IN EASTER WEEK in 1938,
Simone Weil sat in the Benedictine abbey at Solesmes, soaking up
the plainchant. She needed it. With her life and work at an
impasse, stricken by intense and debilitating headaches, and as
Europe stood on the verge of catastrophe, she recited to herself a
poem she later declared "the most beautiful poem in the world".
Under the spell of that
poem, she felt, to her astonishment, "a presence more personal,
more certain, and more real than that of a human being". The
encounter changed her life, and the lives of many since, because it
was the start of her journey to become one of the great writers of
the 20th century - a unique modern mystic. When I first read that
story in my twenties - already captivated by Weil's work - I found
myself nonplussed by its key detail. The "greatest poem in the
world", Weil said, was George Herbert's "Love III".
I did not doubt the power of
poetry. Donne's "Batter my heart . . ." could change a life, I was
sure; but Herbert seemed to me to lack the raw voltage of Donne.
Like many of my generation, I was introduced to both Donne and
Herbert at school through Helen Gardner's Metaphysical
Poets anthology. And, like many, I was captivated by Donne,
but found Herbert's poems, by comparison, quiet and pious.
"Young people prefer Donne,
because he writes about sex, and Herbert never does," Herbert's
biographer, the Very Revd John Drury, says. And it is hard to argue
DRURY is Chaplain and Fellow
of All Souls College, Oxford, a literary and biblical scholar whose
remarkable Music at Midnight (Allen Lane, £25) is the
fruit of years of painstaking work on Herbert's life and poetry.
Sitting at a book-stacked table in his study, with Herbert's
Collected Poems open on a book stand in front of us, I
make my confession to John.
Since my teens, I have loved
Donne, and respected Herbert. But in recent years, I have started
to see them in reverse. The harder you look at Donne's work, the
more control and mastery you see there. In Herbert, the formal
virtuosity seems borne out of urgency and desperation. His poems
are exploratory, risky ventures, full of turmoil and uncertainty,
attempts to control the volatility of his inner life. In the words
of Robert Frost, each poem is "a momentary stay against confusion",
and, in that, they seem vital, intimate.
"Herbert's is a quieter
voice than Donne's; that's true," Drury says, "but he's far more
affected by doubt and anxiety. His outer life was pretty
uneventful, but his inner life was no picnic." It is a point made
by several reviewers about Music at Midnight: the way this
book - rooted as much in the poems as the life - renders Herbert's
inner turmoil, and his struggles with God and himself, so vividly,
despite the apparent lack of biographical "events".
Herbert's was a life of
outward comfort and privilege. Educated at Westminster School and
Cambridge, he had a glittering university career, and looked set to
become a wealthy establishment figure before a crisis of vocation
sent him into Anglican ministry. He married late, but happily, and
died at the age of 39, bequeathing a batch of poems to his close
friend Nicholas Ferrar, who became the custodian of Herbert's
BUT, as Drury's book makes
clear, you cannot understand the making of Herbert the poet without
paying attention to his extraordinary mother.
Magdalen Herbert was (for
most of George's childhood) a widow bringing up ten children. There
was family money, which helped Magdalen to move the family to
Oxford and London in pursuit of the best education for her
children. But that is only half the story. Magdalen was very
beautiful, sociable, clever, and depressive. George was devoted to
her, and he was not the only one.
Drury cites three months in
their house at Charing Cross, when she hosted 96 visitors,
including politicians, poets, and the famous composer William Byrd.
Among the poet-visitors was Donne, a generation older than George,
but a devoted friend of his mother. Was Donne in love with her? It
is not un- likely, given his regular visits, and the fact that she
became a key muse and dedicatee of his work.
And it is equally hard to
imagine young George not reading, and not being influenced by, the
sheaves of poems by this older poet so treasured by his mother. As
Drury explains, you cannot read much of Herbert's work without
seeing the influence of Magdalen: "There's the Church as mother,
the idea of mother-and-child as the ideal relationship, the idea
that childhood means health. He was very mother-obsessed."
And, through Magdalen's
devotion to her children, George was introduced to his great,
abiding theme - love. Drury argues persuasively that "love" is the
supreme value for Herbert, of greater value than the Church, than
all of theology - greater value, even, than God. And this gives his
poetry a lasting appeal for atheist and believer alike, since, as
Drury puts it: "Love is everyone's ultimate and constant
And he goes on to consider
how, in Herbert's famous first line of "Love III" ("Love bade me
welcome: yet my soul drew back"), "it would suffer if its first
word were 'God' rather than love".
I ASK whether their shared
vocation as Anglican priests was a particular bond between
biographer and subject. "Being a priest doesn't obtrude much in his
poetry," Drury says. "He's concerned with being a man facing the
presence or absence of God."
But what about the tension -
felt strongly by that other great priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins
- between the callings of priest and poet, the pull between
selflessness and self-absorption?
"His poetry is a way of
sorting all that out. Herbert lived at a very anguished time to be
a Christian. Post-Reformation. It had become a personal struggle,
and he used the poetry to clear his mind, to seek that elusive
But what about the impact of
subject on biographer? Claire Tomalin has written about the
particular strangeness of living "other people's lives", and Drury
clearly agrees: "He became a voice in my head. But even then you
never quite master all of his poems, because you keep reading them
in new ways. His craftsmanship is absolutely amazing."
It is no surprise to learn
that Drury is currently working on a new annotated edition of
Herbert's poems, since there is so much brilliant textual analysis
in Music at Midnight. But that prompts the question often
asked of poets - should not the work stand by itself?
"The poems can stand alone,"
Drury re- plies, "but you understand more when you know something
of the life."
And that makes sense of the
book to me. More than most literary biographies, this one starts
with the work, and moves out into the life. It is a method that
Drury has used before, when working on religious paintings for the
National Gallery: "I would take a Herbert poem, then read out from
it into his life at the time.
"So, for example, his poem
'Dialogue' [a conversation between God and a human being] can be
read in the light of the regular disputations he had to attend in
DRURY explains, in the
chapter on Herbert at Cambridge, how these formal intellectual
sparring sessions, when students were made to defend or attack a
particular premise, left a lasting mark on Herbert. As the critic
Helen Vendler points out, conversation in all its forms - argument,
pleading, persuasion, intimate confiding - is the essential heart
of Herbert's poetry, a craving for intimate friendship with
Herbert was, as Drury's book
beautifully depicts, a mystic. He was never enslaved to theology,
but longed for direct access to, and experience of, the God of
love. If that makes him sound as "untouchable" as Weil, who
famously shunned physical contact, and tried to live as pure a life
of the mind and spirit as possible, then there is plenty of detail
in Drury's account to complicate that view.
Mystic he may have been, but
he was also fastidiously tidy, and was known at Cambridge as a
dandyish dresser. He was a highly skilled lutenist who, Drury
speculates, "would have liked to be a Dean, with a nice house and
fine cathedral music".
He died a month short of his
40th birthday, probably of tuberculosis, having called for his lute
the day before, and sung some of his poems to his wife and
I still love the Donne of
"Death, be not proud", but, although Herbert's voice is quieter,
and his struggles are shot through more with anguish than anger,
his strange, rich, troubling music seems to me now more
contemporary, more urgent, more unfathomable.
I will leave the last words
to the late, great Seamus Heaney: "In the clear element of George
Herbert's poetry is a true paradigm of the shape of things."
Michael Symmons Roberts
is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. His
latest collection Drysalter (Cape, 2013) won the Forward
Music at Midnight: The life
and poetry of George Herbert, by John Drury, is published by
Allen Lane. Ronald Blythe reviews it here.