One of the things that James VI of Scotland liked about becoming James I of England—apart from the money—was that as head of the Church of England he would never be bossed about by a Scotch Calvinist minister again.  Moreover, unlike his predecessor Elizabeth I, who never cared much for that aspect of her job, James, who considered himself a poet and philosopher in his own right, really enjoyed running the Church.  He liked to dine with bishops, and so it is not surprising that under him the newly Protestant Church of England acquired a kind of chic among court and upper-class circles she had not hitherto enjoyed.  She also began to develop a character of her own quite different from her Catholic and Protestant rivals.  A brief golden age of liturgical, musical, and literary invention ensued, which lasted until the infuriated Puritans trashed it all in the civil wars under James’s son Charles I, going so far as to chop the heads off Charles himself and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.

George Herbert, born 1593, and one of the glories of that brief Anglican spring, was a boy of ten when James succeeded to the throne.  The Herberts were a family of Welsh aristocrats who had done extremely well out of service to the Welsh Tudors, and become rich from the spoils of Henry VIII’s grand theft of ecclesiastical property.  Belonging to such a family, George Herbert, like his brothers Edward and Henry, might have been expected to pursue a career of state service, and indeed that seems to have been his original intention.

His widowed mother, a clever, strong-minded woman who maintained a kind of salon frequented by the likes of Ben Jonson, John Donne, and William Byrd, saw to it that he was suitably educated, first at Westminster School, then at Trinity College, Cambridge, both of them new Tudor foundations.  Having distinguished himself academically, George then lobbied hard to be made orator to his university, a position that was almost certainly the prelude to a diplomatic or administrative position at court.

Then, for reasons no one really knows, he threw the whole thing over.  After a mere four years as orator, he took a leave from the university that became permanent, and turned his oratorical duties over to a deputy.  He had himself ordained to the diaconate, as his fellowship of Trinity College required, and then, after his ordinary John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, made him a prebendary of his cathedral, he set about arranging for the restoration of the decayed church attached to his prebend, Leighton Bromswold.  In this same period he pursued his friendship with Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding (made famous by T.S. Eliot’s poem of that name).  But these were relatively directionless years until 1629–30, when, in his later 30’s, he married, and through the intervention of his cousin the earl of Pembroke became vicar of the tiny combined parishes of Fugglestone and Bemerton just outside Salisbury, with a vicarage pretty much across the road from his family’s chief seat, Wilton House, built on the property of a Benedictine nunnery.  Three years later he was dead at 39.

What happened?  Men of Herbert’s social standing did not normally go into the Church.  The traditional answer, provided by Isaac Walton’s hagiographical life, has been that the attractions of apostleship and service proved stronger than the splendors of worldly life and achievement.  Walton may have been right, too, but John Drury finds the causes in an array of more personal, even worldly considerations: continuous ill health to begin with; a realignment of forces at court that closed off sources of patronage, and a consequent failure of self-confidence—all fermenting in a personality unable, it seems, to settle on anything for very long.

Yet one thing that Herbert never thought of abandoning was the writing of poetry, which began when as a schoolboy he mastered the art of writing verse in Latin.  Then, an undergraduate of 16, he wrote telling his mother that he intended to write only religious poetry, and included a pair of sonnets on the subject.  John Drury, who believes Donne gave Herbert the idea of writing religious poetry, thinks these sonnets “priggish, tediously hectoring, and ostentatiously high-minded”; but while there is no mistaking Donne’s influence on the style of those sonnets, the source of Herbert’s manifesto was not Donne.  It was the Jesuit poet St. Robert Southwell.

Herbert kept to his resolution, and by about 1623 the first manuscript of his poetry, the Williams Manuscript, existed, containing 78 poems.  This was a little less than half the number in the manuscript that he sent to his friend Nicholas Ferrar ten years later as he lay dying.  Ferrar immediately arranged for the poems to be published, and the little book proved very popular, going into 16 editions between 1633 and 1695.  Then changes in literary taste rendered Herbert’s style obsolete, except to the keener Protestants who sang some of his poems to psalm tunes as hymns.

