By All Possible Art

Tobias Gregory

  • Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury
    Penguin, 396 pp, £9.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 104340 1

For the gospel message to come as good news, one must first be convinced of some really bad news. This bad news is not obvious, and the devout must work hard to keep it vivid in the minds of their children, their neighbours and themselves. That each of us does a mix of good and bad things is uncontroversial. But to declare the bad and not the good fundamental to human nature, call it ‘sin’, nominalise all persons as ‘sinners’, declare that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ with ‘death’ understood as not only mortality but hell: such ideas require continual reinforcement. Hellfire sermons help, but their effects wear off. Church paintings of the Last Judgment, with anguished naked sinners snatched away by devils beneath Christ’s sentencing hand, grow familiar when seen every week. Religious revivals prove temporary. The people of Florence soon wearied of Savonarola. Jonathan Edwards, preaching God’s wrath in the 1730s in my home town of Northampton, Massachusetts, brought his congregation to paroxysms of weeping, despair and repentance, but after the ‘great awakening’ had spread through the region and made him internationally famous, he found that the people of Northampton gradually reverted to their old sinful selves. (In time they got rid of Edwards, though his exit was not as fiery as Savonarola’s.) The world, the flesh and the devil keep coming back, and must be rejected again and again.

George Herbert’s poems vividly describe the inner weather of Christian devotion. It’s all there: self-abasement before God; horror at his absence; meditation on the boundless enormity of sin; meditation on the boundless generosity of Christ’s sacrifice; outpourings of gratitude and love; self-excoriation for insufficient gratitude and love; laments in affliction; hymns of praise; wrestling with temptation; chafing under authority; the impulse to give up; the difficulty of staying in the right frame of mind; prayers to be made better; prayers for mercy. In one Herbertian pattern, the ‘I’ of the poem resists until suddenly brought into line by a supernatural presence at once overwhelming and benign. In another, accusations against God boomerang back against the speaker. Most of Herbert’s poems give the last word to a Christian message, so that taken individually they read as triumphs for piety. Taken cumulatively, they show that afflictions, anxieties and temptations keep coming back, as in an account of one hundred successful attempts to quit smoking. The problems are more durable than the solutions.

Herbert’s poems are varied and innovative in form, virtuosic in technique and full of surprises. They juxtapose biblical images with images from Herbert’s own world, making the former fresh and the latter spiritually resonant. They please when read aloud, and on close reading open up in unpredictable ways: some become clearer, others more mysterious and complex. Here is a more straightforward one, ‘The Quip’:

The merry world did on a day
With his train-bands and mates agree
To meet together, where I lay,
And all in sport to jeer at me.

First, Beauty crept into a rose,
Which when I plucked not, Sir, said she,
Tell me, I pray, Whose hands are those?
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then Money came, and chinking still,
What tune is this, poor man? said he:
I heard in Music you had skill.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came brave Glory puffing by
In silks that whistled, who but he?
He scarce allowed me half an eye.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came quick Wit and Conversation,
And he would needs a comfort be,
And, to be short, make an oration.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

A moral allegory in six neat tetrameter quatrains, like Everyman or Pilgrim’s Progress writ small. The familiar homiletic message – reject the world, trust in God – is made contemporary through the satirical mini-portraits of worldly types. It turns eschatological at the end, and its underlying emotional force is generated by the traditional Judeo-Christian hope for supernatural revenge upon one’s enemies.

The stings of the world are felt in turn. ‘Train-bands’ are the militia, and ‘mates’ are fellows or boon companions: a macho company has shown up at his house (‘where I lay’) to bait the lone misfit. In the next quatrain the group of males is replaced by a single alluring female. ‘Beauty crept into a rose’ miniaturises a traditional image of feminine sex appeal. Her mocking question ‘Whose hands are those?’ functions, I think, like ‘Cat got your tongue?’, save that impotence instead of silence is implied; ‘pluck’d not’ is a graceful euphemism for not having sex, involving the substitution of initial consonants. With Money, sound replaces touch. The chink of gold coins in my purse is my tune: what’s yours? I don’t hear anything. I thought you could play? The modern equivalent would be waving a roll of banknotes under a poor man’s nose. Glory, dressed in silks like a courtier, doesn’t bother to taunt. The sting here is indifference: the great ones barely notice you exist. Wit and Conversation (a single character, evidently) thinks to cheer up the by now dejected speaker. Like Job’s friends, he is loquacious but beside the point. And the protagonist stays patiently mute, his refrain evoking Psalm 38.15 in the Coverdale translation Herbert would have used in church: ‘For in thee, O Lord, have I put my trust; thou shalt answer for me, O Lord my God.’

Quip means ‘retort’, not ‘witticism’. When the quip arrives in the final stanza, it is entirely serious. ‘Speak not at large’ – come straight to the point, unlike those long-winded orators – ‘say I am thine’: the point of the retort is that the rest of you are not. The imagined future in which God will answer on his behalf is the Last Judgment, the ‘hour of thy design’; Herbert signals it without elaboration because he takes for granted that his readers will get the message. When Jesus comes back to destroy the world and gather his own, I trust that I will be among them, and the merry, the beautiful, the rich, the glorious and the witty conversationalists will all be going to hell. That’ll answer them.

Herbert has influenced poets from Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw to Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. And not only poets; reading Herbert has made converts, even in modern times. While reciting ‘Love (III)’, the famous last poem in The Temple, Simone Weil felt that ‘Christ himself descended and took possession of me.’ A recent series of Guardian columns in praise of Herbert by an Anglican minister called Miranda Threlfall-Holmes credits his poems with leading her from teenage atheism towards Christianity. ‘They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.’

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