Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert

Donne is so damn sexy that he will always seem modern. Marvell is the greatest political poet in the language (always excepting Shakespeare). Yet Herbert lived a quiet life: born in 1593, he died far too prematurely, in 1633.

George Herbert, circa 1625. Image: Getty

The name George Herbert invariably conjures three memories into my consciousness. First, it is the 1970s, I am at school and we are being introduced to one of our A-level English literature texts: the Penguin anthology The Metaphysical Poets. Edited by the distinguished Oxford scholar Dame Helen Gardner and shaped by the phenomenally influential critical thought of T S Eliot, it nominates John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell as the three greatest “metaphysical” poets, on the grounds of their shared complexity, their delicate ambiguity and their capacity to hold emotion in equipoise with thought.

Second, it is the 1980s and I am at Cambridge, where our living metaphysical poet Geoffrey Hill is giving lectures on how there has been something elegiac about the air of England ever since the end of the Great War. The Tories are being transformed from the party of rural estate managers into that of urban estate agents. The Church of England is losing its grip on the times and I am reading a key passage in Ford Madox Ford’s vast tetralogy of novels on the last of England, Parade’s End, in which Christopher Tietjens, a relic of the gentility of the shires, recalls standing on a hill above the village of Bemerton in Wiltshire, where Herbert was a country parson, and describes it as “the cradle of the race as far as our race was worth thinking about”. Herbert, I suddenly realise, is going the way of his church: he is in the cul-de-sac of Cathedral Close at Salisbury, while poetry has moved on to the Troubles of Derry (Heaney et al) and the streets of Brixton (Linton Kwesi Johnson and the vibrant new British Caribbean poets).

And then it’s the 1990s. I am teaching at the University of Liverpool and we have a lecture from a visiting leather-jacketed protégé of Terry Eagleton, now a professor at a “new” university, who tells us that he was going to talk about English poetry but now he’s not, because he is so excited about a new film that has just come out and he wants to discuss that instead. “Why on earth would you want to read George Herbert when you can see Reservoir Dogs?” he asks, sneeringly, and that really does seem like the end of the era when you could have a gentle discussion on the deceptive simplicity of “Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back” or the ingenious typographic layout of “Easter Wings” (which was originally printed sideways to make the poem look like an angel’s wings). John Drury comes with a pedigree out of the one world that has barely changed since Herbert’s time: he was dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and is now the chaplain and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He has spent a life immersed in biblical scholarship and in solid faith. He loves Herbert and, if one may be forgiven the metaphor, writes like an angel.

This biography is measured and musical. One of the most intriguing things about Herbert is that he sang his poems – and not just those that have become some of the bestloved hymns in the English language, such as “Teach me, my God and King,/In all things thee to see” and “Let all the world in every corner sing/My God and King”. Drury has a well-tuned ear for Herbert’s rhythms, leavening his biographical narrative with metrical analysis of a kind that is rarely seen in literary criticism today. He writes, for example, of “a lively answering back in springing long-short trochaic feet”; he notes of one poem: “The underlying rhythm is a succession of questioning trochees, long-shorts,” and so on (trochees, it seems, have a nice capacity to both question and answer). Some of the best pages in the book come in an “interlude” halfway through, which offers a detailed reading of Herbert’s poetic revisions in a manuscript notebook that survives in Dr Williams’s Library in London. Here is the poetic craftsman at work, honing, perfecting, refining his lines to make them worthy of his God.

Herbert’s problem today is that the conjunction “my God and King” does not speak to our sensibilities. The other two metaphysical poets in Gardner’s and Eliot’s trinity are doing just fine. Donne is so damn sexy that he will always seem modern. Marvell is the greatest political poet in the language (always excepting Shakespeare). Yet Herbert lived a quiet life: born in 1593, he died far too prematurely, in 1633.

In sharp contrast to Marvell, he did not witness the religious and political tensions of the later years of Charles I’s reign, let alone the civil war and interregnum. The height of his public engagement was as a Cambridge University orator. For a short time, he became the MP for Montgomery in Powys, Wales, but this was no more than a family Flights of fancy: George Herbert’s poem “Easter Wings”, which was originally printed sideways obligation; it did not necessitate any active involvement in politics. Soon, he retreated to the life of a country parson (about which he wrote an exemplary guidebook called A Priest to the Temple), first at Leighton Bromswold in Huntingdonshire and then at Bemerton.

Drury does his best to create some drama out of the tension between private faith and public duty, but in truth it was George Herbert’s elder brother Edward – a soldier, diplomat, historian, poet and neo-Platonic philosopher – who lived a vita activa of the kind that rewards the writer and reader of biography. George’s was almost entirely a vita contemplativa and it is doubtful that Drury’s affectionate portrait will win him many new fans, though it will delight all who love his poetry. That is a distinguished company, including the great cosmopolitan writer Vikram Seth, who spent the proceeds of his novel A Suitable Boy on the purchase of the old rectory at Bemerton, where he still lives with the benign ghost of Herbert’s music and goodness.

Jonathan Bate is the provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and the author “The Genius of Shakespeare” (Picador, £9.99)

George Herbert, circa 1625. Image: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the chief victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser