I'm slowly and satisfyingly making my way through John Drury's new book George Herbert's life and poetry, Music at Midnight. Drury's book Painting the Word was an eye opener to the ways in which art provides exegetical images which are their own hermeneutical essays on the biblical text. Along with Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through the Centuries, and Graeme Finaldi's The Image of Christ, which doubled as the National Gallery's catalogue of the exhibition of that name, Drury's book is an important contribution to a revived interest in visual art as exegesis. And I see Richard Harries has a new book due in a few weeks on The Image of Christ in Modern Art.
Now Drury's book on Herbert comes at the end of years of reading and studying the quintessential Anglican Divine and poet. What makes Drury's book fascinating is the space given to Herbert's world, his early life and the connections between early experiences and the later poems. For example The Collar, with its opening line Drury links to a row breaking out at the table during a meal. "I struck the board, and cried, No more:" The choleric temper of the Herbert brothers, Edward and George are well documented, and Drury exploits the storm of rage between the brothers as the key to understanding a poem which both describes the inner psychology of anger, and the deeper psychological search for peace, harmony and serenity. The form of the poem is erratic, varied line lengths, rhymes and assonance all over the place. As Drury says, "It is an eruption". Such family experience recalled, provides for Herbert familiar experience on which to hang his own religious discontent and spiritual conflict as resentment of life's inner and outer chaos battled in his heart. Until eventually a parental voice addresses him, "Child", to which he replies, "Lord".
I've read The Collar often enough, and am surprised at the obviousness of the connection Drury makes, but only after he pointed it out is it obvious. And so in other parts of Herbert's experience, for example living near the busy intersection of business and society at Chring Cross, and another fascinating connection between Magdalen Herbert's hospitality in an age of genteel etiquette, and that same etiquette made famous in Herbert's best loved poem, "Love III". More about this fine book later - but here are the two poems, The Collar, and Love III. No wonder Rowan Williams chose Love III as his favourite poem, and T S Eliot admired Herbert enough to echo some of his lines in his own work.
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.