Music at Midnight by John Drury: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Two Cultures: A Lifetime Later

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

Abraham Kuyper by Jan de Bruijn: A Review Article

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell


Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, by John Drury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, xx + 396 pages, $35.00.

George Herbert is the poet. Reviewer Fram Dinshaw nicely sums up Herbert’s attractiveness as a poet:

When John Drury, himself an Anglican divine, told James Fenton (the son of a canon of Christ Church) that he was writing about George Herbert, Fenton replied with gnomic brio “The poet!” adding “both in intention and execution.” Herbert’s authentic lightness and strength, pathos and wit, alertness and sympathy have long been as precious to poets as to fellow believers.[1] (321)

John Drury, author of Music at Midnight, is the chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford. This makes his assessment of Herbert all the more interesting. He labors throughout to convince the reader of the wrong-headedness of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s view that in order to truly appreciate Herbert’s poetry one must be

a Christian, and both a zealous and an orthodox, both a devout and a devotional Christian. But even this will not quite suffice. He must be an affectionate and dutiful child of the Church. (318)

There is a grain of truth in Coleridge’s view, since many believers have used Herbert’s poetry in their devotional lives, according to Herbert’s own intention in having them published after his death. Nonetheless, apart from devotional appreciation, there are many critics whose deep admiration for Herbert is not rooted in Christian faith.

Two examples will suffice. First, the Shakespearean scholar par excellence, Harold Bloom, no fan of Christianity in general or devotional poetry in particular, acknowledges that

there are only a few extraordinary devotional poets in the language, including Donne, and the Victorians Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti. By any standard, George Herbert is the devotional poet proper in English.”[2]

My second example is extraordinary in a different way. Camille Paglia is a feminist lesbian who has made it her business to be an explosive critic of feminism and liberalism. Academically she is an extraordinary cultural and literary critic, a kind of female version of H. L. Mencken, sometimes even defending orthodox Christians, even if somewhat unwittingly. Her defense of the humanities and her literary criticism are of an unusually high quality, given the state of both in today’s academy. In Break, Blow, Burn,[3] (a phrase taken from a John Donne poem “Holy Sonnet 14”) she devotes a dozen pages to Herbert. In her analysis of three of Herbert’s poems, she demonstrates a remarkably accurate understanding of Herbert’s orthodoxy, without a word of judgment, along with a true appreciation of his theology. Her analysis of the poetry’s structure, craftsmanship, and influences, is simply brilliant. Drury is her equal in this regard. However, he lacks her accuracy in understanding Herbert’s theology.

The problem this raises in Drury’s literary biography is that he often blunts the sharp edges of Herbert’s Anglican Calvinism in order, presumably, to make Herbert more palatable to non-Christian readers. In the introduction he maintains, “The primacy of love over theology and everything else is a major reason for the hold Herbert’s Christian poetry has on modern readers” (15). I doubt that anyone will be reading his biography who is not already keenly interested in Herbert’s poetry, Christian or not.

He goes on to set Herbert’s poetic sensibilities over against orthodox doctrine, billing Herbert as “a mystic for whom the actuality of immediate religious experience mattered intensely, and more than orthodox doctrine” (4). A fair reading of Herbert shows that orthodoxy was his way into God’s mysterious presence. Drury asserts that Herbert “put theology on a level with astronomy as a futile speculative exercise: otiose and subject to a certain officious absurdity” (108). The poem in question, “Affliction (I)”, says:

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
      None of my books will show

It is not demeaning theology, but rather asserting that we cannot predict our own earthly future by studying theology. Drury quotes Francis Bacon’s assessment of Herbert’s poetry as “divinity and poetry met” (135), although elsewhere he seems to portray the two at odds.

And then there is his usually subtle antipathy toward Puritan Calvinism. In analyzing “H. Baptism [II]” he sets Herbert’s love for children and childhood over against the Puritans’ attitude toward them.

For Calvinist puritans [sic] the Church was emphatically a fellowship of conscious and confessing believers. So they had a worry. Could an inarticulate infant be said to believe? (50)

The reader is left to draw his own negative conclusions. “Herbert yielded to no Calvinist in his enthusiasm for the Bible” (8). While Herbert would certainly have had differences with the Puritans (5), Drury exaggerates those differences (though he acknowledges Herbert’s appreciation of their devotion (7)). In his review in The Spectator, Fram Dinshaw comments:

But mostly he [Drury] clings to a rather bland view of what he anachronistically calls “Jacobean Anglicanism,” to which Calvinism is as antipathetic as popery. It will be interesting to see how his forthcoming Penguin edition deals with Herbert’s poem “The Waterfall” (not mentioned here) with its uncompromising recitation of double predestination.[4]

