The 17th-century parson poet has a new audience, attracted by his message that love must come before God
Towards the end of Richard Linklater's vertiginous, queasy Waking Life is one of the most strange and wonderful pieces of dialogue in modern cinema. The nameless central character wanders up to a man playing pinball and confides his fear that he is either dead or trapped in a dream. The man looks up from his game and, fighting – as it were – fire with fire, recounts a dream he once had about Lady Gregory: "Yeats's patron… this, you know, Irish person… So we're walking along, and Lady Gregory turns to me and says, 'Let me explain to you the nature of the universe… there's only one instant, and it's right now, and it's eternity. And it's an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, 'Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?' And we're all saying, 'No, thank you. Not just yet.' And so time is actually just this constant saying 'No' to God's invitation… that's what time is."
A casually brilliant exchange that sticks in the brain like a golden splinter – and, it must be said, a quintessentially Herbertian one. It could almost be a dramatisation of one of George Herbert's poems, which so often concern the speaker's reluctance to submit himself – his proud, separate, searching ego – to the all-consuming embrace of love, or the universe, or God, or whichever dusty term we want to use. "Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back," he wrote in Love (1633), which Simone Weil described as "the most beautiful poem in the world". "My soul doth love thee," we read in Justice (1), "yet it loves delay". No thank you, not just yet. Not today.
George Herbert is also a poet for whom the spiritual life is uneasily entwined with the Protestant work ethic, for whom we are all (to continue the parallels with Linklater's oeuvre) inveterate slackers, so dazed and confused by the world's "gilded emptiness" that we cannot render clear-eyed praise to the sacred power within and behind it. I say "uneasily" because the central paradox of Herbert's poetry, as of all holy striving, is his consciousness that there is fundamentally nothing to be done; all our business, including the "quaint words and trim invention" of subtle poems, is but a means of endless evasion. What is really required of us is the non-action of letting go – the sublime "Yes" that, as John Lennon sang in Mind Games, "is surrender" – and that's not easy. Not here. Not now.
This is a dangerous doctrine, of course. John Drury's reading of Herbert in this timely new study is a milder one, focusing on the poet's "arch-topic": love. "The primacy of love over theology and everything else," he writes, "is a major reason for the hold Herbert's Christian poetry has on modern readers – secular and even atheist as they may be."
Interspersed with the biography are brisk analyses of some 80 poems, the result being an unusual life-cum-exegesis with the lightness and clarity that were, for Herbert, cardinal virtues. Drury takes us from Herbert's schooldays at Westminster – seeing in the "exacting discipline" of composing in Latin a language "so lapidary and so precise", the origin of the architectural patternings of his mature poetry – to his illustrious career at Cambridge and eventual true calling as a country parson.
Unpublished in his lifetime, Herbert's poetry went through two printings in the year after his death and another six in the following decades. It was, perhaps inevitably, sneered at in the later 17th and 18th centuries – William Cowper's a lone voice of admiration, "gothic and uncouth" though he thought the poems – before being rediscovered at the start of the Romantic era. Although recognition of his genius is now widespread, I wonder if we have yet got the full measure of this strange and shining body of songs? It stands in similar relation to mainstream Christianity as Jalal al-Din Rumi's verses to orthodox Islam, not only in its devotional fervour but the "inns" and "friends" of its homely, startling allegories. At its heart lies the perennial insight that, as Drury hints (despite being a chaplain), is older, wilder and simpler than theological projections. "This hour," Herbert writes in The Discharge, "is mine: if for the next I care,/I grow too wide,/And do encroach upon death's side".
No reaching out towards an imagined future bliss, here is an injunction to "drink the clear and good" of present being. There's only one instant, as Lady Gregory's shade might say, and it's right now.