Herbert and Music

It doesn't take long to find a reference to music in The Temple - only four lines of poetry, in fact, before Herbert mentions singing in his 'Dedication'. Elsewhere Herbert writes of trumpets and lutes, choirs and consorts, psalms and anthems. Musical imagery in poetry of this period is not, of course, uncommon; but the sheer quantity of references to music in The Temple seems especially noteworthy. This short essay by graduate student Simon Jackson explores how an understanding of Herbert as musician can enrich our readings of The Temple.

Herbert the Musician

Izaac Walton, Herbert's seventeenth century biographer, records that the poet's love of music flourished throughout his life. He records:

His chiefest recreation was Musick, in which heavenly Art he was a most excellent Master, and, compos'd many divine Hymns and Anthems, which he set and sung to his Lute or Viol. (Walton, The Life of Mr George Herbert (1670), pp. 59-60)

According to Walton, Herbert would attend choral services at Salisbury Cathedral; and before returning to his parish in Bemerton, 'he would usually sing and play his part, at an appointed private  Musick meeting'  - even occasionally missing services in his parish to indulge his hobby. (Walton, p. 60)

Herbert's interest in music seems to have been fostered from a young age. In one of his Latin poems, Memoriae Matris Sacrum ('In Sacred Memory of My Mother', Magdalen Herbert), Herbert remembered how there was always music in the family home (Memoriae II, 'Corneliae sanctae', ll.42-44). Two of the most famous musicians of the day, the composers William Byrd and John Bull, dined at the family home in London. Music in the Herbert household wasn't simply reserved for after-dinner entertainment, and often coincided with more 'virtuous' concerns. George's oldest brother Edward taught himself to sing and play the lute at university, 'that I might entertaine my selfe...and that I might not neede the company of younge men in whome I obserued in those tymes much ill example and deboist [debauchery].' (The Life of Edward, First Lord Herbert of Cherbury, ed. Shuttleworth, pp.16-17). More piously still, John Donne, preaching at Magdalen Herbert's funeral in 1627, recalled how the family ended each sabbath 'with a generall, with a cheerfull singing of Psalmes'. (Donne, 'Funeral Sermon on Magdalen Herbert, Lady Danvers', 1627)

Walton records that music played as important a part in the poet's death as it did in his life. The biographer never met Herbert, and his account - which seems intent on representing the poet as a contemporary saint - needs to be approached with a certain amount of caution. Nevertheless, regardless of whether the anecdote is drawn from Herbert's life or from a reading of his poetry, Walton's deathbed scene provides an appropriate end for the musician-poet-priest:

The Sunday before his death, he rose Suddenly from his Bed or Couch, call'd for one of his Instruments, took it into hand, and said -

 My God, my God,
 My Musick shall find thee,
 and every string
 Shall have his attribute to sing.

And having tun'd it, he play'd and sung:

 The Sundayes of Mans life,
 Thredded together on times string,
 Make Bracelets, to adorn the Wife
 Of the eternal glorious King:
 On Sundays, Heavens dore stands ope;
 Blessings are plentiful and rife,
 More plentiful than hope.

Thus he sung on Earth such Hymns and Anthems, as the Angels and he, and Mr. Farrer, now sing in Heaven. (Walton, p. 77)

Music in The Temple

So Herbert's life seems to back up our original impression that music was important to the poet. But where does that leave us? We can read The Temple with a new alertness, perhaps, pricking up our ears and noting with relish each new musical pun; but that will only get us so far and seems a rather soulless, I-Spy approach to such richly suggestive poetry. Instead, the rest of this essay will be interested in the ways in which Herbert employed musical ideas and motifs to explore many of the key themes of The Temple; and thus also interested in how recognising and understanding Herbert's use of music can enrich our readings of his verse.

Why does Herbert introduce music into his Temple? To answer this question, we could draw attention to the ways in which poetry and music are both concerned with communication, or even communion.  One of the most famous hymn settings of a Herbert poem is 'Let all the world in every corner sing', recorded for the Cambridge Authors project by the choir of Queens' College, Cambridge; try listening to this recording, and think about the ways in which the poem tries to collapse the immense distance between God and man: 'The heav'ns are not too high...The earth is not too low'.


When listening to the recording, think about the choir's decision to change from four-part harmony to unison singing for the second verse. If we get everyone together from all the corners of the earth, Herbert argues, if we shout and sing our psalms loudly enough, we stand a good chance of being heard. It is unsurprising that the poem has become a popular hymn, uniting one person with another, and human with divine. ('Let all the world in every corner sing' is number 3 on the 'Musical Settings' page. When you're done with the recording, close the window or tab and read on.)

