Music at Midnight

Simone Weil writes that 'absolute, unmixed attention is prayer' and, thus, you can see how George Herbert's poem, Love (III), became for her the 'most beautiful poem in the world'. It is a poem focused on the courtesy of attention where a person stumbling into a feast, feeling themselves unworthy, finds themselves invited in and invited up into the bosom of hospitality. It is an event that is commonplace. People refusing to be burden or a nuisance having to be persuaded by a different standard to relax and partake. It is one that Herbert knew well and one that he raises to a beautiful account of God's all embracing love. All blame, all trouble is absorbed by the welcoming host and, thus, is the guest liberated to enjoy the meal with out guilt or shame.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin,
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here";
Love said,"You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made your eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them:; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert continually pulls off this quiet miracle of poetry, enabling the commonplace, the simplicities of the everyday - of court, church, community and garden - to be transformed into an attentive seeing into both his own soul - in dark doubtful stresses and joyful releasing lights - and that of God's dealing with us (in wrath or indifference sometime as well as predominantly in liberating movement and in love).

John Drury's ' Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert' beautifully shows us why and how he did this. Beautifully written, lucid and informative, it guides us through the life, times and poems in a gifted act of scholarship. The poet, Kathleen Raine, once asked her PhD supervisor, none other than C.S. Lewis, whether he had learnt anything from 'literary criticism'? "Not much," he replied, "But from scholarship, yes." By which he meant, I think, work like Drury's that sympathetically elucidates the poems, their meaning and method and tells us by what way it succeeds or fails, so that we the reader may be helped to make better judgements regarding their sense, technique and meaning, and read them again with better attention, improved insight.

Herbert's own wish for his poems were that they provide comfort and consolation. In Simone Weil's case, they undoubtedly did. They helped her see through the crushing burden of her persistent headaches to place herself at the disposal of others, to place her thinking in a space that allows one to consider what it might be to consider and receive the grace of Love's hospitality. This is a poem's fine, consoling achievement.


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