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Ronald Blythe pays tribute to George Herbert’s love of proverbs and botany

THE greatest poet of the Church of England, George Herbert, loved proverbs.

A cake and its contents must be broken.

Love and a cough cannot be hid.

Everyone stretches his legs according to his coverlet.

Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.

Milk says to wine, “Welcome, friend.”

I wept when I was born, and every day shows why.

It is a great victory that comes without blood.

The best mirror is an old friend.

God comes to see without a bell.

The charges of building and making of gardens are unknown.

Good friends find good.

Prettiness dies first.

Living well is best revenge.

Thursday comes, and the week is gone.

Nothing lasts but the Church.

When a man is on horseback, he knows all things.

It is good to have some friends both in heaven and hell.

Woe to him that reads one book.

Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer.

A man’s destiny is always dark.

 

There also flooded into Herbert, during his Cambridge years, all his lifelong passions, which ranged from the need to possess a Christ-centred artistry in words and music to dieting and gardening — the latter interest having for him certain essential connections. As well as faith, Herbert is the singer of alternative medicine, and botany.

It was not only his young step­­father who taught him the excitements of the aesthetic and practical uses of English plants, but also his philosopher-poet brother Edward, who confessed to him that he “delighted ever in the knowledge of herbs, plants, and grass, and . . . the history of nature”. Our Saviour made plants and seeds to teach the people; for he was the true house­holder “who bringeth out of his treasure things new and old”.

Herbert loved balsam, garlic, rhubarb, roses, crown imperials, plantains, St John’s wort, adder’s-tongue ferns, hyssop, valerian, shepherd’s purse, knotgrass, elder, comfrey, and yarrow, and trees, particularly: all the secrets and scents and colours and tastes of both cultivated and wild plants. He also loved the ever-changing English weather — the latter so much so that Aldous Huxley saw it as a force within Herbert himself.

One of the reasons for Herbert’s passion for flowers was that he was influenced by one of those recipes for a long life which advocate vegetarianism: in this instance, a book by an 83-year-old Italian, Luigi Cornaro. This poet was able to cure himself of a severe attack of ague by giving up meat and follow­ing a spare diet.

Other people, including the Ferrer family at Little Gidding, were reading Herbert’s trans­lations of Cornaro, and eating balanced vegetable diets, too; and, when one connects this recovered awareness of healthy eating with the intense new interest in garden­ing, which regarded, in the early 17th century, the many examples of plants as divine components, the utilitarian and the beautiful in Herbert’s work can be more fully appreciated.

A walk through Herbert’s England is a contemplation of gardens as well as God.

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