Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 416 pages

Can George Herbert’s intensely felt religious poetry be relished by modern readers who don’t share his Anglican convictions? Taking up his pen just before the English civil war, he wrote exclusively about the struggles between his soul and his God. But for the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, Herbert’s work typified the qualities of “accuracy, spontaneity, mystery” that she most valued in poetry; Seamus Heaney and James Fenton are two of the contemporary poets who hail his technical prowess.

John Drury, Herbert’s latest biographer, is also an ardent fan. He lays out his chief problem at the outset of Music at Midnight: Herbert’s was not a dramatic life. As a result of his early death in 1633 at the age of 39, he missed the turmoil of the civil war and the execution of Charles I. In fact, the central event of Herbert’s life was his decision to abort his academic career at Cambridge where he was orator, accustomed to addressing royalty, and become a parson in Bemerton, near Salisbury, in 1630.

Herbert was a member of the loose group of Stuart poets whom we now call the Metaphysicals and was a close friend of John Donne, perhaps the greatest of them. His poems play with form and metre as Herbert invents ever more fiendish structures. “Easter Wings” flaps down the page in wing-shaped stanzas, and “The Altar” is indeed altar-shaped. His virtuosity alone commands admiration.

The Temple, Herbert’s collection of poems, was an instant success when it was published shortly after his death in 1633. Popular with Puritans, it is not surprising that he was out of fashion by the Restoration; in 1676 the poet laureate John Dryden sneered at poets who “choose for thy command/ Some peaceful province in acrostic land:/ There thou mayest wings display and altars raise,/ And torture one poor word a thousand ways.”

Drury, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, structures his book around the poems, many of which he includes, making this an anthology with commentary as much as a Life. This makes sense; while the poems that make up The Temple are not datable, nor in an order selected by Herbert, and while not biographically revealing in a modern sense, they surely give an impression of his personality. One of the few things we know about Herbert is that he loved music; Drury is keen to stress the innate musicality of his verse, and some of his poems are hymns that are still sung today.

There is a hint of Herbert’s intellectual pride, and Drury prints a delightfully wheedling letter to his stepfather, asking for more money for books. Otherwise it is difficult to discern many traces and Drury fills out his tale with some sharp pen-portraits. Herbert’s mother, Magdalen, seems to have been an energetic and fascinating woman; a close friend of John Donne, she married a man 20 years her junior after the death of Herbert’s father. Sir John Danvers, the stepfather, is likewise an affectionate character.

The man to whom Herbert entrusted his unpublished poems on his deathbed, Nicholas Ferrar, founded the influential spiritual community at nearby Little Gidding. He is a gentle presence here. More vivid is John Williams, a Cambridge academic and cleric who was a favourite of James I. The affable Williams was dean of Westminster and keeper of the royal seal, and became Herbert’s mentor. Wider political currents are detectable, not least that Williams was detested by the powerful Archbishop Laud.

Many of Herbert’s poems betray a worldlier sensibility than might befit a humble parson. “I know the ways of Honour, what maintains/ The quick returns of courtesy and wit,” he writes in “The Pearl”. “I know the ways of Pleasure, the sweet strains/ The lullings and the relishes of it.” It’s poignant that in his verse, he seems so far removed from his God: a supplicant, an uneasy guest, even a torture victim.

Given Drury’s material, this book could never have been a lively Life. But it is powerfully absorbing.

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