Academic journal article Cithara

The English Poems of George Herbert

Academic journal article Cithara

The English Poems of George Herbert

Article excerpt

The English Poems of George Herbert. Edited by Helen Wilcox. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 788. Illustrations. $45.99. Kindle edition $6.64.

Helen Wilcox's superbly annotated edition of the English poetry of George Herbert is, quite simply, a landmark in the history of Herbert scholarship and of scholarship on seventeenth-century literature in general. Huge in size and comprehensive in scope, this handsome and reasonably priced book (and its remarkably inexpensive Kindle counterpart) gives readers just about everything they could hope to have in a scholarly edition. The poems are more thoroughly annotated here than in any competing edition, and each poem is also prefaced by very helpful introductory notes on sources and general criticism. Wilcox has singlehandedly done, for Herbert, much of what the numerous editors of the John Donne Variorum edition have done for his good friend and fellow poet. Cambridge University Press is to be highly commended for having commissioned this project and for giving Wilcox the space she needed to produce such an impressive scholarly work. This, surely, will be the best edition of Herbert for the foreseeable future, and it will never lose its usefulness. The only way in which the edition could be improved would be if its coverage of criticism and commentary were somehow continually updated online. Lovers of Herbert (and Herbert is the kind of poet who does indeed often attract true lovers, not merely admirers) will gladly acknowledge the debt they owe not only to Wilcox but also to all the scholars and critics whose work she masterfully surveys.

Wilcox's preliminary Introduction to the entire volume exemplifies the quality of her work as a whole. She justly calls Herbert "the greatest devotional poet in English" (i), noting that he typically offers "not just an idea of the divine or transcendent" but "an experience, felt on the pulse of the human speaker" each poem presents (xxi). She skillfully weaves into her own commentary observations both from Herbert's own contemporaries and from later scholars. She notes his simultaneous interests in complicated theological texts, in the Greek and Roman classics, in the Bible and commentaries thereon, and in homely familiar proverbs. She commends his abili ty to combine "subtlety and plainness" (xxii) and to write in ways that suggest a "process of discovery" rather than mere restatements of theological commonplaces (xxii).

Wilcox also calls attention to Herbert's ability to convey, in The Temple, a simultaneous sense of "order and randomness," and she suggests that the book's three-part structure introduces the reader first to "social morality," then to "inner spiritual experience," and finally to "the apocalyptic future of religion" (xxii). She commends the book's middle section-The Church-for offering a high degree of integration and order but also says that it is "never so tightly structured as to prevent the spontaneity of shifting moods" (xii), noting that it "explores the full range of spiritual experience" (xxii). She calls attention to The Temple's debt to Renaissance sonnet sequences and reports that it in fact contains fifteen sonnets of its own. But she also observes that Herbert's book "is bursting with variety and ingenuity, hardly repeating the same stanza form in more than one hundred and fifty lyrics in the central section" (xxiii). …

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