Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury - review by John Stubbs

John Stubbs

Songs of Praise

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 394pp £25

Twice a week in the early 1630s, a group of worshippers would remain behind after Evensong for a 'private Musick meeting' in Salisbury Cathedral. A regular member of the group was the poet George Herbert, rector of the nearby Wiltshire parish of Bemerton. One evening Herbert is said to have arrived with gown and breeches bespattered and rumpled, attracting comment and some disapproval from fellow musicians. On the road, he explained, he had encountered 'a poor man with a poorer horse, that was fall'n under his Load'. Wiry, consumptive and, though a good walker, unsuited to physical labour, Herbert had helped this unfortunate traveller repack his burden and given him some money for the journey ahead. One member of the cathedral group remarked that 'so dirty an employment' was hardly becoming of Herbert. He is said to have replied 'that the thought of what he had done, would prove Musick to him at Midnight'. The phrase has lent a title to John Drury's outstanding new account of Herbert's life and art.

Although probably apocryphal - enhanced by 'honest' Izaak Walton, an early biographer and admirer of the poet - the story draws together some essential elements of Herbert's character and his qualities as a writer. Quite apart from the untypical disrespect Herbert seemed to be showing the cathedral, his 'soyl'd and

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