George Herbert and the Music at Midnight

John Drury’s recent (and most excellent) biography of George Herbert is entitled Music at Midnight, and takes its title from a passage in Isaac Walton’s Life of Mr. George Herbert. The passage describes an episode that had occurred one night as the poet was walking from his home in Bemerton to the nearby cathedral city of Salisbury, where he was to join with some friends in playing a little music. Herbert was a keen and very competent musician, and composed many pieces – both religious and secular – throughout his life, as Walton describes prior to the episode in question in his Life:

His chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol; and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, that his time spent in prayer and cathedral music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth. But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music meeting; and, to justify this practice, he would often say, religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates and sets rules to it.

George Herbert: The Complete English Works (1995), pp.371-372, Everyman’s Library.

            This wonderful description (particularly delightful are the concluding comments about having to justify attendance at a private rehearsal, and the way in which religion ‘moderates and sets rules’ to mirth) gives a vivid sense of Herbert’s passion for music, and the regularity of his life. He was a man who loved (and to a certain extent depended upon) routine, and this is an important thing to remember when evaluating the episode that John Dury uses as a preface to book. It is also worth keeping in mind just how much music meant to him – that it ‘elevated his soul’ – when we read in what context the words ‘music at midnight’ were uttered.

Walton’s account of George Herbert’s life is in many ways overly romantic and he does seem in part to have fallen into the trap of reading the man through his work, seeing Herbert as an ideal pastor and model for all that Walton believed Anglicanism was and should be – there is certainly something of hagiography about it. Nevertheless, the events recounted in the biography remain fundamentally reliable, and if one can filter out the parts in which Walton waxes lyrical about Herbert’s saintliness and see the occurrences for what they are, then the Life remains a good resource. The passage from which Drury takes the title for his book is one which seems to represent a plain reporting of events, and is as follows:

In another walk to Salisbury he saw a poor man with a poorer horse that was fallen under his load; they were both in distress, and needed present help, which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse, and told him, that if he loved himself, he should be merciful to his beast. Thus he left the poor man, and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, who used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed; but he told them the occasion; and when one of the company told him he had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment, his answer was, that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight, and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place. “For if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let’s tune our instruments.”

ibid, p.373.

            The two things that emerge from this account are a.) that doctrine and life should be one, both pervading every fibre of our being, readying us at any second for the former to become incarnate in the latter; and b.) that doing good really is its own reward. With respect to the first of these, it is clear (though hard to make a reality) that, as Herbert said, we are bound to practise what we pray for – most fundamentally of all, we pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven, and this means that our wills are to be so in harmony with His that we do what He wishes out of love for Him and that we do what He wills precisely because He, the One we love, wills it.

There should be a seamless unity between what we pray for and the way we live our lives, so that at whatever time of day, whatever state of life we find ourselves in, we give ourselves to the task presented to us, and do the most loving or compassionate thing. As Herbert himself writes in his poem The Windows:


Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and awe: but speech alone

Doth vanish like a flaring thing,

And in the ear, not conscience ring.


As is noted in the poem above, it is only when this unity exists – when the doctrine we profess becomes expressed in the way we live – that a real and lasting impact is made in the lives of others. There is no dichotomy here, no placing of praxis over doctrine or vice versa – authentic faith holds on to and internalises what it believes to be the truth, so that those truths cannot help but be expressed in our actions. If this is true of an individual, it will not matter what time of day it is, whether they are tired or irritated – the truths of the Gospel, forming the background of the mind and filling the chambers of the heart, will flow outwards in the way that person reacts to whatever is put before them.

The second point about Walton’s account of Herbert’s encounter with the man and his horse, is that, as Walton relates Herbert having said to his co-musicians, the events of that night would ‘prove music to him at midnight’ – that is they would have the same effect upon him as the cathedral music he so enjoyed at Salisbury, an experience which was to him ‘heaven upon earth’. Thus Herbert (via Walton) communicates to us an essential truth about the Christian life and the universal human search for happiness – it is by giving ourselves in service to others that true happiness is found, by steadfastly refusing to appease the various competing demands of the ego and supplanting our selfish desires with loving action.

When we act in a spirit of true love – the seeking of the good of the other, for the other’s sake – those desires (which we have for so long convinced ourselves constitute our selves) can be quietened and calmed, allowing our true identities to emerge and thus allowing genuine peace and joy to dwell in our hearts. The ability to act in such a spirit can only come however, by first submitting our wills to God, and this is what connects this paradoxical key to happiness to the prior point about our beliefs becoming one with our praxis. Again, one of Herbert’s poems illustrates this point very well, and in this case the whole thing (The Elixir) is worth citing:


Teach me, my God and King,

In all things thee to see,

And what I do in any thing,

To do it as for thee:


Not rudely, as a beast,

To run into an action;

But still to make thee prepossest,

And give it his perfection.


A man that looks on glass,

On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the heav’n espy.


All may of thee partake:

Nothing can be so mean,

Which with his tincture (for thy sake)

Will not grow bright and clean.


A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

Makes that and th’action fine.


This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold:

For that which God doth touch and own

Cannot for less be told.


The integration between doctrine and life, and the connection between this integrated faith and lasting happiness or joy, is a recurring and key feature in George Herbert’s poetry. It is perhaps also, whether his non-religious admirers would like to acknowledge this or not, one of the main reasons why his work has proved to be so enduring. Herbert speaks of and offers the reader a life that is well-grounded, rooted in something sure and lasting, which can survive great suffering and which enhances life’s pleasures. He also consistently locates the source of this joy as being a life given not just to others, but to the Other – to God, as known and loved in Our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in and love of Him can transfigure ones vision, helping us to see the world as he does, so that to drop everything and help our neighbour truly will be for us ‘music at midnight’.

To take our greatest pleasure in helping others, in the name of the love that has been shown and given to us in Christ, is to become truly ourselves and truly free. The only thing one could suggest as a criticism of this vision is that any sins of omission we make will be to us, as for Herbert, barbs to our conscience. But in a world where love grows cold and the consciences of many have been dulled to a worrying degree, the suffering of a little compunction now and then is a small price to pay – it is part and parcel of what it means to be ‘in’ Christ and to love the way He loves, which is the only way to truly love, and which provides a remedy the world needs more than ever.


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