Forbes, Malcolm, New Criterion
Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.
University of Chicago Press, 416 pages, $35
When George Herbert on his deathbed entrusted his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar for safekeeping and publication, he described them as "a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul," which might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul." The depressive nineteenth-century poet William Cowper wrote that while his "malady" could not be cured by Herbert's verse, it was at least "alleviated" by it. A century later, Coleridge admitted that Herbert afforded him "substantial comfort."
Herbert's own summary of his literary achievement, however, simultaneously encapsulates and undersells his work. Granted, readers will undoubtedly find "spiritual conflicts" in his religious poetry but, as with fellow poet-priests Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne, it would be a mistake to assume his oeuvre is purely devotional. Similarly, those dejected poor souls among us may feel shortchanged if expecting Herbert's lyrical charms to be solely restorative, the equivalent of a succor-giving tonic.
It is thus easy to misinterpret Herbert. It doesn't help that his reputation has been clouded by that of Donne, the predominant poet of that era; or that previous biographies (particularly the first from 1670 by Izaak Walton) have strayed into hagiography or been low on historical and critical analysis. Now, though, with John Drury's magnificent Music at Midnight, Herbert is given the reappraisal he deserves.
Drury's book is a careful blend of life, poetry, history, and textual analysis. For the first time, Herbert's poems are embedded in his life. As Drury explains in his preface: "The circumstances of a poet's life and times are the soil in which the work is rooted.... Understanding these enriches and clarifies the reading of the poems." That the majority of Herbert's poems are autobiographical enables Drury to flesh out Herbert's life through meticulous close readings of his art. The fact that Herbert never dated his poetry and that not one of his sermons survives means Drury frequently has to resort to educated guesswork and extrapolation. Fortunately he rises ably to the challenge. As chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford, he is equipped at illuminating the spiritual dimension of Herbert's poetry; as a balanced critic and engaged writer, he brings Herbert alive and keeps the reader rapt.
Herbert's early years are lightly sketched. Drury takes us from his birth in Mid Wales in 1593 to the family's move to London when Herbert was eight, by way of a short stay in Oxford when a young Herbert was introduced to Donne. His formative years began in earnest when he was sent to Westminster School, an institution led by the great preacher and linguist Lancelot Andrewes. There Herbert excelled in classical languages and embraced Anglican devotion, both of which informed his further study and career at Trinity College, Cambridge--his home for the next fifteen years.
It was at Cambridge that Herbert made the pivotal decision to write religious and not erotic verse. Drury singles out several poems that reveal a somewhat puritanical Herbert asking God why there is such an abundance of erotic poetry. This priggish streak would in time taper off, although the appeals to God remained a standard trope. Drury also notes that Herbert's regular involvement in theological "disputations" or debates shaped his twin vocations of poet and clergyman by honing his rhetoric, reasoning, and delivery: the basis for both future sermons and the many poems comprising for-and-against arguments between poet and Maker.
Herbert's last years were filled with significant change. He enjoyed a brief stint as a Member of Parliament, got married (despite having previously maintained that "Virginity is a higher state than Matrimony"), and became rector at Bemerton in Wiltshire. …