Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert


Though he never published any of his English poems during his lifetime, George Herbert (1593–1633) is recognized as possibly the greatest religious poet in the language. Few English poets of his age still inspire such intense devotion today. In this richly perceptive biography, John Drury for the first time integrates Herbert’s poems fully into his life, enriching our understanding of both the poet’s mind and his work.
As Drury writes ...
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Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert

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Though he never published any of his English poems during his lifetime, George Herbert (1593–1633) is recognized as possibly the greatest religious poet in the language. Few English poets of his age still inspire such intense devotion today. In this richly perceptive biography, John Drury for the first time integrates Herbert’s poems fully into his life, enriching our understanding of both the poet’s mind and his work.
As Drury writes in his preface, Herbert lived “a quiet life with a crisis in the middle of it.” Drury follows Herbert from his academic success as a young man, seemingly destined for a career at court, through his abandonment of those hopes, his devotion to the restoration of a church in Huntingdonshire, and his final years as a country parson. Because Herbert’s work was only published posthumously, it has always been difficult to know when or in what context Herbert wrote his poems. But Drury skillfully places readings of the poems into his narrative at biographically credible moments, allowing us to appreciate not only Herbert’s frame of mind while writing, but also the society that produced it. A sensitive critic of Herbert’s poems as well as a theologian, Drury does full justice to the spiritual dimension of Herbert’s work. In addition, he reveals the occasions of sorrow, happiness, regret, and hope that Herbert captured in his poetry and that led T. S. Eliot to write, “What we can confidently believe is that every poem . . . is true to the poet’s experience.”
Painting a picture of a man torn between worldly ambition and spiritual life, Music at Midnight is an eloquent biography that breathes new life into some of the greatest English poems ever written.
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Editorial Reviews

Shelf Awareness

"A welcome, rich, and illuminating biography."
New Criterion

"Drury’s book is a careful blend of life, poetry, history, and textual analysis. For the first time, Herbert’s poems are embedded in his life. . . . Drury excels at demonstrating that Herbert’s poetry manages to be beguilingly simple and strikingly complex. . . . Drury’s scholarly and immensely readable biography . . . presents the most fully realized Herbert to date."

“Readers who are tempted into the book by its focus on the life will finish with something far richer than more conventional biographies offer. . . . It is hard to imagine a better book for anyone, general reader or seventeenth-century aficionado or teacher or student, newly embarking on Herbert.”

"Every Christian should be familiar with the poems of George Herbert. . . .The book’s strength lies in Drury’s ability to explain Herbert’s theology and draw out the Christian meaning in the poems. . . . The book is academic enough for scholars, but easily accessible to the lay reader with a bit of patience."

“Readers who are tempted into the book by its focus on the life will finish with something far richer than more conventional biographies offer. . . . It is hard to imagine a better book for anyone, general reader or seventeenth-century aficionado or teacher or student, newly embarking on Herbert.”
Financial Times

“Powerfully absorbing.”
Times Higher Education

“Drury manages wonderfully in bringing text and context profitably together. His book is especially valuable, and enjoyable, in its deft and insightful expositions of Herbert’s formal and stylistic brilliance.”
Economist Book of the Year

“Being an English country minister has inspired many writers, none of them more lapidary, precise, witty and surprising than George Herbert, the frail intellectual who preached to the parish of Bemerton from 1630 to 1633. An account of an Anglican priest and his poetry that will probably never be bettered.”
Library Journal
During George Herbert's life (1593–1633), he was a country parson who happened to write poetry—but was never published. Today he is considered by both scholars and writers the preeminent religious poet in our language, and one of the most important metaphysical poets. And, yet, to the general reader he still hovers humbly in the halls of poetry, waiting for an eye to glance his way. In this new biography, chaplain and scholar Drury (fellow, All Souls Coll., Univ. of Oxford; Painting the Word) offers a fresh glimpse at the humble 17th-century poet/clergyman. His loving, tender study may inspire newcomers to turn another look on the poems. However, Drury's writing (which possibly aspires to a scholarly tone) too often gets in the way. One feels at times cornered by a fan who desperately wants to tell you everything he knows about his favorite subject, and the work sometimes drifts from biographical details into forced insights. Herbert's experience and verse are certainly deserving of original attention. His poems may not burst with the audacious brilliance of John Donne or the overwhelming epic glory of John Milton, but by their flickering, gentle light one can catch a glimpse of the transcendent. VERDICT Academic collections will probably want this addition; other libraries will need to consider the limited interest. For high school libraries owning Izaac Walton's The Life of Mr. George Herbert, this a necessary purchase.—Herman Sutter, St. Agnes Acad., Houston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226134444
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 211,746
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Drury is chaplain and fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford. He is the author of many books, including Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings.
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Read an Excerpt

