While on holiday I read one of the most absorbing books I've come across for a while, John Drury's biography of George Herbert entitled Music At Midnight. It's much more than a biography as it traces Herbert's development as theologian, poet and pastor in great depth and introduces the reader to a wide range of verse from Herbert's pen and from other contemporary sources.
Herbert's brother, Edward, wrote, "Retire into yourself and enter into your own faculties; you will find there God, virtue and the other universal truths' (De Veritate). Drury remarked that this was a more congenial stance for him than for his younger brother, George. Starting from his childhood, Herbert's life comes across as a struggle to hold in balance the poetic, academic, political and pastoral. He was one of those individuals as much shaped by outward exploration as by inward reflection. Being of a similar temperament, I found the book fascinating. Here is a study of spiritual development that depends on outward engagement exercised in parallel with withdrawal into the inner depths of the soul. A striking example of this occurs in the story that gives rise to the book's title. The story comes from from Herbert's time as a priest in Bemerton when he used regularly to walk into Salisbury to play music with a group of friends before choral Evensong. One day, he encountered a man whose horse had fallen under its load. He stopped, took off his coat and helped to unload and reload the wagon, getting the horse and its master under way once more. On his arrival in Salisbury his friends remarked on his unusually dirty and dishevelled appearance (Hebert was normally very neat and known for unusual cleanliness for his time.) His response was that recalling what he had done that afternoon would prove 'music at midnight…for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for.'
So often externals such as pastoral involvement appear to distract us from the interior work of the soul; attentiveness and creativity diminish, and the impulse that then drives one inwards leads to depression and loss of true perspective rather than illumination. In fact the spiritual life consists in the challenge to allow time and space for both orientations. Herbert's life is the journey of a man struggling to find this balance and, fortunately for us, laying the struggle bare in his poetry so that all can see. In these pages we meet a sojourner of enormous breadth of interest and complexity of character. During his all too short lifetime, Herbert manoeuvred himself into a prestigious academic position he coveted, made political speeches, grew tired of the academic life, agonised over whether to be ordained, composed and played music, sympathised with the pastoral concerns of his family and parishioners, preached sermons 'precisely targeted' at various groups in his congregations and wrote poetry that has the ring of 'lived theology' and makes the English language sing in the service of the subjects he wrote about - 'words of the right sort to ask about the Divine.' He prefigures Wordsworth in using everyday, sensual language to conjure vividly abstract experiences and ideas.
Joy, delight, disappointment and grief are central to Herbert's experience of the Divine and these emotional forces shape his spirituality. His masterful ability in manipulating poetic form and rhetoric serve his lifelong exploration of what it is to be human in relation to the Divine in ever more revealing ways.
Drury provides fascinating analyses of many of Herbert's poems. The catechetic echo-poem Heaven (p.335) and The Pulley (p.349) are two examples of poems that express powerfully the paradoxes of faith and soul's struggle to come to terms with them. As Drury points out The Pulley contains the 'co-ordinates and contradictions of experience' while recognising the psychological truth that depression and 'uplift' can be connected through the pressure of the restless creativity implanted in the creature by the Creator. In this poem we meet again Augustine's intimation of the true state of a human soul - 'Thou hast made us for Thyself…and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.'
Being someone who finds profound expression of the soul's longing for the Divine through making as well as listening to music, I was intrigued by the final chapter of the book 'Music At the Close'. Although in some ways the chapter initially feels a bit like an add-on, there are revealing allusions to Herbert the musician throughout the book. How sad it is that his compositions have not survived. He was a friend of the composer Thomas Tomkins, so we might imagine that his music sounded not dissimilar in style. Apparently, Herbert rose from his sick bed the Sunday before he died to play his lutes and sing. As the chapter progresses, we discover how profoundly the intertwining of musical and poetic insight provided Herbert with some of the metaphors that give his poetry such power to fathom the depths of spiritual truth. From his earliest youth where, in his mother's home, he met the likes of William Byrd and John Bull, music had always been at the heart of his life and he was an accomplished musician. This passion reflects what we find in his poetry, namely a desire to express through the material what lies beyond the material and is 'heavenly in origin and distinction'. Music, perhaps even more, certainly as much as poetry, was for Herbert 'a comforting accompaniment to the soul in transit from earth to heaven, waiting at the threshold of death.' John Drury suggests that, in his music-making as in his poetry, Herbert wanted to be music with all his being.'
Herbert's God, his Master, is the central love of his life. Throughout his poetry he is realistic in describing the nature of this love and the relationship in which he found himself caught up and absorbed. This love causes him pain and longing as often as it gives him pleasure and delight. The object of Divine love feels cast out and struck down, bewildered and pulled about, caught between the sweetness (a favourite word of Herbert's) of welcoming hospitality and the searing pain of fiery judgement (or often self-judgement.) But ultimately this mysterious, sweet love of the Lord wins through because it is unchanging and the poet realises that only in the reciprocity of love exchanged between the Lord and the believer lies the way of life.
This is an un-put-down-able book if you love God and poetry. It is a book to be highly recommended to the jaded spirit. The splurges of sun tan oil and sloshes of chlorinated water now adorning my copy bear testimony to this. It brings you into the presence of your own soul's mortality and the Divine outreach.
Music At Midnight; the Life and Poetry of George Herbert is by John Drury and published by Allen Lane 2013 and Penguin 2014