This is the final book in this short series, and it is the pick of the bunch. My book of the year is John Drury’s ‘Music at Midnight’ a much and rightly praised exposition of ‘The Life and Poetry of George Herbert’.
Drury is a confident and crafty writer. Consider his opening sentence: ‘Herbert’s masterpiece ‘Love (III)’ is saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth century England’. This is a ‘bold attack’ worthy of either Herbert or John Donne, from whom he learnt the style. Immediately you know you are in good hands, and that the book is not going to be a heap of abstractions or technicalities, nor less a pile of pious platitudes. It’s going to be a grounded and earthy account of what made the poet tick and the poetry live. And as you turn the pages, so you discover that’s exactly what it is.
I was taught New Testament by John Drury in Cambridge and for a couple of years we clerical colleagues at King’s. I learnt then to look forward to the sort of Druryisms with which this book is filled. He suggests, for instance, that the post of Orator was important, managing ‘the University’s external relations with royalty, the court and benefactors’, but then typically adding, ‘the sort of thing which is familiar nowadays as ‘development’.’ It’s true, but who else has made the connection?
Writing of the young Herbert at Trinity, Drury notes some ‘mild strictures’ in Walton’s description and sees there ‘a certain innate snobbery in Herbert, confirmed by his aloofness and self-conscious dress-sense’. Then comes the line that lets you know who is writing: ‘This kind of undergraduate is, to this day, hard to know and hard to like’. This is experience talking.
But the observation does not stop there, and the paragraph concludes kindly, showing that even such undergraduates as are hard to like can grow up well.
Herbert as withdrawn young fogey was the father of the country parson with ‘his apparel plain, but reverend and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell’. But the man who wrote those words, though still fastidious, has at last settled among the peasants of Wiltshire as their priest.
Drury is just as good at unfolding the poetry as the life, and every reader will find new angles and truths and develop new appreciations. I was particularly taken by the way he expounds the more quirky poems – some of which I have myself have found quite hard to like – and which have been the butt of harsh criticism. Concluding the second part of the book and reflecting on the poem ‘Trinity Sunday’ Drury writes,
Herbert’s clever arithmetic, spare craftmanship and sincere devotion has made a bright prayer-toy out of abstruse and cumbersome theology.
‘Prayer-toy’? Well, yes. Why not?
The book begins and ends with ‘Love’. We have already seen how it begins. It was Herbert’s genius to write ‘Love bade me welcome’ and not ‘God bade me welcome’, insists Drury – an insight that lodges easily in the mind. And he concludes the book with ‘Bitter-sweet’ which he compares with the famous part of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’: ‘Love is the unfamiliar name’ etc. As Drury puts it, ‘The tone is less grandiloquent than Eliot’s. Its lower key matches the maturity of its acceptance: it’s yes to life’.
Andrew Brown has tweeted about the excellence of this book saying it has ‘forensic sympathy’. It’s an apt phrase. The book is cool and understated and yet richly stuffed and affectionate. A delight.