Is on the drama lived in each man’s soul,
His battle with his flawed
Aspirations and you make him whole
Telling of his Lord
Who battled too though God in every pore
And pity. No one wrote like this before.”—Elizabeth Jennings, from The Collected Poems, edited by Emma Mason (2012)
British poet George Herbert died of tuberculosis on this date, just short of his 40th birthday. Twice elected to Parliament, he spent his last three years as a rector near Salisbury, at an Anglican church he helped rebuild from his own funds. On his deathbed, he sent a group of poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, requesting only that they be published if it was believed they might do good to “any dejected soul.”
They were, and they did, earning a wide following even beyond that. He is now included with John Donne and Andrew Marvell among a group of British “Metaphysical Poets.” (The closest equivalent we have in America is the Puritan poet Edward Taylor.)
The fine set of above lines about Herbert comes from an interesting subset of poetry: poets’ tributes to other poets. Leave aside (if you can) Virgil’s appearance as guide in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. You can also look to the likes of Robert Lowell on another Puritan, Anne Bradstreet, Shelley on Keats (“Adonais”) or W.H. Auden’s magnificent “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”
I had never heard of British poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) until a couple of weeks ago, when a review of her Collected Poems—along with a summary of her career—appeared in The Weekly Standard. It sounded from Edward Short's review that Jennings was the kind of God-haunted person who would indeed, as Herbert had hoped on his deathbed, be the kind of “dejected soul” who would find solace in his work.
The “drama lived in each man’s soul” in the search for God may be found in this Herbert poem, “The Pulley”:
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
"Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can.
Let the world's riches, which disperséd lie,
Contract into a span."
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
"For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
"Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness.
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast."