Whether Jeffrey Archer sought permission from the shade of Rupert Brooke before he moved into The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, I don’t know. But when Vikram Seth decided to buy the Old Rectory in Bemerton, Salisbury, he had a word with one of its previous owners, the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert, who died in the house in 1633. “I had a little colloquy with him as to whether I should buy it… I imagined Herbert saying, ‘Oh yeah, go ahead’. I think basically I was granting myself permission.”
Seth, puckish and urbane, is showing me around his house’s beautiful if molehill-pocked garden adjoining the River Nadder, and describing the Heath Robinson-like process for making jam from the fruit of the medlar tree that Herbert planted here. He recalls how he first came here on a rainy day with his then-partner, the violinist Philippe Honoré; he wanted to look around the place where some of his favourite poems were written, so pretended to be interested in buying it.
“I’m not a country type, I’ve lived in cities most of my life. But within five or 10 minutes of being here, I felt there was something really drawing me towards it. Obviously not the price tag.” A stained-glass window in the tiny church across the road seemed like a good omen: it depicts Herbert holding a violin.
He shows me the bridge in the garden on which he slipped and fell that day. “I thought, well, that is very unpropitious, and then I thought wasn’t there the example of William the Conqueror who stumbled and fell when he first landed, and said this showed his attachment to the soil? So I thought I’d interpret it according to my own devices.”
The house and garden have inspired some of the libretti Seth has written for various musical collaborations with Honoré and the composer Alec Roth. Some of these crisp, glittering texts, collected in The Rivered Earth, follow Herbert’s metrical forms.
In his poem “Love (3)”, Herbert tells God that he feels too unworthy to be a guest at His table. There are echoes of these lines in Seth’s “Host”, in which he recalls his initial fear that living with Herbert’s spirit would “change my style”, and praises the poet for standing “just out of mind and sight, / That I may sit and write.” He could never, he tells me, live in the house of “someone with a more obvious and overt dominating personality” like John Donne, who would have “buffeted and bullied” him.
Seth has departed from Herbert’s example by writing these pieces in monosyllables, a nod to the Chinese poetic tradition with which, after long study, he is equally at home. It is appropriate, then, that Seth has stuffed Herbert’s house with chinoiserie, plus all sorts of bric-a-brac from his extensive travels, including a model of the Unicorn, the ship from his beloved Tintin books. Herbert stands aside while he labours at A Suitable Girl, the sequel to the phenomenally successful A Suitable Boy, at the kitchen table or in bed.
What does Seth most admire about Herbert? “His wit, his liveliness, his sincerity, to use a word that is a bit naive, perhaps. I think he combines the sophisticated and naive very well. He gives each its correct weight… And his vulnerability. What one gets from his directly addressing God, let’s say, is that he’s laying himself open… He demanded explanations which he couldn’t always find through the assuaging hand of faith.”
Also, Herbert’s verse, like Seth’s and unlike that of the bumptious Donne, has the virtue of clarity. “If somebody writes clearly, you can pretty much tell immediately if something is shallow or deep, whereas if they write with all this duckweed on the surface, you can’t tell if the stream is one inch deep or a hundred fathoms.”
Auden said that Herbert was the English poet he would most like to have met because of his obvious goodness. There is a verse inscription carved by Herbert above the front door of the rectory instructing whoever should live in the house after him to be “good to the poor”. Does Seth, who describes himself as a “quasi-agnostic Hindu”, see his saintly predecessor as a moral, as well as poetic, example?
“There is a large element of the relationship between man and God in his idea of goodness… I would keep God firmly out of it, myself. I think goodness is about how person behaves to person, and also person to world, to nature. Like how will I get rid of these moles as gently as possible.
“But he wasn’t any kind of prim killjoy.” He quotes from “The Flower”, the poem in which Herbert describes how his “shrivelled heart… recovered greenness” after a period of grief: “‘I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.’ What a lovely phrase. He relished nature and he relished music and versing and ordinary pleasures.” In that respect Herbert and Seth, I feel, are perfectly matched: an ideal host and a suitable guest.