In a number of places Drury suggests that Herbert is pushing the orthodoxy of the Church of England beyond its limits. Barton Swain, in his Wall Street Journal review observes:

In the poem “Discipline,” for example—“Throw away thy rod / Throw away thy wrath: O my God, / Take the gentle path”—Mr. Drury thinks that Herbert is saying that God “needs to behave himself, stop lashing about and learn to love.” In “Love (3),” Herbert’s most famous poem, the poet “steps gracefully over the regular encumbrances of religion” by calling God “Love” instead of “God.”[5]

Drury attributes these theological adventures to the influence of Herbert’s brother Edward, who was a Unitarian (105). But Drury demonstrates that he is under Edward’s rather than Herbert’s theological influence when he claims, “Everything we need to know to be saved is clearly put in two italicized lines: love, watchful prayer and doing as one would be done by” (108). The lines referred to, in “Divinity,” are followed by this remarkable quatrain:

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
      Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
      Is all that saves and not obscure.

Drury attempts, unsuccessfully, to impose his moralism on Herbert (306–7).

I say all of this by way of alerting the reader to these weaknesses so that they will not distract from Drury’s superb literary criticism. And I should add that in so many places Drury shows a fine appreciation of Herbert’s theology (344). For example he emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in New Testament theology in his analysis of Herbert’s Easter poetry (267).

Drury embeds his literary criticism in the details of Herbert’s life (322). Herbert was born into a noble family and thus received the best education available at Cambridge. His genius was recognized early and he rose quickly in the ranks of the university, eventually achieving the prized position of university orator. But with the death of James II his hopes of preferment in the king’s court were dashed. Meanwhile, the powerful influence of his pious and refined mother took hold as he wrestled with a call to the ministry. He pursued this call the last three years of his life, which ended prematurely just shy of age forty. Drury is no hagiographer as he describes the subtlety of some of Herbert’s dealings, especially in his seeking of the office of university orator (230). Nor does he shy away from criticizing Herbert’s poetry. Of “The Sinner” he opines, “The poem fails to ignite. The next, ‘Good Friday’, is a double poem and particularly disappointing” (271). Herbert had known worldly privilege and the refinements and enjoyment of high culture. It was in this context that he learned to humble himself before God. In turn, that fueled his poetic abilities so that he wrote some of the finest verse in the English language. How else could he have written:

Perhaps great places and thy praise
Do not so well agree.
(“Submission,” stanza 4)

or these words about God keeping Adam from entering into his rest:

Yet let him keep the rest
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
(“The Pulley,” stanza 4)

Drury is himself a wordsmith—a master of lively and interesting writing. In commenting on the moveable dates of Easter, and thus the number of Epiphany Sundays, he observes, “This calendrical conundrum having been solved by careful calculation, the Church was ready to enter on the five weeks of Lent in which it prepared itself, by prayer and fasting, for Easter itself” (266).

Another great strength of Drury’s work is his meticulous research. This is especially evident in his chapter on the Williams manuscript (139–51). He is a scholar of the old-fashioned kind, making extensive use of original sources. He is also masterful in recreating historical context, as he does with the importance of Charles I’s attempt to marry a Spanish princess (117–24).

Drury brilliantly analyses dozens of Herbert poems, without boring the novice with too much technical jargon, and yet with enough finesse to keep the diligent student interested. For example he interprets “Affliction (I)” in great detail (155–61). He excels in pointing to the subtle, intentional structural elements in each poem, enhancing the appreciation of even the most experienced Herbert reader. He often speculates on the influence of great writers of Herbert’s time, such as his friend John Donne, or slightly before his time, Shakespeare. Drury has a penetrating analysis of several of Herbert’s imitators (285ff), but at the same time demonstrates the value of imitation (291).

There is a very helpful index of works referred to and analyzed, as well as twenty-four colored plates, and numerous integrated illustrations. This book is essential Herbert reading.

Herbert’s craft and wit were not for themselves alone. I say alone, because they are certainly there to be enjoyed as pure artistry, but not alone. Herbert’s craftsmanship was conceived to serve a grand purpose: the glory of Herbert’s God.


[1] Dinshaw, “Music at Midnight, by John Drury—Review” The Spectator, September 28, 2013, http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/9032551/music-at-midnight-by-john-drury-review/.

[2] Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost (New York: Harper-Collins, 2004), 183.

[3] Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn (New York: Pantheon, 2005), 134–46.

[4] Dinshaw, “Music at Midnight, by John Drury—Review.”

[5] Cf. Barton Swain, “Book Review: Music at Midnight by John Drury,” The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2014.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November 2014.

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Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Two Cultures: A Lifetime Later

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

Abraham Kuyper by Jan de Bruijn: A Review Article

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell


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