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So I did sit and read
on 4 October 2013
John Drury tells us that Simone Weil considered Herbert's poem 'Love III' (Love bade me welcome...) to be the most beautiful poem in the world. It is the work of a man, he says, "who valued common experience, common sense and courtesy so highly as to collect 1,184 proverbs - at the same time a mystic for whom the actuality of immediate religious experience mattered intensely, and more than orthodox doctrine".
In this inspiring biography Drury balances and integrates the known details of George Herbert's life, with a welcome commentary on his poems. Herbert's English poems were not published till after his death at age 39. And what a collection. He handed the poems over saying that "the picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul..." could be considered for publication if they "may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul," (and burnt, if not).
Herbert came from a distinguished family. His mother Magdalen, left widowed with numerous children, married a man 20 years her junior and created 'a salon of witty conversation' at their house in Charing Cross. She was lauded by many talented people, including John Donne. Young George's love of music was enhanced by guests such as William Byrd and John Bull.
George became the public orator at Cambridge, and placated King James with his rhetoric. He wrestled with his own attraction towards academic success and a vocation as a priest, an unusual choice then for a man of his noble background. His health was not good. Poems such as 'Affliction' express his bitter-sweet ambivalence towards the achievements and circumstances of life, his rebellion and bafflement with God, and his love. He enjoyed 3 happy years of married life. The maps which John Drury provides enhance our ability to place Herbert in Westminster, Cambridge , Montgomery, Wiltshire - where he settled with his bride at the rectory of Bemerton Church. There are rich descriptions of the life around Herbert, without those endless speculative ifs, maybes and woulds, which some biographies are filled with. Many poets were inspired by Herbert's work in the generations which followed. There is a chapter on 'Heirs and Imitators', and one about "Herbert's Readers." There were varying views. Anyone reading this enlightening biography will have the opportunity to read, or re-read many of the poems, and make up their own mind. Highly recommended.