Poetry Friday: “George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” by William Wenthe

Poetry Friday: “George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” by William Wenthe November 20, 2015

Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

I love William Wenthe’s “George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” for many reasons. It is, of course, a tribute from a contemporary poet to one of the greatest poets in the English language—the seventeenth century “Metaphysical” poet who was also an Anglican pastor, as Wikipedia puts it, “of the small rural parish of Fugglestone St. Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire.” (What’s not to love about “Fugglestone St. Peter?”) The scene Wenthe depicts is as simple as it could be: the poet-pastor encounters a man on the road whose horse has “fallen under its load.” The pastor conveys a message of compassion to the man, asking him to be merciful to the beast if he “loved himself,” but he doesn’t stop there; he puts his shoulder to work helping the man get himself and his horse sorted out. Wenthe places us directly in the scene by asking us to image what it sounded like: the simple music of rope and wicker and two grunting men. In short, the poet-pastor puts charity into action, making a poem of the encounter. An act of grace, a tuning of human instruments to the music of charity.

—Gregory Wolfe


George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” by William Wenthe

That if he loved himself
he should be merciful
to his beast: the gist
of what Herbert said
to the man whose horse had
“fallen under its load.”

He was on his way
to play music he called
his heaven upon earth;
but stopped to help
the man unload the horse.

I like to imagine that road.
1631. Little more than mud-ruts.
What did it sound like?
A flaring horse. Squeaks
of rope and wicker. Two men,
a poor man and a parson,

grunting. Then exchanging
blessings. And beyond—
in that plain that was still
part wilderness, the wheeling
cry of a lapwing….

Arriving in Salisbury, notably
“soiled and discomposed”
among his musician friends,
Herbert gives an account.
Announces, “Now,
let us tune our instruments.”

 

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