Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury, Allen Lane, 396 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-1846142482
“Even when timeless in quality, poetry owes a good deal of that quality to its particular time and place,” writes John Drury in this new book. Poetry, in other words, cannot be abstracted from the context of composition. On the contrary, it needs to be replaced in a historical perspective to be fully understood. In this rather short and inconspicuous sentence, meant as a fleeting transition in the introduction, Drury casually takes position in a long-running critical debate, one side of which went as far as to proclaim the death of the author at the end of the 1960s. There is no such challenge to the traditional reading of a poet’s work in Music at Midnight: the Poetry and Life of George Herbert, and as is evident in the title, Drury focuses on both Herbert the man and the poet together. Over nearly four hundred pages, he tells us the story of the seventeenth century English poet, from birth up to death, and does so in great detail. All the while, the life of George Herbert is used as a backdrop to read his poetry, and to gain better understanding of the relationship between the texts – with which many readers will be familiar – and the circumstances in which they were written. In many respects a conventional book in its methods and approaches, Music at Midnight is an enlightening example of the ways in which literary history can enrich our reading of canonical writers, and Drury certainly succeeds in bringing a poet back to life for the twenty-first century reader.
The story begins in 1593, with Herbert’s birth to an aristocratic family in Montgomery, on the border between England and Wales. The setting quickly changes, however, to Charing Cross in London, where the family settled after the death of his father. There the young George grew up surrounded by intellectuals and artists who would have a profound influence on his work, not least John Donne, a regular visitor to his mother’s salon, and a lifelong friend of hers. At Westminster School, he would also briefly meet Lancelot Andrewes, the famous linguist and one of the translators of the King James Bible. In 1609, elected to Trinity College at the age of sixteen, Herbert moved to Cambridge, where he would remain for the next fifteen years. It was there that he made the decision to devote himself to the composition of religious poetry. In a letter to his mother dated 1610 he wrote, after a bout of illness (his health was fragile throughout his life):
But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs by which scholars say the Muses use to take up their habitations. However, I need not their help to reprove the vanity of the many love poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus, nor to bewail that so few are writ that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning, dear mother, is in these sonnets to declare my resolution to be that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory; and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.
Herbert was rather stern for his age, rejecting the love poetry in fashion in his days and preferring theological topics. But he was a complex character, and his religious vocation was not as assured as one might think. Upon graduation in 1613, Herbert, Drury tells us, found himself torn between religion and his professional ambitions. Should he fight for the position of university orator and lead a public life that could potentially bring him success at court, or should he focus on his devotion? In some ways, he did both in his brief adult life. Elected to the oratorship at Cambridge in 1620, he remains famous for his oration to the king on October 8th, 1623. The historical context was fraught. In the late 1610s religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants had started to brew, and James I sent his son Charles to Spain with the Earl of Buckingham, on a mission that meant to see him marry the Infanta. The whole affair was a complete failure, and it is in this strained political climate that Herbert was asked to make an official speech upon their return. In a feat of rhetoric discussed at length by Drury, Herbert sided with James I, taking a pacifist stance, while Charles, the heir to the throne, was advocating war with Spain. Ultimately, this may have compromised his chance of secular success, although he only resigned from the oratorship in 1628. What is most clear is that his political career never really took off, despite stints in parliament.
The years to come would prove difficult, as he was subject to periods of sickness and personal crises regarding his sense of purpose in life, and lost his dear mother in 1627. His second career, albeit very limited in time, saw him working as a country parson in rural Wiltshire, at Bemerton, and married to Jane Danvers. There, between 1630 and 1633, when he died aged thirty-nine, he was actively engaged in his local community, and in addition to poetry wrote what was later entitled, upon publication in 1652, A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson – a practical guide for the clergy based on his experience.
Herbert did not publish his English poems during his lifetime: the collection known as The Temple results from the efforts of his close friend, Nicholas Ferrar, to publish the manuscript which the poet had entrusted to him on his deathbed, with the note that “if he think it may turn to the advantage to any dejected poor soul, let it be made public”. Enjoying immediate recognition, his work soon inspired writers such as Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan, and as early as 1670 the man himself was eulogised by Izaak Walton in the first of many volumes on his life.
Drury’s detailed biography is often gripping as narrative, while remaining true to the complexity of Herbert’s personality. Tension is at its highest when he discusses Herbert’s 1623 oration against the pressurised political background of the time, and Music at Midnight is, surprisingly, a real page-turner. Even when Herbert’s life seems less eventful, Drury manages to convey the subtleties of his existence, and to give us a sense of the man’s inner life. With letters written by and to Herbert, historical maps and modern photographs of the areas in which the story takes place, as well as reproductions of paintings representing his relatives, the poet, his friends and surroundings come to life. Anecdotes too contribute to the liveliness of the portrayal, and reveal a man sometimes caught up in issues that still resonate in today’s context. In an endearing and somewhat amusing passage, which might echo painful situations lived by the reader (especially those of us engaged in the study of humanities), the young Herbert is seen struggling to make ends meet, and certainly to be lacking funds to buy the expensive books he wants to read as a student of theology. Quoting the letter in full in which he asks his stepfather, Sir John Danvers, for more financial support, Drury not only gives us access to a valuable historical document; he also creates a vivid representation of a long-gone poet to which the modern reader might relate. Those minute details, of which there are many more, might be secondary to the main narrative, but they play an essential role in making Music at Midnight a very pleasurable read.
The biography is interspersed with close readings of specific texts, showing how the poet’s experiences have informed his work. This is a remarkable achievement: the poems are indeed rarely dated, having been published only posthumously, and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to precisely identify their year of composition. Using many sources, among which the Williams Manuscript, an important notebook in which Herbert copied his poems around 1623, is the object of a whole chapter, Drury manages to organise the poems in a chronological sequence and to give his reader a clear sense of the ways in which Herbert’s can be read as an “autobiographical poetry”. This comes across very clearly, as each poem is minutely contextualised and biblical and historical references explained. Guiding the reader’s appreciation of the text, Drury always makes sure to draw attention to its most interesting features, and to highlight its poetic qualities or, on the other hand, its failings. In this sense, the book can be vdidactic, especially when Drury sets out to explain the rules of English prosody and the different metres available to Herbert. One might wonder if such precision here was necessary: who would be interested in reading a book on the life and work of a famous seventeenth century poet but not know the rudiments of poetic analysis and composition?
In the end, it all stems from Drury’s desire to convince an audience as large as possible of George Herbert’s relevance for the contemporary world and of his importance in the English literary tradition. Elsewhere, he insists on the poet’s influence on later writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, TS Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop and invites us to consider him as more than a mere religious poet, pointing towards other aspects of the work, such as music, the art of the miniature and even sensuality. Both informative and entertaining, Music at Midnight is a very accessible introduction to the life and work of one of the major poets in the English tradition. It is also one of those rare books which can appeal both to specialists of English poetry, who will certainly learn from Drury’s expertise on the topic, and to the general readership and students with an interest in literature. Underneath its apparent simplicity and clarity of style lies the work of a true scholar, whose enthusiasm for his subject is evident in his writing and in his willingness to share his passion for the poet with a non-specialist audience. Readers will find certainly themselves transported to the world of George Herbert, and will close the book enriched by a deeper understanding of his life and work.
Florence Impens completed a PhD on classical reception in contemporary Irish poetry at Trinity College, Dublin in 2013. She is one of the contributors to the forthcoming four-volume Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, where she will discuss the Classics and Irish poetry after 1960.