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Behind the Herbert legend

29 November 2013

©ADAM CUSACK/G17 PHOTOGRAPHY

Grandeur: Herbert's mother put this tomb in Montgomery Church for herself and her husband, but was buried in Chelsea Old Church. From the book

Grandeur: Herbert's mother put this tomb in Montgomery Church for herself and her husband, but was buried in Chelsea Old Church. From the book

JOHN DRURY's remarkable book Music at Midnight: The life and poetry of George Herbert (Allen Lane £25 (£22.50); 978-1-846-14248-2) tells us more about Herbert, the Church of England's greatest "voice", as it were, than one could ever have hoped for. Ordinands should put it at the top of their reading list. And so, indeed, should most of us. It fills in the yawning gaps thrillingly.

Drury will not even allow us to think of the poet's having a short life, dying as he did in his 39th year, but reminds us that this was a full-enough span in the 17th century. Among many other things, Music at Midnight is a fascinating account of a classical education. And the famous story of Herbert the aristocrat's preferring tumbledown Bemerton to somewhere suitable to his rank is also given a corrective. All in all, Herbert steps from this lively retelling of one of the most popular stories in Anglican literature a new man, so to speak. The legend has been examined, and we have an exciting reality.

Herbert's background was both privileged and sophisticated to a degree, and there was no hope of his abandoning it for some kind of monkish simplicity. Both his and his mother's Christ had to be a natural part of it. Drury's task has been to redefine the man, the artist, and the saint, and he succeeds beyond all expectation.

Not the least of the biography's strengths is its full account of "learning", "holiness", "domesticity", "religion", etc., as they were understood then. Drury moves around in what, to us, is a very mannered world, one filled with pitfalls and enormous duties, fears, and in a timescale that we can barely comprehend. And through all this the reader can see the Church of England becoming the institution we have today. Herbert spoke of being "enticed" by his Jesus; and we are enticed by the way in which he wrote about him.

Raciness accompanies holiness in Herbert's world - or at least in the telling of it. And the English language is at its most glorious. His mother, Magdalen, would expect Jesus to come to dinner, and would lay a place for him. They all adored gardening, proverbs, and prayer.

Herbert and his friend Nicholas Ferrar would cast vivid Christian beams into the 20th century with T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding. And with a handful of hymns. There is no escaping these two friends.

Music at Midnight reminds us that Her-bert described prayer as "a kind of tune". It carries within it a full score, as it were, of his existence, rounding it up and letting it sound in our ears. Here is his Cambridge, his Bemerton, and his mother's Charing Cross, his brother's gardens, and their Saviour. It was not a simple life by any means, as Drury explains.

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