Music at Midnight

The Life and Poetry of GEORGE HERBERT



Copyright © 2013 John Drury
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13444-4



The first three years of George Herbert's life were spent at Montgomery on the border between England and Wales. He was born into a family of six children: four brothers and two sisters. After him came two more brothers and another sister – ten of them all together and all surviving into adulthood. The little town with its market place is on an eastern slope: the mountains of Wales behind and an expansive view of the fields and wooded hills of the Severn valley below. Above it, on a rocky eminence, are the ruins of the great castle built by Henry III as a frontier post to keep out the wild and poorer Welsh in the mountainous country to the west, the source of frequent raids. The Herberts had been lords of the castle on the hill since the time of Henry VIII, but, according to George Herbert's elder brother Edward, their grandfather had built himself a more comfortable 'low building but of great capacity' called Blackhall down in the town. 'He delighted also much in hospitality, as having a very long table twice covered every meal with best meats that could be gotten, and a very great family. It was an ordinary saying in the country at that time, when they saw any fowl rise, "Fly where thou wilt, thou wilt light at Blackhall".' There, very probably, George Herbert was born in 1593, the seventh child of old Edward Herbert's son Richard and his wife Magdalen Newport.

Blackhall has since disappeared, leaving its name to a street in the town. So has the renaissance mansion, including his library, which George's brother Edward Herbert built for himself within the castle's ruins in the 1630s. He had been made Baron Herbert of Cherbury, a little nearby town, as a reward for being ambassador to France. He would have liked Montgomery to be his title, but the senior Herberts in Wiltshire had already snapped it up. Edward Herbert was a renaissance man if ever there was one. As well as being a diplomat and a soldier, he wrote good poetry derived from his association with John Donne, which survives in modern anthologies (it is usually erotic or platonic, often both, and noticeably more metaphysical than his brother's), a hard-hitting and reductionist book of philosophy called de Veritate which he dedicated to George (see Chapter 4), a history of The Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth and a famous and boastful Autobiography, recording with pride the exploits of his ancestors against the Welsh and, at greater length, his own achievements at home and abroad. Isaac Oliver's portrait of him, a delicate and unusually large miniature, shows him relaxing in a woodland glade with a view of the Severn valley beyond. Among the trees, his squire holds his armour and three richly caparisoned horses, as if he were a knight of romance out of Spenser's Faire Queene. But he is in rich civilian dress, his thoughtful head supported by one hand and a shield over his side bearing the emblem of a heart above flames and the motto magica sympathiae, 'the magic of sympathy': soldier, lover and philosopher in his local landscape.

His forebears were less refined, going about their business of keeping order in Britain's wild west with all necessary violence. Edward Herbert tells a ferocious story of his grandfather and namesake.

Some outlaws being lodged in an alehouse upon the hills of Llandinam, my grandfather and a few servants coming to apprehend them, the principal outlaw shot an arrow which stuck in the pummel of his saddle, whereupon my grandfather coming up to him with his sword in his hand, and taking him prisoner, he showed him the said arrow, bidding him look what he had done, whereof the outlaw was no further sensible than to say he was sorry that he left his better bow at home, which he conceived would have carried his shot to his body, and the outlaw being brought to justice, suffered for it.

As a justice of the peace, old Edward Herbert on one occasion abused his powers appallingly.

[He] intervened in a dispute about land and mendaciously informed one of the disputants, John Richard, that he had received an order for his eviction from the Council of the Welsh Marches. When Richard asked to see the order, Herbert arrested him. During his imprisonment and despite a writ of Habeas Corpus from the Court of Requests to take the prisoner to London, Herbert deliberately ordered his men to destroy Richard's crops, incarcerate his wife and leave his children to starve. One of them, in fact, died from lack of food and care and was left unburied for a fortnight.

Edward Herbert remembered his father Richard, son of this terrifying patriarch, as 'black haired and bearded, as all my ancestors on his side are said to have been, of a manly or somewhat stern look, but withal very handsome and well compact in his limbs.' He was:

of a great courage, whereof he gave proof, when he was so barbarously assaulted by many men in the churchyard at Llanerfyl, at what time he would have apprehended a man who denied to appear to justice; for, defending himself against them all ... he chased his adversaries until a villain, coming behind him, did over the shoulders of others wound him in the head with a forest bill until he fell down, though recovering himself again, notwithstanding his skull was cut through to the pia mater of the brain, he saw his adversaries fly away, and after walked to his house.