A similar effect is achieved in Herbert's translation of 'The 23d Psalme'. At first glance, this poem may seem to have little to do with music. But remember that this is a psalm, and that The Temple as a whole has been compared to the songs of David, found in the Biblical book of Psalms. Considering Herbert's metrical inventiveness, this poem may seem distinctly unremarkable, written in a form the hymn books call 'Common Metre'. Since the  sixteenth century, this verse form has been popular with hundreds of psalm translators and hymn writers. At one time, though, the form was associated with secular ballad singing. Hymn writers borrowed these popular tunes, hoping to encourage the popular singing of sacred songs. The ghost of a popular, familiar and perhaps secular melody lies behind the Common Metre of 'The God of love my shepherd is' - an echo of Herbert's passion for 'Musick-meetings' and household psalm-singing on a Sunday, and entirely appropriate to a translation of one of the most comforting of psalms.

Indeed, converting the secular into the sacred seems to have been one of Herbert's main motivations for writing poetry. 'Jordan (I)' challenges the conventional wisdom that all poetry should be interested solely in the passions of worldly lovers: 'Who says that fictions only and false hair/Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?' (ll.1-2). One way in which Herbert attempted this was to write new words to existing music - a practice known as 'contrafaction' or 'parody'. Herbert's poem 'A Parody', then, does not suggest subversion and mockery (as the modern usage of the word might suggest); instead, it draws attention to its secular origins as a song written by Herbert's relative William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Simply glancing at the two poems demonstrates their similarities:

 Soul's joy, now I am gone,
 And you alone,
 (Which cannot be,
Since I must leave myself with thee,
 And carry thee with me).... [Pembroke, 'Song', ll.1-5]

 Soul's joy, when thou art gone,
 And I alone,
 Which cannot be,
Because thou dost abide with me,
 And I depend on thee.... [George Herbert, 'A Parody', ll.1-5]

Far from mockery, Herbert's exploration of God's presence-in-absence is reinforced by our sense of the presence-in-absence of Pembroke's song: 'Because thou dost abide with me,/And I depend on thee'.

Herbert's description of 'Church Music' as 'Sweetest of sweets' may initially seem sweeping. But the more we read of The Temple, the more aware we become of the ways in which Herbert used music in his poetry, and the more we realise how deep Herbert's understanding of the art is. Herbert's music isn't, for instance, a concordant, perfect harmony - music that would, in other words, be intensely boring to listen to. Instead, it includes discords, clashes and suspensions, all waiting to be resolved; as a lutenist and viol-player he understands that to tune a stringed instrument, the string must be put under pressure, pulled taut and stretched. All these ideas come together in the central section of one of Herbert's most popular poems: the discord of the crucifixion, like the tuning of an orchestra, is understood as a necessary prelude to the jubilant song of praise of 'Easter':

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
 With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
 Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day. ['Easter', ll.7-12]

Musical Settings of The Temple

Although Walton suggested that Herbert sang his own poems, unfortunately no settings from his lifetime still exist. However, after the posthumous publication of The Temple in 1633, musicians were soon drawn to set his short lyrics. We still have a number of seventeenth-century settings of some of Herbert's verse, by John Jenkins, John Wilson, and Henry Purcell. Many of Herbert's poems became popular as hymns, which are still sung regularly in churches today - have a listen to the recordings on this website of 'King of glory, King of Peace', 'Teach me my God and King', 'The God of love my shepherd is', and 'Let all the world in every corner sing'. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers are still drawn to Herbert's verse, and it is well-worth exploring this wide repertoire. Perhaps the most famous settings are Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Five Mystical Songs' (one of which, 'The Call', is recorded here), which have been popular since their first performance in 1911. Composers are still responding to The Temple, and in 2003, the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan set Herbert's short poem 'To my successor' for the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Further Reading

Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London, 1954). Summers' book includes an informative chapter discussing Herbert's interest in music

Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and music in seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 1997). Aware of the musical background to poetry of the period, McColley provides a reading of three major seventeenth-century poets - Donne, Herbert and Milton - in terms of the great choral tradition of the period.

John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton, 1961). This is an interesting account of the relationship between poetry and music between 1500 and 1700. It includes a substantial section on Herbert's verse.

David Lindley, Shakespeare and Music: An Arden Critical Companion (London, 2006); and Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres (London, 1993, repr. 2006). Herbert's verse was informed by Classical ideas about music. These two books offer interesting, readable introductions to the subject.

Further Thinking

Simon Jackson suggests that music and poetry are not simply analogous arts, but for Herbert were virtually one and the same. In your reading of poems from The Temple, how do you think Herbert achieves the dissonant, concordant, rhythmic, tonal, and dynamic effects of which Simon speaks here?

The musical emphasis that Simon Jackson describes in Herbert's poetry tends to shift his poems toward voice and performance, and away from the solitude of a single reader's encounter with words on a page. How do you square this emphasis on 'communication' or 'communion' with the decidedly personal, even intimate nature of Herbert's poetry?

The Cambridge Authors Herbert pages include settings of Herbert's music, as well as readings of some of his prose writing. Try reading some of this poetry or prose, and then listening to it sung or spoken. How are these experiences different, if at all? Does music tend to foreground aspects of the poetry other than its semantic meaning? Do you think the composers responsible for the music have understood, sympathised with, or challenged the sense of Herbert's poems? How and why? (Click here for the music, and here for the prose.)

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