Comfort For Sad Souls

George Herbert is the poet’s poet. John Drury’s biography is at times infuriatingly simplistic, but succeeds in its scholarship

Books Literature
George Herbert: The Anglican poet-priest lived both a public and an inner spiritual life 

Urban myth has it that someone walked into a high street jeweller to buy a gold cross and the shop assistant asked, “Do you want a plain one or the one with the little man on?” If true, the story must resonate with John Drury: Music at Midnight takes it sadly for granted that modern readers of George Herbert are no longer attuned to Jesus Christ as a sign, asking, “Is this a problem?”

The title Music at Midnight refers to an anecdote told by Izaak Walton, Herbert’s first biographer. On his way to join some musician friends, Herbert stopped to help a man whose horse had fallen under its load. The usually “trim and clean” Herbert was soon covered in mud and, arriving at his destination, promptly questioned about his appearance. His answer was that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight. Herbert said, “I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for the occasion.” The anecdote nicely encapsulates several strands in Drury’s Life: the musicality of Herbert’s verse, the fastidiousness of the man, how the poetry still has the capacity to comfort sad souls, and how Christianity proved the motivating force in Herbert’s life.

Born in 1593 into an aristocratic and well-connected family, Herbert seemed destined for high office at court but after a series of personal crises, including the loss of his beloved mother, he turned instead to the Anglican priesthood. Herbert’s poetry is shot through with Christian symbolism and Drury suspects that for it to retain some appeal for generations to whom Jesus is nothing more than “the little man” on a crucifix, the sacred references within the secular must be made palatable.

As a biblical scholar and Chaplain and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, Drury is adept at catching religious intonation in Herbert’s verse, what he calls the “religious meta-narrative”. For those who might doubt the ability of a biblical scholar to “do” literature, Drury comes to the task refreshingly free from any theoretical tics acquired in the modern English faculty and instead reads the poetry as a critic who knows why people continue to read Herbert: poetry need be no more than spiritual succour in moments of dejection. “The modern reader,” he says, “can be free from intellectual reserve and enjoy Herbert’s poetry (to use his own word) ‘heart deep’.”

Coleridge, who knew all about dejection, claimed “substantial comfort” from reading Herbert. It helped his “tendency to self-contempt”. Yet Coleridge thought only a Christian, “an affectionate and dutiful child of the Church”, could really understand Herbert because “religion is the element in which he lives, and the region in which he moves”. “So it is,” remarks John Drury before dryly noting that some of Herbert’s most sympathetic critics have not been dutiful children of the Church: “Indeed, in recent times, this has been spectacularly so.”

Drury writes to those who, like the shop assistant of urban myth, are spectacularly unaware of the Christian narrative within their culture. The reader gets an explanation of the poem “H. Baptisme (II)” as “In the sacrament of Holy Baptism children were, and are, named and admitted into the fellowship of the Christian Church.” A line in “The Cross” — “Thy will be done” — is glossed: “The Christian’s familiar daily prayer goes ‘Our Father…’ etc. Or (my personal favourite) “‘Suit’ in the second line is a word Herbert used for courtship, usually of putting his case to God — not for posh clothes.” If anyone doubts the level of ignorance that might necessitate such exegeses there are sadly all too many teachers, examiners and lecturers who can testify in Drury’s defence. As Orwell said, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men” (and women).

It does raise the question of Drury’s ideal readership. Is this Life written for posterity, imagining a time when all criticism will require restatement of the obvious? Is it for future undergraduates skulking in a college library and riffling through the index for those few pages covering the poem on their syllabus? Or is it written for a more sophisticated audience, of the kind who might readily buy a hardback literary biography and read it from start to finish? That this is published by Allen Lane suggests a more commercial appeal but it’s hard to imagine the average consumer of literary biography needs such extensive signposting, unless Britain is more culturally bankrupt than previously thought possible.

Allen Lane was presumably quick to pick up on the commercial potential of Drury’s thesis: “The primacy of love over theology…is a major reason for the hold Herbert’s Christian poetry has on modern readers — secular and even atheist as they may be.” For Drury it doesn’t matter if the reader can’t access the theological framework, everyone can understand love. Herbert “put in less religious terms” is all about love and Drury, true son of the Church of England, is keen to put things in less religious terms if it means getting the general idea over, even when that could come across as capitulation. As a strategy it’s well-meaning but flawed: “In ‘Dialogue’ the apparatus of Christian myth, doctrine and devotion are subordinated to Herbert’s arch-topic of love. The reader needs only some experience of love’s happiness, storms and conflicts and a willingness to be truthful about them to engage with such poetry.” Thus with one sentence Drury obviates the entire reason for his own book.

The strength of Music at Midnight is Drury’s close textual analysis and in this regard he’s a better guide to the poetry than some literary critics, at least the ones who forget the virtues of keeping it clear and simple. His feel for the delicate interplay of form and content is reminiscent of the brilliantly perceptive Helen Vendler (Drury clearly admires her style of literary criticism), and experiencing Herbert as a technician through Drury’s expert guidance is one of the book’s biggest rewards. He isn’t above getting down to good old English iambic pentameters and showing how they reveal important themes, how “the form suits the matter”. Herbert’s “fine poetic thrift” in this regard is what makes him the poet’s poet. Drury notes, “When I told James Fenton that I was occupied with Herbert he exclaimed ‘The Poet!’ and explained, ‘Both in intention and execution’.”

Drury’s scholarship is old school in all the best ways. He goes to archival material, unpicks palimpsests, brings experience to bear, and shares his findings with generosity and evident love for his subject. At times the structure is a little awkward to assimilate from the reader’s point of view, yet forgiveable when taken as the hazard not only of marrying the scholarly with the commercial but also drawing the life out of the poetry, particularly when exact dates of poetical composition are hard to come by.

Key poems are used to illustrate certain stages in Herbert’s development; by and large this approach works as a way of containing the linear life and cyclical rhythm of the Christian year. Drury notes that Herbert’s life “had ‘a double motion’. He lived an ordinary life, a public life going ‘straight’ through time and with it. Simultaneously, he lived an inner or hidden life, obliquely set on his ‘Master’, Christ who was ‘on high’.” Lest the word Christ scare anyone off, Drury adds: “Put in less specifically religious terms, this is about everybody’s preoccupation with getting through the day as best one can, while at the same time having an ‘eye’ to the overall parabola of one’s destiny, of what one would ideally hope to be.” One can’t help having an eye to the overall parabola of Britain’s cultural destiny.