A Poetry of Conflict

Music at Midnightby John Drury

University Of Chicago Press. 416p $35

John Drury has pulled off quite a feat. Where previous scholars of George Herbert have focused on literary criticism or the poet’s place in history, Drury has combined the two to immerse his readers in Herbert’s world and work.

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This is difficult work for a number of reasons. First, history and literary criticism are distinct tasks with distinct tools, and one cannot unite them well if one confuses them. Second, the attempt to weave poems into their author’s life easily produces anachronism or too much psychological speculation. Third, a book could become ponderous or scattered.

Drury avoids all of these pitfalls. He weaves historical narrative and criticism seamlessly, without using one to do the other’s work; he never over-psychologizes his subject; and his book is a pleasure to read (not to mention look at, given the interesting photographs, illustrations and maps). A chaplain and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Drury also does great justice to the theological content of Herbert’s poetry. This is exactly the kind of book that lovers of history, theology or poetry will enjoy.

Herbert’s English poetry is, as he himself put it, “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that passed betwixt God and my soul.” They are clear, intimate insights into the soul of one man as he goes through life with its beauty and tragedy, one day proclaiming the greatness of the Lord and the next day lamenting his absence. But we can guess in only a few instances when exactly Herbert wrote his poems. Quite reasonably, therefore, Drury infers that they came out of the cycle of experiences that happen to us all—including the spiritual rhythms of the liturgical calendar—and connects his criticism of a particular poem to a suitable moment in Herbert’s life.

That life was a quiet one, as Drury puts it, “with a crisis in the middle.” George Herbert was born into a boisterous, hospitable family in 1593, near the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. His mother Magdalen had a great influence on him and introduced him to the literary and cultural elite of the day. John Donne was a close family friend; later in Herbert’s life he would become close to Francis Bacon.

After growing up in Oxford and London, Herbert received a fine humanist education at the Westminster School, at the time under the great linguist and theologian Lancelot Andrews, who would go on to become a leading translator of the King James Bible. At Westminster he became steeped in Latin poetry, for which he was first to gain fame. A “priggish” and “immature” undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he grew in his literary skill. Disputations in Latin were an important part of college life, which, Drury notes, helps to explain why Herbert’s poems frequently are structured as debates or dialogs.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree, Herbert went on to become a fellow of Trinity College. He found himself caught between conflicting desires: to pursue theological study and ordination to the priesthood, and to become the next orator of the university. The oratorship, a plum administrative post in which one composed speeches in Latin for grand occasions, frequently led to greater secular positions, including secretary of state. After a few public successes as a deputy orator, Herbert was chosen to assume the position. In his own time, he was better known for his Latin poetry and rhetoric, both of which are excellent though less studied today. At the height of his career, Herbert wearied of oratory and courtly life. He resigned the oratorship, married, became a priest and dutifully served his flock as a country parson for the rest of his days until his death in 1633, a month shy of 40.

Herbert’s English poems remained intimate reflections on life and God, and were published only after his death. John Donne’s poetry is grand, stormy and emotional, while Herbert valued lucidity and simplicity. The former is famous for “Batter my heart, three person’d God”; the latter for “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.” When the young John Ruskin first traveled to Florence, he wrote that he became more pious because of reading Herbert first and secondarily from seeing Fra Angelico.

A comparison of the two is apt, for each creates a scene of quiet beauty that reflects theological truth. Fra Angelico’s theology was that of late medieval Catholicism, while Herbert was a quintessential Anglican, keeping to the middle ground between Archbishop Laud and the Puritans. In his treatise on pastoral care, for instance, Herbert greatly valued traditional religious festivals, processions and blessings: “In the time of Popery, the Priest’s Benedicite, and his holy water, were over highly valued; and now we are fallen to the clean contrary, even from superstition to coldness, and atheism.” Remaining skeptical of speculative theology’s ability to achieve clarity, he placed greater value on charity, intimacy with God through prayer and pastoral work than doctrinal rectitude. Herbert sometimes seems so contemporary that if one were to make any criticism of the book, one might ask where Herbert’s religion ends and Drury’s begins. The sacraments and the person of Jesus, not to mention the realities of sin and atonement, seem more essential to Herbert’s faith than perhaps Drury makes them out to be.

That question should not detract from Drury’s achievement, however. Few critics could explain with sympathy and accuracy the theological allusions and puns of “Matins” and “Evensong,” Herbert’s understanding of sin and evil in “Sin (II)” or how he articulates Augustine’s theology of love as a weight in “The Pulley.” For his careful, lucid and comprehensive work, scholars and armchair readers alike should give Drury great thanks.

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