The Backward Dive, or Pulling the Threads

  by Helen Currie Foster

A one-hour Sunday school class for Lent? Okay, I thought, how about an hour on British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs?

Vaughan Williams set to music five brief poems by the “metaphysical poet” and English cleric George Herbert (April 3, 1593-March 1, 1632). The music blew me away when Austin’s Panoramic Voices choir performed it. So did the poems, rich in Elizabethan word-play (Herbert might have seen Shakespeare’s company perform) and metaphors that grab a Lenten heart.

Herbert speaks intimately, directly. His wordplay has serious intent. “The Call” begins,

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.

He sets us a word puzzle in pattern and rhyme, and we’re hooked.

“Easter” requires more of us. Herbert, the skilled lute-player, demands impossible music for Easter:

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.

A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK, By Richard Avery [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
What ferocious gentleness, what agonizing learning for the wood and sinews of the taught-taut lute! And what taut winding motivated Herbert?

I pulled off the shelf the thick volume of Herbert’s works, careful of the heavy-papered pale blue jacket, showing wear, and waded into a scholarly introduction. Herbert began writing early, encouraged and praised by his mentor, John Donne. Herbert swore to his brilliant widowed mother he’d write nothing but religious poetry. In this he differed from Donne, who sent Herbert’s mother deeply admiring sonnets. She’d sheltered Donne at her Welsh estate when the plague ravaged London.

At Cambridge University Herbert strutted his stuff as a bright Greek and Latin scholar from an aristocratic family, a known clotheshorse, proud of his position, requiring deference. Tapped as Cambridge’s Public Orator, he impressed James I with his Greek and Latin speeches. Despite life-long struggles with illness (consumption), he hoped for a diplomatic appointment. But after James I died and his illness worsened, he finally took holy orders and became the beloved priest of a small parish near Salisbury. In the parish, by all accounts he gave tender care to his congregation. He often traveled to Salisbury to make music with the cathedral musicians. And he revised his poems.

The introduction described how, as Herbert lay dying, he entrusted his manuscripts for publication to his dearest friend from Cambridge days, Nicholas Ferrar. Ferrar wrote of Herbert’s serenity as death approached, describing an account he had from a man who visited the dying man “at the instance of his friends at Little Gidding.”

Nicholas Ferrar? Little Gidding? The redoubtable name of T.S. Eliot reverberated. So, down the rabbit hole!

Stained glass window at St Andrew’s church, Bemerton, of Ferrar and George Herbert by Zorba the Geek [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
First, Ferrar. Ferrar lost the family fortune in the Virginia Company, an Elizabethan-era IPO. With wife and children he moved to the little village of Little Gidding, not far from Herbert’s parish. There they taught village children, started a book bindery, and tried to live by the Book of Common Prayer. Charles I briefly sought refuge there before his execution. Little Gidding suffered during the religious civil war but the chapel still stands. Another thread: British poet Ted Hughes is a direct Ferrar descendant; he and his American poet wife Sylvia Plath named their first child Nicholas Ferrar.

But what link, if any, to T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”? Eliot published Four Quartets in 1943; he was working on “Little Gidding,” the last of the quartets, in 1942. Tug the thread, and learn that in 1942, with England savaged by bombing, Eliot visited the village of Little Gidding.

So I pulled “Little Gidding” from the shelf, reading it with new eyes, seeing the ancient chapel, the gardens where children played.

By 1943 Eliot was moving from “young Turk” status, achieved with early Bloomsbury acclaim and Virginia Woolf allowing him to come to tea and read his poems, toward more traditional religious faith. Now, knowing of his 1942 pilgrimage, I wondered whether Eliot knew Herbert’s poems? Another thread: Amazon will sell you T.S. Eliot’s slim 1962 volume, George Herbert (Writers and Their Work), analyzing and comparing the poetry of Donne and Herbert.

Thomas Stearns Eliot with his sister and his cousin by Lady Ottoline Morrell.jpg: Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) derivative work: Octave.H [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eliot notes that while both poets possessed high intellect and keen sensibility, they differed in the dominance of intellect and sensibility: “[I]n Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought.” Eliot also thinks Herbert “must have learned from Donne the cunning use of both the learned and the common word, to give the sudden shock of surprise and delight.” He praises Herbert’s “exquisite craftsmanship, extraordinary metrical virtuosity, and verbal felicities,” but especially the content of poems of spiritual struggle which move both those who possess and who lack religious emotion.

Somehow I found this statement most endearing: “With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end.” Per Eliot, we must enjoy a poem before we understand it, if the attempt to understand is “worth the trouble.”

I wish I’d known that in freshman English, instead of flailing around in every footnote of The Wasteland.

One last discovery. Eliot flags the serenity of Herbert’s “The Flower”:

Grief melts away

Like snow in May,

As if there were no such cold thing.

That particular thread, snow in May, sends us straight to “Little Gidding.” I’ll leave you to pull the thread to see how Eliot developed the theme.

So a single class on Five Mystical Songs led to the village of Little Gidding, and Ferrar the best friend and publisher, then, three centuries later, to the destructive fires of World War II, and finally to a later “Little Gidding,” Rabbit holes. Loose threads. Very like the world of the murder mystery, where the clever reader tugs the thread and finds the pattern. I can only imagine, if Donne and Herbert had occasionally paused at poetry and tried their hands at classic British murder writing, what might have been. Back to my current tapestry.


Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries: Ghost Cave, Ghost Dog, Ghost Letter, and Ghost Dagger. She practices environmental law in Austin and lives in the Texas Hill Country, where her books are set.

7 thoughts on “The Backward Dive, or Pulling the Threads

  1. Wow, a lot of insight and a lot to think about. I love the wording of thoughts in the era of this poetry. I love the first two poems you quoted also. Poetry says so much in so few words.


    1. Neva-it is interesting to hear the poems set to music, too, especially “Love.” Of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs I think it’s the one where the music most powerfully matches the words.


  2. Enjoyed the trip back to Elizabethan times, even the thoughts on the proper way to let Death free one’s soul. Nothing better than Elizabethan poetry and then a bit of T.S. Eliot to conclude things.


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