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This review is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

Brisk Sincerity john drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London: Penguin Press/Allen Lane) £25

George Herbert stood on frontiers all his life. He was born in the little Marcher town of Montgomery, facing the Welsh hills. He grew up in London, an observant young scholar and gentleman amid the cheek-by-jowl extremes of the early modern city. Academically brilliant, his career teetered between the life of a Cambridge don, the attractions of a position at Court, and the spiritual and, indeed, the more practical vocations offered by the Established Church. There was always a tension between his public life -  in which he wrote well-judged Latin addresses to James I and Prince Charles while Public Orator of the University of Cambridge, admired by James himself and befriended by those learned statesmen Francis Bacon and John Williams -  and the fastidious privacy which compelled him to shut away his extraordinary English poems, unpublished and pretty much unread during his lifetime. What was he to be in life? The adolescent's question is still asked, as in the 'Employment' poems, by a man in his mid-thirties:

Let me not languish then, and spend
A life as barren to thy praise,
As is the dust, to which that life doth tend,
But with delays.

Herbert never quite grew up, never fulfilled his promise. These shortcomings are the stuff of many poems, and make him an attractive subject for a biographer. In this acute and at times very moving account of his subject's life and legacy, John Drury uses the brilliance of Herbert's work to enlighten us on ...


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