- Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury
It is a measure of the humility that George Herbert attained over his lifespan of less than forty years that, when dying, he left his friend Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding the choice of publishing or burning The Temple, his collection of English poems: ‘for I and it are the least of God’s mercies’. Even allowing for the hagiographical tendencies of his biographer, Izaak Walton, Herbert’s serene gamble with literary oblivion is a rarity in the lives of great poets. [End Page 233] Add to this his practical purpose for writing – that his poems should ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’ – and his uniqueness emerges incontrovertibly.
Music at Midnight interweaves a deeply researched account of the poet’s ‘world’ with expositions of his best English poems, most of which lack precise dates of composition. John Drury discusses the poems, quoted in full, in relation to their known chronology, but primarily as they illuminate Herbert’s sequential attitudes and vocations, which Drury deduces from contemporary documents. ‘Love (III)’, the last poem in The Temple and Herbert’s ‘masterpiece’ (p. 1), opens the discussion and announces its theme-based method. It is high praise to be able to say that Herbert would have approved of this book.
The first ground for approval is truth, in that Drury weighs the evidence before endorsing or rejecting Walton’s ‘rapturous paragraph[s]’ (p. 199) on Herbert’s holiness. He reveals the young Herbert’s prissy concern with clothes and cleanliness, his over-valuing of his noble birth, his academic ambitions, and anxious manoeuvrings for the Cambridge University Oratorship, and his retreat, after ordination as deacon, into a limbo of indecision. Drury shows too that while Herbert’s ordination as priest and preferment to the parish of Bemerton was the outward sign of a spiritual breakthrough, it was not the beginning, as Walton asserted, ‘of the great sanctity of the short remainder of his holy life’. In fact, Herbert continued to struggle. The best evidence that he finally attained fulfilment is again his deathbed letter to Ferrar, where, quoting from the Order for Morning Prayer, he affirms that he has found ‘perfect freedom’ in Christ’s service.
Secondly, Herbert would have approved Drury’s directing of his book to an inclusive readership at every level of literary and theological sophistication, and of every religious brand or none. Expositions of the poems begin with the basics, explaining terms like ‘trochee’ and quoting scriptural and other allusions, but they go on to examine musical and mimetic techniques, and to explore both the heights of Herbert’s thinking and the depths of his spirituality. For example, Drury shows how ‘The Flower’ follows the narrator’s ‘errant intellectual and emotional stages’ on the way to discovering the ‘necessary truth’ that acceptance of ‘human mutability and mortality’ is an essential basis for happiness (p. 318); and his despair when reciprocity and dialogue with God fail in ‘Grief’ (p. 334).
Music at Midnight is a heartfelt and refreshing study, a gift for Herbert enthusiasts and first-time readers alike. For old debates over ‘metaphysical’ poetry, it substitutes a lively account of Herbert’s family friendship with John Donne, basing its approach on T. S. Eliot’s assertion of 1962, that ‘what is important is to apprehend the particular virtue, the unique flavour’ of Herbert and other poets of ‘the school of Donne’. Drury evades both the [End Page 234] Scylla of popularising his subject for an audience whose interests are religious only, and the Charybdis of abstract sociological analysis riddled by jargon, which is surely inappropriate here. The hardback edition, with its illustrations and endpaper reproductions of John Speed’s 1616 maps of Middlesex and Wiltshire, is heartening evidence that the art of making fine books continues to flourish even in the Internet age. Descending directly from F. E. Hutchinson’s edition (Oxford...