Back to my roots as a teacher of literature for this one: an excellent biography of the poet George Herbert, whose works I never actually had the good fortune to teach, apart from using a couple of his poems to teach general practical criticism. Alas, his poetry nowadays, along with other Metaphysical Poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan, has been judged to be too difficult for today’s sixth form students… yes, I actually had an examiner say that to me, a few years ago.
And, reading this book did have me feeling my age, as Drury – an Oxford don – felt it necessary to explain so many small things to his general reader, things that I had as part of my general knowledge as a school student back in the distant past. Nowadays, so many cultural, historical, religious and theological glosses are needed. (Pauses to put on his dead colonel’s hat.)
It is a detailed, thoughtful and sympathetic biography of a wonderful poet with a masterly fluency with the English language, from that Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean period when the English language was bursting into full bloom. Herbert died , probably of consumption, before he was 40. He seems to have been the epitome of the Church of England clergyman, in the early days of the Church of England, before the Civil War, a man who was fortunately sheltered from the violence, torturing and persecution taking place in his time.
Drury weaves much careful exploration and revealing analysis of Herbert’s poetry into the story of his life; layers of meaning are teased out and new aspects revealed – to me, at least. It wasn’t an easy read, but an enlightening one. What comes across most strongly is Herbert’s deep religious faith and trust in his God, speaking from an age that we can nowadays hardly begin to comprehend. An excellent read, a book which refreshed my pleasure in Herbert’s poetry.