Helen Wilcox, Ed.: The English Poems of George Herbert

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Helen Wilcox, ed. The English Poems of George Herbert. Cambridge UP, 2007, xlv + 740 pp. $180 hardcover.

It is somewhat intimidating to review for a journal called Style the work of a great stylist edited by a scholar whose own style I have admired for many years, always intelligent, always free of disfiguring jargon. One can only pray to be granted a style answerable to the occasion.

First, a description: in the acknowledgments Helen Wilcox expresses gratitude to all the previous editors of Herbert, most notably F. E. Hutchinson, who produced the Clarendon edition of Herbert's works in 1941. The list of individuals thanked is very long, and perhaps it is theologically appropriate that no distinction is made between the living and the dead. Don Fowler left us some years ago, whereas a letter from Daniel Doerksen arrived in my e-mail on the morning of this writing. There follows a chronology which runs from 1593, the date of Herbert's birth, to 1715, the date of George Ryley's Mr. Herbert's Temple and Church Militant Explained and Improved (xiii- xvii); a note on abbreviations and modes of reference (xviii-xix); an engaging Introduction, astute enough to delight the learned reader, clear enough to entice the beginner (xxi-xxxvi); a note on the text and publication of Herbert's English poems (xxxvii-xl); and a glossary which provides "definitions and annotations for about a dozen of the most frequently used and multivalent words in The Temple" (xli-xlv). The method of dealing with individual poems helps us to understand why this edition has been so long in the making: each poem is prefaced by a note on Texts, another on Sources, and a third on Modern criticism, and is followed by a commentary keyed to line-numbers. Readers similarly obsessed will enter into the editor's sigh of relief when this monument to perfectionism was finally off her hands.

The commentary is almost invariably excellent, as we might expect: Herbert has received a great deal of critical attention, but the knowledge, intelligence and detailed scrutiny that Helen Wilcox has brought to the poems is matched by few of the many scholars who worked on him through the twentieth century. For that reason the notes on modern criticism which preface each poem are less often useful, and one might wish that she had not taken to task the documentation of the history of Herbert criticism, a topic I shall return to. The fact that one's own flesh is "but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time," prompted a decision to concentrate on the poems I have previously considered in print or have most often taught?

The Bodleian manuscript of Holy Scriptures (1) reads, at lines 5-6, "Thou art all health health, thriving till it make / A full aeternity." Mario Di Cesare defends this punctuation, following David Freeman who regards the first health as an uninflected genitive. This is taking his declared attachment to the lectio difficilior (Di Cesare xv-xvi) too far. The Williams MS has a comma, the only one in the line, after the first "health," while Thomas Buck's 1633 edition has commas after the first "health" and after "striving." Helen Wilcox rightly regards the punctuation of the Bodleian MS as "evidently an error," and notes that Hutchinson preferred that of the Williams MS. She follows the 1633 edition, arguing that it is "consistent with patterns in the rest of the sequence." The Williams MS reading seems preferable. The remarkable thing about 1633 is the modernity of Buck's punctuation, and I agree with Di Cesare's view that Buck tended to flatten out meanings. To my mind, even a modernizing editor should refrain from imposing modern "grammatical" conventions on early modern texts.

Of the poems I have most often taught, Church Monuments probably comes in first. I very much liked the note on line 15 ("When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat"), with its reference to a High Anglican practice which will be unfamiliar to many readers, and its illuminating invocation of Brian Vickers citing the line as an instance of the rhetorical feature of auxesis, words arranged in ascending order of importance. …