Richard Herbert died in 1596 when Edward was fourteen and George only three. At this point their mother Magdalen came into her own, moving her family some 20 miles west from the edge of the wild, to live with her widowed mother, Margaret Bromley Newport, at Eyton upon Severn, a few miles south-east of Shrewsbury. The Newports were a lot richer than the Herberts, owned much of Shropshire and were more civilized. The five-bay house at Eyton, familiar to Sir Philip Sidney from his days at Shrewsbury School, has disappeared, but its site is idyllic: on a plateau just south of the church and Roman ruins of Wroxeter, overlooking the river with views of the pastures and the wooded hills beyond: which could all be enjoyed (and no doubt was by small George) from a surviving summerhouse or banqueting house, originally one of a pair, three storeys high with a stair-turret, a fenestrated room and a flat, balustrade roof. Old Lady Newport was very proud and fond of her family, not least of her grandchildren. Edward admired her 'incomparable piety and love to her children' and her hospitality, which 'Exceeded all either of her country or time; for, besides abundance of provision and good cheer for guests ... she used ever after dinner to distribute with her own hands to the poor, who resorted to her in great numbers, alms in money, to every one of them more or less, as she thought they needed it'. Little George must have been happy at Eyton, and Edward, at the early age of sixteen, was married to Mary Herbert while they were there. Mary came from another branch of the Herbert family and her father had stipulated that, unless she married a man with the name of Herbert, she would forfeit her inheritance of lands in Monmouthshire and Ireland. So as far as Magdalen Herbert and Margaret Newport were concerned, this was a way of securing Edward's future.

Margaret Newport's family piety is witnessed by the fine tomb in Wroxeter Church which she erected to her husband and (in advance) herself: there are alabaster effigies of both. In the same church the tomb of her father and mother, Sir Thomas and Lady Bromley, both in coloured alabaster effigies, is even grander. Margaret's daughter followed suit. While she was at Eyton, Magdalen Herbert set about erecting a tomb for her late husband Richard and herself (both husband and wife again) in Montgomery Church.

Nothing else in that church is so grandiose. Indeed even by the high Elizabethan standards of display the tomb is magnificent. A large semi-circular arch, its main feature, has two painted figures in its spandrels: Old Father Time with his hourglass and sickle and a naked woman who might be Truth. Above this, heraldry abounds to display the family's connections. A row of shields above the arch supports a gigantic strapwork pediment with Richard Herbert's arms in the middle. Above them, to subdue the pomp a little, are two skulls with bones and the inscription 'olim fui: sic eritis': 'I was once, you will be so.' The great arch forms the front of a vaulted canopy over the recumbent effigies of Richard and his wife Magdalen. But only he is buried there, with a sculpted representation of his corpse below the table on which the two effigies lie. Magdalen died thirty-one years later, having married again, and was buried at Chelsea.

Sir Richard, 'black-haired and bearded' as Edward remembered him, is in full armour. The armour is conventional, but apt enough. As an enforcer of law and order in the disorderly Welsh Marches, deputy lieutenant and principal justice of the peace, he needed to be prepared to fight. But in his monument it is his wife Magdalen, George's mother, who predominates. Her effigy is at the front, richly gowned. Her face above her ruff is youthful and alert, surmounted by the coiffure which also appears in her portrait: her hair pulled up from her forehead in two high rolls. Her maternity is displayed by a row of little kneeling figures of their children (not likenesses, more like dolls) behind the two effigies: six boys and two girls, for some reason a boy and a girl short of her total of ten. George was her fourth son. It is in the inscription, in gilded gothic lettering above the arch, that Magdalen's control is most blatantly asserted. Although it is her husband's tomb, most of the text is about her and her family, to which she referred in capital letters.

Heare Lyeth the Body of Richard Herbert Esquire whose Monument was Made at the Coste of Magdalene his wife Daughter of Sir Richard NEWPORT of High Arcoall in the County of Salop, Knighte (deceased) & of Dame Margaret his wife Daughter & Sole heyr to Sir Thomas BROMLEY Knighte Late Lord Chiefe Justice of England & one of the Executors of the Late Kinge of Most Famous Memorye Kinge Henry the Eighte Ano Dom 1600.

Verses in Latin, advertising learning, are in a cartouche over the effigies. They celebrate Magdalen's virtue, piety and love in erecting the monument and the couple's fidelity.

Richard Herbert's tomb is, then, more a monument to his formidable widow and her family than to him and his. For its design and making Magdalen employed the builder Walter Hancock. Her brother, Sir Francis Newport, Member of Parliament for Shropshire, was an enthusiastic patron of Hancock. In 1595 he recommended him strongly to the Bailiffs of Shrewsbury for the building of their new Market House as 'a Mason of approved skill and honesty ... you cannot match the man in these parts with any of his occupation, neither in science and judgement of workmanship, nor in plainness and honesty to deal withal'. Hancock got the job and built the Market House on broad semi-circular arches like the one on the monument in Montgomery Church. In his will of 1599 he referred to '£4.19s. owed to Wm. Reed wh. he is to receive of Mrs. Magd. Herbert out of that work which he and others have done by my appointment at Montgomery'.

