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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times