THE George Herbert Festival provided four packed days of events, attracting residents and visitors in their hundreds, eager to learn more about the 17th century poet and priest whose last years were spent at Bemerton in Salisbury.
Talks, workshops, music, exhibitions and social events provided rich opportunities to discover why Herbert’s writing is still a dynamic influence today.
Among the many distinguished participants, was former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. A published poet himself, he generously took part in many events.
He attended the opening garden party hosted by the Bishop of Salisbury and his wife, celebrated communion at Herbert’s tiny church of St Andrew’s and dedicated Robyn Golden-Hann’s engraved stone in the porch bearing Herbert’s words Love bade me welcome.
He also worked with sixth form students in a workshop, led one of the many poetry discussion groups, and read in a words and music programme at St John’s Church about Herbert and the natural world.
In two evenings at Salisbury Playhouse he showed to capacity audiences his deep and loving knowledge of Herbert’s poetry as well as his own warmth and wisdom.
On Thursday he put the case for Why Herbert Matters, in a talk followed by questions.
He showed why the poetry is so important in his life today, from first being affected by the verse as a sixth former, to receiving the collected works as an ordination present (a well-thumbed book in use on the evening). While granting Herbert was a good priest and good man, he emphasised how his poems engage us in Herbert’s passionate dialogue with God, whom he challenges and chides but whom he also praises and loves.
Dr Williams celebrated Herbert’s ability in metaphor to use natural and manmade things to illuminate the abstract and metaphysical.
On Friday evening Gillian Clarke, the National Poet for Wales, and former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion joined Dr Williams in a very good discussion titled Hearken Unto a Verser, Herbert’s command to consider poetry as more rewarding for some than a sermon.
Skilfully guided by the Revd Maggie Guillebaud, the speakers recorded their personal appraisals of Herbert’s verse in general and three poems in particular. Ms Clarke’s comments were more subjective and Sir Andrew’s more objective. Dr Williams’ blend of emotional and measured comments showed considerable insight. The great success of the festival is in a large part due to his compelling enthusiasm.