Friday 6 December 2019

'A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath'

Today on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp writes about a treasured book – an edition of the poems of George Herbert that was a gift from the poet Helen Pinkerton. Published in New York in 1854, this collection was edited 'by the Rev. George Gilfillan' – a name that rang quite a loud bell with me.
  Sure enough, Gilfillan features in John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, where he is affectionately described as 'the McGonagall of criticism'. A man of formidable energy and self-belief, he did pioneering work in introducing the classics of English literature to a hungry reading public in the mid-19th century, but was also wildly enthusiastic about the emerging school of 'Spasmodic' poets – such long forgotten names as Alexander Smith, Philip James Bailey, J. Stanyan Bigg and Sydney Dobell, all authors of grandiose, tormented spiritual epics. This enthusiasm laid Gilfillan open to a well aimed satirical attack, William Aytoun's Firmilian, A Spasmodic Tragedy, an assault that might have ended the career of a lesser man. Gilfillan, however, battled on, dismissing all criticism of himself, producing a spasmodic epic of his own – Night, a poem in nine books – and bringing out an annotated edition of the English poets in 48 volumes, a publication supported by an impressive 7,000 subscribers.
  My own edition of Herbert, which belonged to my grandmother, is of similar vintage, but published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. No editor is named, but the volume includes Izaak Walton's life of the poet, some Commendatory Verses by various hands, and a small selection of Herbert's letters. Browsing in these just now, I came across this beautiful letter 'for my dear sick Sister':

Most dear Sister,
Think not my silence forgetfulness; or that my love is as dumb as my papers: though businesses may stop my hand, yet my heart, a much better member, is always with you; and, which is more, with our good and gracious God, incessantly begging some ease of your pains, with that earnestness that becomes your griefs and my love. God, who knows and sees this writing, knows also that my soliciting Him has been much and my tears many for you; judge me then by those waters, and not by my ink, and then you shall justly value
           Your most truly, most heartily
                 affectionate brother and servant...

Patrick quotes Herbert's marvellous sonnet, 'Prayer', and confesses to having a weakness for such 'list poems'. Here is another, by the minor Elizabethan poet Barnabe Barnes. Like 'Prayer', and like most of Barnes's poetical output, it's a sonnet – but, unlike Herbert's, it reveals its subject not in its title but in its closing couplet:

'A blast of wind, a momentary breath'

A blast of wind, a momentary breath,
A wat'ry bubble symbolized with air,
A sun-blown rose, but for a season fair,
A ghostly glance, a skeleton of death;
A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath,
Whose moisture sun's appearance doth impair;
A lightning glimpse, a muse of thought and care,
A planet's shot, a shade which followeth,
A voice which vanisheth so soon as heard,
The thriftless heir of time, a rolling wave,
A show, no more in action than regard,
A mass of dust, world's momentary slave,
  Is man, in state of our old Adam made,
  Soon born to die, soon flourishing to fade.

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