John Drury’s way of presenting Herbert’s life and output is first to sketch in the background of Herbert’s times, and then to fill out his narrative of the rather scanty biographical materials by treating the poems as Herbert’s own personal comment on his experiences.  Since no one can date the poems at all closely, this is a fairly arbitrary way of proceeding, and it can produce oddly slanted readings of a poet as intensely and cleverly metaphorical as Herbert.  For example, most people read “Love III,” the final poem in the collection, beginning, “Love bade me welcome,” as Herbert’s meditation on the reception of Communion.  But Drury concentrates so much on the vehicle of Herbert’s metaphor for this experience, which is the relationship of guest and host at a 17th-century dinner party, that he blurs its meaning or tenor, and turns the relationship of worshiper and worshiped into a rather uneasy social incident.

Something similar happens with another famous poem, “The Collar,” which begins so dramatically: “I struck the board, and cried, No more. / I will abroad.”  Again, Drury thinks we have a poem set at a 17th-century dinner table, only this time we are in the poet’s home, and the poem is about “a row breaking out at table.”  When at the poem’s end a voice calling “Child!” calms the storm of the poet’s rage and frustration, Drury suspects that, all implied reference to God’s calling the infant Samuel aside, this is really the voice of Herbert’s mother calling her son to order.

Now, nothing we know about the grown-up George Herbert would lead us to think him capable of being so extraordinarily rude as to launch a tirade of self-pitying rage at his mother’s table; and if he did, his mother would have had a great more to say about it than “Child!”  This poem, in fact, is one of those self-pitying soliloquies we are all familiar with, and no one else is present.  And although Drury tells us that the title puns upon collar, choler, and even caller, it does not occur to him to let us know that this “collar” has nothing to do with clerical collars (as ignorant professors have been telling their students time out of mind, not knowing that clerical collars are a 19th-century invention), but refers to restraining collars used on prisoners and animals, even to a kind of yoke.  Readers who remember Jesus’ words “My yoke is easy and my burden light” will understand better what Herbert’s petulant outburst is about.

Drury’s method is more successful with the more frankly personal poems like “The Flower,” with its beautiful lines

And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing: O my only light,

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom thy tempests fell all night.

Drury, though, has a problem as critic and promoter of George Herbert’s poetry, which he admires intensely.  That problem is not with Herbert himself, but with the author of those tempests, the God to Whom Herbert is continually talking in these poems.

As one reads Drury’s book it becomes clear that he is writing for people who know little about religion, whether Herbert’s or anyone else’s.  It also emerges that, although as an Anglican cleric and chaplain of All Souls’ College, Oxford, Drury is fond of the Church of England, he seems not to believe any of her teaching.  He certainly has no time at all for the high-church variety of Anglicanism, and calls its founder Archbishop Laud “a jumped-up little parvenu.”  It is not too surprising, therefore, that, in his reading of Herbert’s dialogues with the divine, they turn into metaphors of self-communing, and that his God becomes a projection of the internal voice that we all talk to.

Oddly enough, Herbert himself, as a thoroughgoing aristocratic Anglican Protestant of his time, is partly responsible for this approach.  Herbert’s religion, which included the Calvinist-Anglican position that miracles had ceased, was intensely subjective, his understanding of its mysteries figurative.  Ecclesiastically, he was an Erastian who objected strongly to Puritans because they threatened disobedience, disorder, and bad taste; but although he liked his royal church’s way of doing things very much, he didn’t see any of it as being of divine institution—in fact like his contemporary John Field he valued churchgoing because it was socially useful, obedient, and pleasant.  The essence of his religion was his personal relationship to his master, as he always called him, Jesus.  That is one of the reasons why his poems are so good.

The figurative approach to religious mystery, though, has its dangers.  As we learn from his Devotions, John Donne, like his fellow Anglican Herbert, thought that although rites and ceremonies were, strictly speaking, unnecessary, nonetheless like music and images they were useful because they stirred up devotion, and were figurative.  But Donne also understood that the figurative argument is dangerous, that it can lead to practical atheism because, when everything is turned into tropes and figures, then tropes and figures and the rationalizing mind that reads them are all we have.

Is that where John Drury has ended up?  He has produced no new information about Herbert, but he has written a very readable, beautifully illustrated book that will introduce Herbert’s superb poetry to readers who have not been taught much about religion, poetry, or poetic meter, and who will no doubt enjoy finding out about Herbert’s life and times.  They will, however, find no encouragement to believe in Herbert’s religion, but—who knows?—perhaps Herbert himself will take care of that.


[Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, by John Drury (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 396 pp., $35.00]