God's Own Singer
Bate, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
Music at Midnight: the Life and Poetry of George Herbert
Allen Lane, 416pp, [pounds sterling]25
The name George Herbert invariably conjures three memories into my consciousness. First, it is the 1970s, I am at school and we are being introduced to one of our A-level English literature texts: the Penguin anthology The Metaphysical Poets. Edited by the distinguished Oxford scholar Dame Helen Gardner and shaped by the phenomenally influential critical thought of T S Eliot, it nominates John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell as the three greatest "metaphysical" poets, on the grounds of their shared complexity, their delicate ambiguity and their capacity to hold emotion in equipoise with thought.
Second, it is the 1980s and I am at Cambridge, where our living metaphysical poet Geoffrey Hill is giving lectures on how there has been something elegiac about the air of England ever since the end of the Great War. The Tories are being transformed from the party of rural estate managers into that of urban estate agents. The Church of England is losing its grip on the times and I am reading a key passage in Ford Madox Ford's vast tetralogy of novels on the last of England, Parade's End, in which Christopher Tietjens, a relic of the gentility of the shires, recalls standing on a hill above the village of Bemerton in Wiltshire, where Herbert was a country parson, and describes it as "the cradle of the race as far as our race was worth thinking about". Herbert, I suddenly realise, is going the way of his church: he is in the cul-de-sac of Cathedral Close at Salisbury, while poetry has moved on to the Troubles of Derry (Heaney et al) and the streets of Brixton (Linton Kwesi Johnson and the vibrant new British Caribbean poets).
And then it's the 1990s. I am teaching at the University of Liverpool and we have a lecture from a visiting leather-jacketed protege of Terry Eagleton, now a professor at a "new" university, who tells us that he was going to talk about English poetry but now he's not, because he is so excited about a new film that has just come out and he wants to discuss that instead. "Why on earth would you want to read George Herbert when you can see Reservoir Dogs?" he asks, sneeringly, and that really does seem like the end of the era when you could have a gentle discussion on the deceptive simplicity of "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back" or the ingenious typographic layout of "Easter Wings" (which was originally printed sideways to make the poem look like an angel's wings).
John Drury comes with a pedigree out of the one world that has barely changed since Herbert's time: he was dean of King's College, Cambridge, and is now the chaplain and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He has spent a life immersed in biblical scholarship and in solid faith. He loves Herbert and, if one may be forgiven the metaphor, writes like an angel.
This biography is measured and musical. One of the most intriguing things about Herbert is that he sang his poems--and not just those that have become some of the best-loved hymns in the English language, such as "Teach me, my God and King,/In all things thee to see" and "Let all the world in every corner sing/My God and King". Drury has a well-tuned ear for Herbert's rhythms, leavening his biographical narrative with metrical analysis of a kind that is rarely seen in literary criticism today. …