Literary Landmarks: Robert Herrick and Dean Prior

From Emily Lezzeri, Get Into Reading South West Project Worker:

If you are taking your Summer holidays in the West Country this year you are likely to drive on the A38, the road that winds its way through Devon into the depths of Cornwall. If this is the case, I would like to recommend a literary pit-stop; no Little Chefs in sight, I promise. Just past the small market town of Buckfastleigh in South Devon is a church at Dean Prior where the poet Robert Herrick was vicar from 1630 to 1674 (with an interlude during the Cromwellian years when he was ousted for being a Royalist sympathiser). Herrick spent most of his working life in the remote hamlet of Dean Prior and yet his poetry reveals a great ambivalence for the place:

More discontents I never had
Since I was born, then here;
Where I have been, and still am sad,
In this dull Devon-shire

Not a quote that the Devon Tourist Board is likely to seize upon! And yet, Herrick stayed on despite the lure of strong royal and literary connections in London (Herrick was a member of the Tribe of Ben, Jonson’s appreciation society). Dull it may have been, and discontent he may have been, but something kept Herrick in place in Devon. As he goes on to observe:

Yet justly too I must confesse;
I ne’r invented such
Ennobled numbers for the Presse,
Then where I loath’d so much.

Herrick’s masterpiece, Hesperides, opens with the phrase “I sing of Brooks, of Blossoms, Birds and Bowers”, suggesting that Herrick was deeply in-tune with his pastoral, Devon-shire surroundings; the discontents perhaps more internal than external? Herrick’s poetry is markedly self-referential so we learn, through him and his work, of his constraints and contradictions. A Londoner living in rural Devon, a man passionate about love but not married, a vicar who questioned and challenged the idea of the afterlife.

A visit to the church of Dean Prior echoes these contradictions. Where once remote, the church is now, literally, a stone’s throw from the A38: the 14th century church remains the same but the cars, lorries and caravans a constant reminder of how life has changed since Herrick’s day. And yet, lift your eyes above the A38 and the church is surrounded by pastoral beauty: rolling hills peppered with cows and sheep, a view I’m sure, that Herrick would have reluctantly appreciated.

I grew up in the small town of Buckfastleigh and used to sing in the church choir there and at Dean Prior (it’s renowned for its candle-lit Christmas service, by the way). I did not come from a religious family (nor could I sing) but the choir was the main social activity in this quiet moor-side town. Religious or not, a visit to a church is always, I think, a reverential experience. I would therefore recommend a stop-off to pay your respects to the church at Dean Prior near to where the wonderful, though surly, Robert Herrick wrote much of his great work.

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