective fantasy compensation for the grimness of things ‘out there’. Each chapter explores a poet or group of poets who are bearing witness, through imagination, to essential truths that I feel are pertinant to our own age but the whole book is about how the language of poetry initiates us into mysteries we could enter in no other way. By way of a taster I am posting here the dedicatory poem and the concluding paragraphs:
I thank my God I have emerged at last,
blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars
bewildered by the shadows that I cast.
You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,
removed the daily veil, and let me see,
as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
that words are windows onto mystery.
From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
in music, from the tower of ivory,
and from the hidden heart, He calls
in the language of Adam, creating memory
of unfallen speech. He sets creation
free from the carapace of history.
His image in us is Imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
upon the letters of His revelation.
In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,
you showed me how my halting words might reach
to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,
and so you taught me what it means to teach.
Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove
climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,
as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.
” This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears. In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it. We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity. For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God. Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’. Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown. Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.”
This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.
I hope you have enjoyed these extracts and that those of you who have a chance to read it enjoy the book. The publishers page is here
I’m sorry that, as a modern hardback it is so expensive, I hope, if this edition sells well enough, that they will bring it out in an accessible paperback. Meanwhile you can always encourage your local library to buy it.
George Herbert should have been on the Chilcot Inquiry! At least he would have known how to ask the right questions. His poem Constanciesets out in searching detail the real criteria by which we should judge honesty in our selves and others.
Who is the honest man ? he asks, and then goes on to set out a series of bench-marks all of which are astonishingly pertinent to our judgment of today’s proceedings at the Iraq inquiry. He asks us to look for a leader whose pursuit of integrity neither force, nor fawning can unpin from giving all their due
Those two terms force and fawning go right to the heart of this inquiry. What was the influence of force, fire-power and power-politics on behalf of both Iraq and America? How much fawning was there? Was Tony Blair Bush’s wise restrainer or his poodle? Was he ‘unpinned’ by either of these two f-words from giving all their due? The families of Soldiers who died in Iraq are rightly present in the room at this inquiry, for they have a strong case for saying that they have not ‘been given all their due’, not yet in terms of honesty.
And Honesty is the next topic in Herbert’s masterful inquiry. He asks us to sift every claim and to look for someone Whose honesty is not So loose or easy, that a ruffling wind Can blow away, or glittering look it blind Was Tony Blair that man? Or were there glittering looks that blinded him? That’s what this inquiry is meant to uncover.
Now Blair himself might seize on the next item on Herbert’s agenda, as a summary of his own position. He clearly believes himself to be someone ‘Who, when great trials come, Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but does calmly stay, Till he the thing and the example weigh.. ‘I had the integrity’, he is claiming, ‘to weigh all things and come to a judgment, I asked you to trust my judgement then and I’m asking you to trust it now’. Certainly that’s what he believes of himself, that his integrity is unimpeached. But whereas the present members of the inquiry seem ready to take that assessment at face-value without further question, George Herbert asks us to probe a little more closely and suggests that if someone wants to claim that kind of integrity and ask us to trust their judgment then we should ask whether they are a man Whom none can work or woo To use in any thing a trick or sleight; For above all things he abhors deceit: His words and works and fashion too All of a piece, and all are clear and straight. We are entitled to ask, says Herbert, whether the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the ringing speeches that led parliament to vote for war were put together using ‘any trick or sleight’ or whether were ‘all of a piece’, ‘all clear and straight’
I give below the text of a poem which should have been given to every member of the inquiry and written in letters of gold over its door, but with the proviso that if the strong light of Herbert’s verse is to be trained on our politicians, we should, in justice, also turn it back and train it on ourselves.