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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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist