Poet tuned to heaven's humility

George Herbert

Giving equal weight to the man and his work, this is the perfect introduction to a parson-poet who has fallen out of fashion. This review of a biography one critic called ‘enthralling’ and ‘incomparable’ appeared in The Tablet.

Music at Midnight: The life and poetry of George Herbert by John Drury (Allen Lane)

Reviewed by Mark Oakley

Ah my dear angry Lord,

Since thou dost love, yet strike;

Cast down, yet help afford;

Sure, I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve:

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament, and love.

The priest-poets John Donne and George Herbert are both given lesser festivals in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar. Whereas Donne is admired, Herbert is, perhaps, the more loved.

Donne’s famous ‘conceits’ (which made Simmel Goldberg comment that ‘his brain went to his head’), and his anguished soul in which we detect a man who believes his salvation partly lies in his own hands, give clear evidence that we are reading a poet of ability, self-scrutiny and spiritual perception.

To read Herbert, with his similar gifts, feels different though. Here we encounter a poet whose audacious familiarity and direct honesty with his creator is rooted in a confidence that his salvation is totally secured in this God who may disappear and disappoint from time to time but who, at the end of the day, is his friend.

Herbert’s God is the beckoning Love who makes reality ultimately trustworthy and prayer the business of gratitude. Samuel Coleridge read the poems of George Herbert to convert, he said, his own ‘tendency to self-contempt … a sense of the utter disproportionateness of all I can call me, to the promises of the Gospel. ‘

The poet Michael Longley famously said that if he knew where poems came from he’d go and live there. Readers of Herbert have been unsure where to turn for a fresh understanding of the context of his poems – the life of a privileged man in remarkable times who ‘lost himself in humble way’ and ended his years as a parish priest in a relatively young Church of England.

This is an important pursuit if, as TS Eliot remarked of Herbert, "every poem is in tune to the poet’s experience".

Help is now at hand. John Drury, chaplain and fellow of All Souls, Oxford, has written a clear and accessible biography that also examines the poems with an acute sensitivity to their language and to their flickering communion with the divine.

 There are 173 poems in Herbert’s 1633 collection, The Temple, and Drury provides incisive commentary on half of them. He is sensitive to readers without historical, literary or theological knowledge. A good poem has an initial splash of words and then the ripples relentlessly make their way out towards your shore.

Historically, too, the ripples pan out and towards the end Drury explores how the generations have not only interpreted Herbert but sought to imitate his wit, style and candour.

George Herbert was born in 1593 to a distinguished and impressive mother (Donne preached her memorial sermon) and a father who was to die when Herbert was only three years old. He studied at Westminster School, coming under the influence of Lancelot Andrewes, and had a glittering career at Trinity College, Cambridge, where eventually in 1620 he was appointed the university’s orator.

His gradual withdrawing from the public stage was probably due to his own vocational self-interrogations. He married, was ordained and a little later accepted the living of Bemerton, near Salisbury. He served the parish for only three years before his death in 1633. He was only 40 years old and, apart from a few Latin verses, no poems were ever published in his lifetime. Simone Weil believed Herbert’s poem Love to be ‘le plus beau poème du monde.’

As his final word, it ends the collection of poems he sent from his deathbed to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding: ‘If he think’, he said, ‘it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it.’Luckily for us, Ferrar went nowhere near the fireplace…

Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000379/booksandart

Review in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/15/music-midnight-herbert-drury-review

Review in The Telegraph of London: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/10273466/Music-at-Midnight-the-Life-and-Poetry-of-George-Herbert-by-John-Drury-review.html

Review in The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21584300-transcendent-poetry-humble-priest-consciously-fruitful

Wikipedia on John Drury: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Drury_(priest)

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

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