In the same year, 1599, old Margaret Newport died and Magdalen Herbert with her brood moved to Oxford to keep an eye on Edward Herbert who was an undergraduate at University College. When the monument was completed, according to the date of 1600 inscribed on it, George Herbert was seven years old. It is not known whether he ever saw it, but he had certainly heard plenty about it. In his later life he took a more sceptical view than his mother or his grandmother of monumental magnificence, as his poem 'Church Monuments' testifies. The lines of 'Church Monuments' are solemn pentameters, varied and fluent. There is much enjambment, the continuing of sense and sentences over the line-breaks. Most strikingly, this happens over the gaps between the verses, giving the whole thing the continuous and inevitable flow of time's 'ever rolling stream'. The sentences are long: only four of them over the four verses. The rhyme scheme is drawn out too, the first three lines of each verse having to wait for the next three to get their rhymes (a b c a b c). Herbert had learned from his friend Lancelot Andrewes, the great preacher and linguist who was dean of Westminster when he was a scholar there, to make the most of a word by situating it in one context after another (see Chapter 2). Here the word is 'dust'. It occurs six times, as well as the adjective 'dusty'. The dust of death, the ordinary dust on the monuments, the sand-dust in the hourglass, all echo God's sonorous verdict on fallen Man: 'dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' The 'lines' and the 'stem' referred to are genealogical.

Church Monuments

    While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
    Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
    May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
    To which the blast of death's incessant motion,
    Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
    Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust

    My body to this school, that it may learn,
    To spell his elements, and find his birth
    Written in dusty heraldry and lines:
    Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
    Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
    These laugh at Jet and Marble put for signs,

    To sever the good fellowship of dust,
    And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
    When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
    To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
    Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
    And true descent; that when thou shalt grow fat,

    And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
    That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
    That measures all our time; which also shall
    Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
    How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
    That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

'Dusty heraldry and lines' – all those shields of the family line of descent and all those inscriptions on the tomb at Montgomery Church – testify to death's 'dust to dust and earth to earth' rather than to dynastic splendour. 'Jet and Marble put for signs' only:

    sever the good fellowship of dust
    And spoil the meeting

of mortal with mortality. The monuments themselves will eventually crumble and 'fall down flat' (excellently apt and deliberate bathos) to be one with the dust they had 'in trust'. The penultimate line brings a shudder:

How tame these ashes are, how free from lust.

They are a lesson in humility in its strictest Latin-derived sense of being of the earth. Family pride was beside the point.

But, for all that, family mattered. In particular, the traditions of hospitality maintained by both the Herberts and the Newports were engrained in George Herbert. Hospitality is the master-metaphor of 'Love (III)', with its dialogue between welcoming host and diffident guest resolved by sitting down at table. He was to end his days as the hospitable rector of a country parish, seeing to it that on festival days none of his parishioners should 'want a good meal suiting to the joy of the occasion'.

While Magdalen Herbert was in Oxford with her family, including the seven-year-old George, she got to know John Donne. He was secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. But he was on thin ice because he was in love with Egerton's niece Ann More, whose father disapproved of the affair (he married her secretly in December 1601). Twenty-six years later, in 1627, he had risen to be dean of St Paul's and preached in commemoration of Magdalen Herbert, who had meanwhile remarried, to Sir John Danvers. Donne was wittily laudatory of the benefit of the move to Oxford in 1599 to Magdalen's children. It 'recompensed to them, the loss of a Father, in giving them two mothers; her own personal care and the advantage of that place; where she contracted a friendship, with divers reverend persons, of eminency, and estimation there; which continued to their ends'. Donne may well have considered himself one of these persons. More modestly, he may just have been an observer of Magdalen Herbert's ability to gather interesting people into her circle when he met her in Oxford and first admired her 'conversation, naturally cheerful, and merry, and loving facetiousness, and sharpness of wit'. His friendship with her was to grow and include her son George. They both dedicated poems to her.


Excerpted from Music at Midnight by JOHN DRURY. Copyright © 2013 John Drury. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgements

Introduction: Herbert’s World

Part One

1.      Childhood

2.      Westminster

3.      A Young Man at Cambridge

4.      1618

5.      Deputy to Orator

6.      Francis Bacon

Interlude: The Williams Manuscript

Part Two

7.      Lost in a Humble Way

8.      Bemerton: Being a Country Person

9.      Herbert’s Days and Years

Part Three

10.  Heirs and Imitators

11.  Herbert’s Readers

12.  The Bread of Faithful Speech

13.  Music at the Close


Select Bibliography

Index of Works

General Index

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