Giving equal weight to the man and his work, this is the perfect introduction to a parson-poet who has fallen out of fashion
Biography is one of the most marketable genres of our age, and literary criticism is not. It is therefore a bold move for Allen Lane to publish a book that fulfils its subtitle so exactly. Herbert's life does not superficially offer much for the biographer: no wars, no quarrels, a happy marriage, disengagement from the religious controversies of the day in favour of an unwavering adherence to the Church of England. What made him extraordinary in an age of colourful characters was the poetry, and that is accordingly at the centre of this book.
Converting it into biography is not, however, at all easy, as it is rarely possible to correlate individual poems with external events. When John Drury, chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford, couples the life and the poetry, it is in order to get inside not only Herbert's mind but his craftsmanship, to introduce his readers to the work as well as the man. Alongside his narrative of outward events he offers a running commentary on a full half of the 173 poems that make up the 1633 collection, The Temple, many of them quoted in full, plus four of the Latin poems. Readers who are tempted into the book by its focus on the life will finish with something far richer than more conventional biographies offer.
George Herbert was born in 1593 to a minor branch of the aristocratic Herbert family, probably in Montgomery in mid-Wales. His father died when he was three, and a few years later his mother moved to London, where she ran a household distinguished for its hospitality towards intellectuals. John Donne addressed some poems to her, and was to preach her funeral sermon. George was sent to Westminster School at the time when the great preacher and linguist Lancelot Andrewes was in charge. One of the translators of the King James Bible, Andrewes was a master of style, especially of the "terse and urgent" short clause. TS Eliot was an admirer ("A cold coming [they] had of it … " is lifted from one of his sermons); Drury demonstrates too how much Herbert could have learned from him.
A distinguished career at Trinity College, Cambridge, culminated in Herbert's appointment as university orator in 1620. The post required him to be the public face of the university, in charge of its formal Latin correspondence and orations. It was a role that could have led to a good position in royal service. Instead, he allowed his deputy to take over much of the work, while he himself withdrew, perhaps because of his recurrent ill health, perhaps to try to resolve his increasingly urgent personal dilemma as to whether to pursue a career that would satisfy his worldly ambitions, or to enter the priesthood.
In 1629 he married, and not long after he accepted the living of Bemerton, close to Salisbury and the cathedral music that he loved, but frustratingly distant from the Anglican community that his friend Nicholas Ferrar had founded at Little Gidding. He died in his parsonage in 1633.
Drury integrates the poems and his commentary skilfully into this narrative, operating on the principle that "the circumstances of a poet's life and times", together with the habits of thought and feeling that characterise them, "are the soil in which the work is rooted". So the introduction, on "Herbert's World", embraces his theory of poetry and the range of his references to the worlds of business and pleasure.
A number of the poems recorded in the early Williams manuscript allow for an exploration of how Herbert's poetry developed. His parents' tomb invites the poem on "Church Monuments"; his own death is the context for a discussion of his magnificent "Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing", a skeleton whose skull he re-imagines as the eggshells that "fledged souls left behind". An account of the annual liturgical cycle makes space for his poetry on Christmas, the Passion and Easter.
A discussion of his followers, in particular Henry Vaughan, suggests a comparison of poems that imitated his own. And for those works that haven't fitted anywhere else, there is a final, catch-all chapter called "The bread of faithful speech" that brings together 14 more. That favourite of Simone Weil's (and of William Empson's), "Love III" – "Love bade me welcome" – is a recurrent touchstone from the first page, but every chapter is given its share of his finest poems.
Herbert is at once a master of simplicity and extraordinarily complex. Many of the difficulties for modern readers come from unfamiliarity with matters that Herbert's contemporaries took for granted, and Drury is expert at summarising the basics needed for understanding each poem. His commentary assumes little advance knowledge, and he rarely omits any essential information that some readers might need (one instance is the image of human flesh as "but the glass, which holds the dust / That measures all our time": an hourglass, not an unwashed beer glass). Biblical, liturgical and classical references are explained, unfamiliar words are glossed, the processes of alchemy described, and the difference between an iamb and a trochee spelled out. The last, indeed, proves especially important: the poems show an exceptionally subtle mastery of rhythm within simple metrical frameworks, and Drury will not let us overlook either (though his discussion of Latin metrics is a little odd). The Complete Poetry that Drury is now editing for Penguin Classics should fill in the gaps and provide yet more riches.
A few decades ago, some knowledge of Herbert's poetry was a standard element of cultural literacy. His insistence on both inward and outward spirituality is scarcely fashionable now, though even atheist readers find him deeply attractive: Empson was a particular admirer, and I have never had a student who resisted him. Christian spirituality is perhaps seen as too politically divisive, or too unfamiliar, for him to be read much in schools, and he has tended to disappear behind the more obvious attractions of that teenage crowd-pleaser Donne. Donne writes of sex and passion, and is magnificent on the terrors of damnation; Herbert writes of love and spiritual dryness, and can positively look forward to the Day of Judgment as a time for the reuniting of friends.
It is hard to imagine a better book for anyone, general reader or 17th-century aficionado or teacher or student, newly embarking on Herbert. This is the kind of literary criticism that enables an immediate appreciation of the poems by way of minimal extras. Its preferred adjective is "bright", one of Herbert's own favourites. The title comes from a recorded remark of his, that the memory of having helped a poor man with a fallen horse would supply him with a better "music at midnight" than the real thing that he made with his friends.
It isn't easy to avoid hagiography in writing such a life (the earliest, Izaak Walton's of 1670, for example), but Drury can at least let the poetry carry most of the weight. Ours is too cynical an age to believe in sanctity. Without ever saying so, this book is a reminder that it may be possible.
• Helen Cooper's Shakespeare and the Medieval World is published by Arden Shakespeare.