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George Herbert: The Anglican poet-priest lived both a public and an inner spiritual life 

Urban myth has it that someone walked into a high street jeweller to buy a gold cross and the shop assistant asked, "Do you want a plain one or the one with the little man on?" If true, the story must resonate with John Drury: Music at Midnight takes it sadly for granted that modern readers of George Herbert are no longer attuned to Jesus Christ as a sign, asking, "Is this a problem?"

The title Music at Midnight refers to an anecdote told by Izaak Walton, Herbert's first biographer. On his way to join some musician friends, Herbert stopped to help a man whose horse had fallen under its load. The usually "trim and clean" Herbert was soon covered in mud and, arriving at his destination, promptly questioned about his appearance. His answer was that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight. Herbert said, "I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for the occasion." The anecdote nicely encapsulates several strands in Drury's Life: the musicality of Herbert's verse, the fastidiousness of the man, how the poetry still has the capacity to comfort sad souls, and how Christianity proved the motivating force in Herbert's life.

Born in 1593 into an aristocratic and well-connected family, Herbert seemed destined for high office at court but after a series of personal crises, including the loss of his beloved mother, he turned instead to the Anglican priesthood. Herbert's poetry is shot through with Christian symbolism and Drury suspects that for it to retain some appeal for generations to whom Jesus is nothing more than "the little man" on a crucifix, the sacred references within the secular must be made palatable.

As a biblical scholar and Chaplain and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, Drury is adept at catching religious intonation in Herbert's verse, what he calls the "religious meta-narrative". For those who might doubt the ability of a biblical scholar to "do" literature, Drury comes to the task refreshingly free from any theoretical tics acquired in the modern English faculty and instead reads the poetry as a critic who knows why people continue to read Herbert: poetry need be no more than spiritual succour in moments of dejection. "The modern reader," he says, "can be free from intellectual reserve and enjoy Herbert's poetry (to use his own word) ‘heart deep'."

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