The weeks have moved on and Easter draws slowly nearer. One of the books that I started at the beginning of Lent, Christ in the Wilderness is now finished and I am reading the biography of George Herbert, the metaphysical, mystic poet; Music at Midnight by John Drury.
Church-goers will know Herbert’s poems because so many of them have been set to music and feature in Church Hymnals, both in Songs of Praise and Hymns Ancient and Modern. These are but a few of the collection published after his death and called The Temple. The following hymns have words written by Herbert:
Enrich, Lord, heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity:
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.
Come, my way, my truth, my life:
Such a way as gives us breath,
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
King of glory, King of peace,
I will love thee;
Let all the world in every corner sing,
My God and King!
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed;
While he is mine and I am his,
What can I want or need?
These are just the hymns, they are the merest flavour of the body of his work. From his education at Westminster School and then at Trinity College, Cambridge Herbert became an erudite and skilled writer of verse in English and in Latin. Poets writing at the same time as George Herbert in England were John Donne, Henry King and several others.
John Drury has brought to bear upon the subject, all the people and circumstances that influenced George Herbert, notably his mother Magdalen Herbert, John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes and his step-father Sir John Danvers, without trying to artificially mesh the poems into a chronology that we cannot know; he has made sense of the context around Herbert that would have influenced his understanding and experience.
At the same time, Drury has also demonstrated the lyrical, metric and form of the poems themselves, teasing out some of the intricacies, at the same time showing the inexperienced reader the way to appreciate the immensely complex levels of meaning, the nuanced sense in which Herbert’s spirituality, learning and Biblical erudition informed and influenced his thinking.
There are many examples of religious poetry, but few with the gentle grace and elegance that a reader finds in George Herbert. This biography brings everything one could possibly want to the discerning reader; most of the poems are written out in full and followed with an explanation demonstrating the subtle brilliance, the poignancy of the imagery, the form and content so aptly matched; a book to treasure.