The second extraordinary gift I received on my visit to the Bodleian Library was to be a viewing of the earliest printed copy of George Herbert's The Country Parson. This in itself would have been a moment to capture for a booklover whose small constellation of favourite poets includes as a luminous guide, George Herbert. So if the chance to see that 17th Century treasure was grace, then what can I say about being shown, and allowed to turn a few pages, of the handwritten copy of Herbert's The Temple which was the licenser's copy used for the first printed edition, produced in 1633, soon after Herbert's death. This was grace upon grace.
Beautifully bound, written on parchment paper, in a flowing hand with restrained flourishes, the work is a labour of love, and the poems some of the most sublime devotional verses ever written in English. My jaw-dropping astonishment prompted my friend Richard to ask if I needed holding up - more seriously, there are times when words written with disciplined precision and a care for beauty become icons, if not of the Lord himself, then of the Word of God distilled into words that intentionally pull the reader closer to God, deeper into that place where heart speaks to heart, in words carefully chosen and prayerfully offered. I looked at the 'Easter Wings' shape poem; turned to the concentrated richness of the sonnet 'Prayer I'; and as always read slowly that last masterpiece of theological invitation, 'Love bade me welcome....'. I looked and simply enjoyed. Not sure when I'll get the chance to se it again - and I suppose it might have been possible to photograph it. But it never ocurred to me task, and that's probably because no photo is equivalent to seeing and touching and connecting with history.
No apologies for taking the excuse to post 'Prayer 1', which is freighted with more spiritual perception and honesty than the sonnet's constraining fouerteen lines have any right to contain.
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.