John Drury’s Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Allen Lane 2013) is an excellent addition to Herbert studies. Colour plates, integrated illustrations and maps of the places in Herbert’s life, lavishly augment the book, which is the result of extensive immersion in the life and its world.
Unlike Herbert’s contemporary, John Donne, there has been no new biography since Amy Charles’ A Life of George Herbert in 1977. There is a lack of documentation of Herbert’s short life, the last four years of which were spent as rector of Bemerton with Fugglestone, just outside Salisbury, midway between Wilton House and the Cathedral. The Wilton House, home of the earls of Pembroke, archive now at Trowbridge Library, is sadly depleted of references to Mary, Countess of Pembroke and her poetic school, which attracted Spenser and Drayton, let alone Shakespeare who may have performed As You Like It there in 1605, and Herbert. Of the earliest biographies, Izaak Walton’s was no more than fifty pages of notes, published in 1670, and, John Aubrey’s, also written decades after Herbert’s death, is unreliable in terms of historical accuracy. From scanty information, Drury weaves the known details of Herbert’s life into its cultural world and his poetry, which existed only in manuscript form until The Temple appeared in 1633 after Herbert’s death.
Drury centres his understanding of the poetry in the movement towards, ‘Love III’, the pivotal poem in Herbert’s oeuvre, ‘Love bade me welcome: but my soul drew back/ Guilty of dust and sin’ exploring the inherent conflict in the life towards the final realization that God wishes man to return to pure love as a token of his non-conditional love, as being ‘saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth England’. Herbert is shown as a man torn between worldly ambition and the spiritual life of love recording his inner journey through the anguishes of grief, disappointment, hope, despair, anger and longing in his poetry.
Drury is good in setting out the relationship between poetry and music, the state of the Church of England, impact of the King James Bible, Herbert’s family and educational connections to poetry and music, the ways that words were enunciated during Herbert’s life and the way Herbert’s poems breathe. I love the dramatic and musical nature of Herbert’s poetry, their plain speech, which draw the reader deeply into their conflicted world, and have walked the terrain of his final years between Bemerton and the Cathedral many times. St. Andrew’s Church at Bemerton, which has a literary heritage after Herbert, is tiny; a holy enclave now surrounded by roads, with a distinct atmosphere. It is well worth visiting for a compact sense of Herbert prostrate across the floor before the altar. It seems to hold the drama of Herbert’s poetry intact. The old rectory, a few steps away, is now a private house. The water meadows, with their irrigation system of channels, ditches and sluice gates, between Fisherton and Harnham mills, from where John Constable painted the Cathedral views, are still functioning and recently flooded in much the same way as in Herbert’s time. Drury is good at showing how experience of the waterways, intensive sheep farming, entered Herbert’s poetry in the form of metaphor. The winter soaking of the meadows provided good sheep grazing in the spring. ‘Sheep eat the grass and dung the ground for more’ as Herbert noted in the poem, ‘Providence’. Drury is good at reading less well-known poems in relation to Herbert’s understanding of music’s role and function, and the music of Dowland and Byrd, which Herbert would have encountered inside and outside of Salisbury Cathedral.
Drury offers close, informed readings of most of the poems as well as adding flesh to the outlines of Herbert’s life, his handsome bona roba wife, Jane Danvers, and connections. It is a fine book.
David Caddy 9th March 2014