Ionce took a college course titled “Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poetry” and, like most young people, was bowled over by the poems of John Donne (1572-1631). They possess a fire and theatrical immediacy that leap from the page: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love. . . . License my roving hands. . . . Death be not proud.” It took a while for me to come round to the quieter, more God-obsessed poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633).
At first, I even attempted to read Herbert through the lens of Donne, interpreting “The Collar,” for example, as an erotic protest by a lover trying to cheer himself up after being abandoned by his mistress. It opens this way:
I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more.
I will abroad.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood . . . ?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Those last words, “But there is fruit,/ And thou hast hands,” even now suggest a carpe- diem lasciviousness.
Nonetheless, as John Drury reminds us in “Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert,” the poem is fundamentally about an unruly soul rebelling against what seem to be God’s intractable demands. After much Sturm und Drang, it ends:
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methoughts I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied, My Lord.
Drury’s analysis of “The Collar” — its title a triple pun on collar, choler and caller — reveals both the strength and weakness of his book.
“The poem is . . . a masterpiece in Herbert’s marrying of form and content. One only has to look at it: no stanzas; long, short and middling-length lines all higgledy-piggledy; rhyme-endings all over the place. It is an eruption. If we use the letters of the alphabet to denote these rhyme endings we have to go at least as far as ‘s,’ the nineteenth letter. . . . Only in the last four lines do we get a stable rhyme-scheme of abab and a settled coming-together of the line-lengths, which have previously been scattered, in a diminuendo which applies the brakes to the careering vehicle: ten syllables, followed by four, eight and six. . . . The marvel of ‘The Collar’ is that it makes a shape to fit disorder. There was, perhaps, nothing like that again until T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land.”
To appreciate Drury’s extended attention to metrics, the reader must slow down, look back at the lines of the poem and reconsider the details that he points out. Such explication, however, is labor-intensive and likely to pall after three or four poems have been so precisely discussed. Most of us are likely to perk up only when Drury asserts that there is nothing quite like “The Collar” until “The Waste Land.” Even then, one may wonder if this is true: What about, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”?
Overall, “Music at Midnight” aims to link Herbert’s poetry to his “life-experiences,” although Drury must overcome several difficulties. Most of Herbert’s work is hard, if not impossible, to date — no one is sure about the order of its composition. Nor is Herbert’s short life — he died a month before his 40th birthday — well documented. So his biographer must instead situate the poet against the backdrop of his family and his time.
The Herberts were a wealthy, aristocratic clan. One branch owned the great Elizabethan estate of Wilton. Magdalen Herbert, the poet’s charismatic mother, bore her first husband 10 children and after his death still managed to win the love of the much younger Sir John Danvers and inspire a deep and abiding affection in John Donne. (She is the subject of the latter’s masterpiece “The Autumnall”: “No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace/ As I have seen in one autumnal face.”) Herbert’s older brother Edward distinguished himself as a diplomat, courtier, poet and philosopher, as well as the author of one of the best English autobiographies.
From childhood, then, George Herbert was known to many of the great and gifted of his age. Drury writes, for instance, about the future poet’s devotion to the learned Lancelot Andrewes (who knew 15 languages) and the essayist and statesman Francis Bacon. Well educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert first aimed at an academic career and eventually rose to the important position of university orator, in charge of Latin communications. But in his mid-30s, he turned away from both academia and the world to take up the pastoral duties of a provincial Anglican clergyman. Early on, Herbert established close ties with the austere and monastic community of Little Gidding, and when he died, he left his poetry manuscripts to its head, Nicholas Ferrar, with the instructions that he should determine whether they deserved publication. Within a decade, the resulting book, commonly called “The Temple,” went through 10 editions by the time Izaak Walton composed his hagiographic brief life of its author in 1670.
Nonetheless, Herbert — like the other metaphysical poets — fell out of fashion during the 18th century. Coleridge was instrumental in his initial rediscovery, but his reputation was only firmly reestablished by Eliot. By the late 1930s, Simone Weil could claim that “Love III” was “the most beautiful poem in the world.” It begins: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/ Guilty of dust and sin.” Those who know Weil’s work will understand why she admired it so.
It is, indeed, a wonderful poem, but so are “Denial,” “Church Music,” “Affliction,” “The Pulley” and “The Flower”: “Who would have thought my shriveled heart/ Could have recovered greenness?” “Prayer” is a little tour de force, a litany of definitions: “Prayer, the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,/ God’s breath in man returning to his birth,/ The soul in paraphrase. . . .” It steadily builds to the unexpected but resounding final definition: “something understood.” And surely “Virtue” must be one of the world’s most perfect lyrics. It opens:
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
For thou must die.
Drury’s “Music at Midnight” is a thoughtful, useful book, but only those who already love Herbert are likely to have the patience to work their way through it. If you don’t know the poems, read them first, along with Walton’s beautifully written brief life. Like Emily Dickinson, Herbert is limpid and enigmatic, deeply spiritual and inexhaustible, a poet one never finishes with.
MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT
The Life and Poetry of George Herbert
By John Drury
Univ. of Chicago. 396 pp. $35