Devotional chapter and verse

One of England’s greatest devotional poets can now be better appreciated, writes Hugh Adlington

August 29, 2013

George Herbert, perhaps the greatest devotional poet in the English language, is little known to readers today, and thus John Drury’s perceptive and wonderfully accessible account is particularly welcome. Born into the lesser nobility, Herbert was the star pupil of the churchman and linguist Lancelot Andrewes, a friend of John Donne and an outstanding scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, although he was frequently made ill by too much study.

A religious impulse was evident from the start. Upon arriving at Cambridge, Herbert wrote to his mother, declaring “that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory”; other letters mention plans to become a beneficed clergyman. Yet Herbert was not immune to worldly ambition. He sat as MP for Montgomery in the 1624 Parliament, and campaigned for, won and held on to the prestigious post of University Orator for eight years in the 1620s. Both of his predecessors in this role had gone on to high state office. When a property deal brought financial independence, however, he resigned the oratorship and two years later was ordained as priest and instituted as rector of the rural parish of Bemerton in Wiltshire.

Early biographers romanticised his change of direction. For such a man to become a country parson was to “lose himself in a humble way”, and Herbert’s motto, “Less than the least of God’s mercies”, was taken as an epitome of self-punishing humility. But this may well be to overstate the case. His sense of spiritual vocation had been there from the beginning, and it is clear that Charles I’s presentation of Herbert to the vacant living at Bemerton was made at the request of his relations, the earls of Pembroke, whose ancestral seat, Wilton House, sits within the parish boundaries. Herbert died of consumption just three years later, aged 39, his early death encouraging biographers to present him as saintly and high-minded. Yet it is not impossible to think that had he lived, Herbert might have risen in the Church to occupy a deanery like Donne or a bishop’s palace like Andrewes, with Bemerton just the first rung on the ecclesiastical ladder.

Herbert’s life, however, would be of only passing interest to us now had he not written The Temple (1633), his astoundingly inventive collection of religious poems, crafted in private and published only after his death. Aldous Huxley called Herbert the “poet of inner weather”, amply demonstrated by any of the poems in The Temple. The most famous of these include The Collar, beginning with the dramatic outburst, “I struck the board, and cried, No more”; Love (III), a confessional allegory, “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back”; and Prayer (I), dazzling the eye and beguiling the ear with its astonishing sequence of epithets, “The soul in paraphrase…Engine against th’Almighty…Reversed thunder…Heaven in ordinary…”. Attempting to evoke the reciprocity felt between God and man in prayer, one of the strangest and most original sonnets in English builds to its paradisal yet homely conclusion: “Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,/The land of spices; something understood.”

Drury’s book is especially valuable in its deft and insightful expositions of Herbert’s formal and stylistic brilliance

From Andrewes, Herbert learned how to squeeze a world of meaning from a word; and with Donne, he shares arresting first and last lines, a keen ear for natural speech, and a delight in narrative compression. Herbert’s “easy style drawn from a native vein”, however, is his own. His dying wish was that his book of poems might be made public, “if it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul”. Six editions in seven years indicate just how advantageous The Temple’s first readers found it, and a large part of its appeal lies in its personal, confessional quality, what Herbert called “the picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul”. All the more reason, then, that Drury should explore the connection, as he does so illuminatingly, between what Robert Browning called the poet’s House and Shop, the life and work.

Bringing the life and the poetry together delivers numerous benefits. An allegorical poem such as The Family, ostensibly about internal tumult, takes on fresh life when also read as an affectionate picture of Herbert’s temperamental family in their crowded house in Charing Cross. Prose works by Herbert’s elder brother, the poet and philosopher Edward Herbert, read in conjunction with poems such as Employment (II) and Providence, enrich our understanding of the younger Herbert’s philosophy of nature. Knowing more about his contact with Andrewes and Donne casts light on the influence of the former on Herbert’s The Sacrifice, and of the latter on Sin’s Round and The Wreath. Music, gardening, church politics and theology all help us to read the poems with greater pleasure and understanding, and music in particular – its “measure, tune and time” – is the interpretative key that unlocks so many poetic doors in The Temple. The forms and conventions of Latin poetry and disputation leave their mark on poems such as Virtue and The Dialogue; and English poetic tradition, especially Sir Philip Sidney’s innovative sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, and the psalm translations undertaken by Sidney and his sister Mary, is also a crucial influence on Herbert’s design of both individual poems and of the entire sequence of The Temple.

Drury – a biblical scholar, former dean of King’s College, Cambridge and editor of a forthcoming Penguin edition of Herbert’s Complete Poems – 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; how the manner of Herbert’s poems – their verse forms, metre, syntax, diction and verbal patterning – enhance and intensify the matter: the complaints and praises, yearning and disappointments, griefs and joys. My only wish is that the book had taken some account of Adele Davidson’s recent contention that verbal game-playing in The Temple, the acrostics, anagrams, pattern poems and so on, goes much further than previously thought. Veiled meanings, hidden in plain sight, and the inexhaustible richness of the word are ideas that seem central to The Temple, yet such devices met with critical nose-holding, from John Dryden to Ernest de Sélincourt, who said “Such extravagances are little to our taste”. I would have been fascinated to hear what Drury had to say about it.

Herbert, of course, adapted his mode of expression to suit his present purpose, and the man himself is the sum of all of those modes. Thus he is equally present in The Temple’s intense focus on the soul’s tortured relationship with Christ: “Thou art/All my delight, so all my smart”; and in the model of sturdy common sense found in his amiably practical prose works, The Country Parson and Outlandish Proverbs: “Love your neighbour, yet pull not downe your hedge” and “Musick helps not the tooth-ach”. Ultimately, for this reader at least, it is Herbert’s poetry in The Temple rather than his life as scholar, orator and priest that generates the most engrossing questions, ironies and paradoxes. We should be grateful to Drury, then, for being such a sensitive and insightful guide, sending us back to Herbert’s poetry with renewed fascination and appreciation, to the “Words of the right sort to ask about the divine”.

The author

The Very Revd John Drury, chaplain and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, lives “in Oxford and North London with my wife Caroline Elam, an art historian and once editor of The Burlington Magazine, who did wonders with my drafts”. Oxford’s charms are balanced, he says, by its vexations, namely “large groups of tourists”.

He was born in Clacton-on-Sea, and then lived in Norwich “under German bombardment”. “I was a studious child. A master at my prep school helped me understand architectural styles. We learned poems by heart.” He took his undergraduate degree at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where his great-uncle, the pathologist Sir Alan Drury, had been a fellow.

Drury took up his present post in 2003, after serving as dean of Christ Church, Oxford and, before that, as dean of chapel and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He confirms that there is indeed a difference between the two ancient universities. “In Oxford the colleges take part in the appointment of faculty and can challenge professors. Not so in Cambridge. Oxford encourages the generalist, which suits me better. But King’s College, Cambridge was, as John Betjeman noticed, pretty much like Oxford.”

From 1979 to 1981, Drury lectured at the University of Sussex. “It was wonderful to teach students who were interested in religion but not at all committed to it. At Cambridge the power of orthodoxy over the New Testament Seminar was stifling. And the general courses at Sussex brought me up against Nietzsche, Feuerbach and George Eliot, causing me to refashion my religion,” he observes.

Asked if he, like George Herbert, found it difficult to reconcile the demands of his faith with another calling, Drury says he found “no problems. At King’s I remember complaining to an anthropologist friend that I was too heretical to be a clergyman – and she told me that I was incredibly lucky to have something to DO as well as think about!”

Of Herbert’s proverbs, Drury names as his favourite: “To be beloved is above all bargains.”

Karen Shook

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