This dear little church is St Andrew’s, Lower Bemerton, just outside Salisbury. It’s the building in which the poet George Herbert worked as a priest in the early 1630s. The informatively titled George Herbert and Bemerton Group invited me along to give a talk, having noted that I’ve on a few occasions set Herbert’s poetry to music.
We met in another church nearby, St John’s, built in Victorian times as a memorial to GH. Recently it has been respectfully converted into a community centre, and we waited for a few minutes to get in while a local martial arts group were finishing up. Whereupon an equally hefty crowd of about eighty poetry lovers appeared, clearly well-informed about their local poet.
On a whim I started my talk by waving in the air the Penguin Metaphysical Poets paperback (ed. Helen Gardner) which I studied for English A level in 1972, and thanks to which I seem to have memorised quite a bit of Herbert’s poetry, without remembering doing so. Afterwards I met four different people who had studied for the same exam, two of them armed with the same carefully-preserved volume. This resonated with two recent educational news stories. Firstly the decision by educational publishers Pearson to phase out printed textbooks; understandable of course, but a sad thing. Then, more importantly, the drop in student numbers for English A-level. I confess that I chose to do this exam because I enjoyed reading, and thought it would give me a bit of spare time to study music. But what a legacy it has left along the way; not only Donne/Herbert/Marvell but also Paradise Lost, Hamlet and several other titles I would not otherwise have got to know in any such detail.