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John Drury, Music at Midnight; The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 396pp.
By Dan Clendenin
When George Herbert (1593–1633) died a month shy of his fortieth birthday, none of his poems had been published. Rather, on his death bed, he gave his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, with the instructions that they be published only if they might help “any dejected poor soul.” He said his "little book" of 160-plus poems contained “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”
Ferrar published the poems just months after Herbert's death under the title The Temple. By 1680 the book had gone through 13 editions. Herbert's poetry reflects his lifelong struggle between his aristocratic background and secular ambitions, and his eventual choice to serve the last three years of his short life as a country priest in rural England. Herbert's only prose work, The Country Parson, was a reflection on his pastoral experiences.
In this book John Drury, himself an Anglican priest with a lifelong interest in Herbert, brings together Herbert's life and his poetry. That takes some creative imagination because Herbert's poems were also not dated. Herbert lived "a quiet life with a crisis in the middle of it." Born to wealth and privilege, he studied at Cambridge, where he earned a reputation for his "innate snobbery" and "ascetic temperament." He also distinguished himself as one of the best Latinists of his age (both oral and written).
After fifteen years at Cambridge as a student and then its Public Orator, with an eye toward becoming Secretary of State for England, Herbert became disillusioned. He went through a six year period that Drury calls a "crisis of identity." But "one way and another," writes Drury, "clerical life was a fulfilment, a coming to rest and social use of Herbert's resources: as gardener, scholar, poet, and counsellor." These last three years of his life as a pastor were "well-occupied and happy."
In one of the book's most interesting chapters, Drury reviews how contemporary critics, both religious and non-religious, have viewed Herbert's poetry. Drury's interpretive north star for Herbert is his poem "Love (III)." Simone Weil called it "the most beautiful poem in the world."
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
For a longer review of this book see John Carey in the New York Review of Books (October 23, 1014).