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Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert review

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John Drury has written an exemplary biography of the influential religious poet

The devil, whatever people may say, doesn't have all the best tunes. Of all the lyric poetry our language has produced, George Herbert's is among the most musical, poignant, direct and, at the same time, subtle and intelligent. It makes allowances for the weakness of the heart often, indeed, that is its primary subject and nine-tenths of the poetry that survives is about God. It may be no surprise that TS Eliot rated him; after all, they were both, in their different ways, pillars of the Anglican church. What is more surprising is that the arch anti-Christian William Empson championed him. Of "The Sacrifice", he wrote: "an assured and easy simplicity, a reliable and unassuming grandeur, extraordinary in any material, but unique as achieved by successive fireworks of contradiction, and a mind jumping like a flea".

That was Empson's idea of poetry as perfection. (Strangely, the poem of Herbert's with which most people are familiar, "The Elixir", not only has had its own internal music eradicated because it is now more famous as a hymn, but lines such as "A servant with this clause/ Makes drudgerie divine" come close to articulating precisely what Empson thought was wrong and disgusting about Christianity.)

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