Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury
(University of Chicago Press, 2013, 416 pages)
Writing a biography of George Herbert (1593-1633) is no easy task. The circumstances are intriguing – an academic with a privileged background and aspirations to a place in the royal court, Herbert turned to the priesthood and to the care of souls through devotional poetry – but the facts are sparse, and the early biographical accounts are notoriously unreliable. What’s more, to try and include a treatment of Herbert’s poem within the biographical material makes an already difficult task an even greater challenge. This, however, is precisely what Drury has undertaken, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Drury weaves a reading of Herbert’s poems through the sparse details of his biography and general cultural background. Detailed accounts of what Herbert’s family life, education, and parish ministry would have looked like help to give a sense of the world Herbert inhabited. Drury uses a mixture of concrete facts and a healthy (but reserved) imagination to depict Herbert’s everyday life and to contextualize the poems. The discussion of each poem is placed within an imaginatively appropriate context. For example, the classic “Love (III),” with its domestic themes, is discussed alongside an account of the hospitality and domestic habits of Herbert’s mother; a discussion of “Affliction” opens up Drury’s account of the vocational crises that Herbert experienced in the years before becoming a priest. This approach is effective, and it infuses the poems with greater meaning. Drury’s more technical explanations are offered without pretense or excessive literary jargon; they cover issues of metre, rhyme, scriptural influence, and theological significance.
While the book is a success as a whole, its organization and structure reveal some of its weaknesses. Tying the poems to the events of Herbert’s life, while more often than not illuminating them, also serves as a kind of restriction of which poems Drury can deal with. If the themes of a particular poem do not find a natural resonance with the scant biographical material, they are relegated to a catchall treatment of poems in the final chapters of the book or they are not dealt with at all. This leaves a classic poem like “The Pulley” to an abbreviated treatment at the end of the book. While it makes for an engaging format through most of the book, this structure leaves the last chapters a little flat. However, the book is still a very good and very interesting investigation of Herbert’s life and poetry – an ambitious project that is ably executed.