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Book review: George Herbert and Early Modern Musical Culture by Simon Jackson

17 November 2023

Herbert’s music life is of literary significance, says Jonathan Arnold

“RISE heart; thy Lord is risen.” Many of us may have heard or sung the poetry of the 17th-century priest and poet George Herbert, perhaps set to music by Vaughan Williams, as this poem, “Easter”, was. But we may not have reflected on how Herbert and his lyric poetry were powerfully influenced by music itself.

Simon Jackson’s new scholarly work immerses us in Herbert’s musical world and argues convincingly that Herbert’s interest in, and practice of, music pervades his poetic art. Jackson emphasises Herbert’s love not just of sacred music, but also of recreational secular music. Herbert, like many in his family, was an accomplished musician, as a viol-player, lutenist, singer, and composer. Herbert’s “lived experience” of music was one that was fully interactive with society. Jackson argues that Herbert’s outlook was guided by sound, and, as a result, the power of his lyric poetry is enhanced.

We are taken on a tour of the musical influences on Herbert, from Augustine’s treatise De Musica, with its emphasis on both the aesthetic and ethical qualities of music, to the sociable domestic song culture found among the coterie at Wilton House, home of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. The secular and entertaining “visual music” of the Stuart court masque also influenced Herbert’s visually conceived poems, as much as Herbert’s own family, especially his eldest brother Edward, and the talented Sydney family.

Herbert, of course, loved sacred music, through which the “double motion”, or tension between performing and listening, plain and elaborate styles, harmony and dissonance, are synthesised into a single harmony, as much as he loved the Psalms: songs that are at once personal and public, for private devotional and communal singing.

This is an important book for our understanding of Herbert. Jackson persuades us, through weight of evidence and careful argument, that Herbert was not just influenced by sacred church music, but that he had a lived experience of a wide breadth of recreational music which helped to shape his poetic art. I, for one, found myself warming to Herbert as a person. He enjoyed good company and sociable music-making. He sounds like fun. But such secular entertainment could also reveal profound theological understanding.

Herbert’s lyric art was founded on musical principles of dynamic antagonism, in which the sacred and secular, body and soul, human and divine are dynamically unified. As Herbert’s poetry puts it,


My musick shall finde thee, and ev’ry string
Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
And prove one God, one harmonie.

The Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold is Executive Director of the Social Justice Network, diocese of Canterbury, a professional singer, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent.


George Herbert and Early Modern Musical Culture
Simon Jackson
Cambridge University Press £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

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