The English Poems of George Herbert

By Stanwood, P. G. | Early Modern Literary Studies, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The English Poems of George Herbert


Stanwood, P. G., Early Modern Literary Studies


The English Poems of George Herbert. Ed. Helen Wilcox. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. xlvi+ 740pp.+ 6 illus. ISBN 978 0 521 86821 1.

1. This beautiful, scrupulously edited volume of Herbert's English poems is sure to be consulted by curious and thoughtful readers for a very long time. The poems are set out in the conventional order of the first edition of 1633, with textual variants and comments given from the Bodleian (MS Tanner 307) and the Williams's manuscripts (MS Dr Williams's Library MS Jones B 62), and with reference to previous editions, especially the fine diplomatic edition of the Bodleian manuscript by Mario Di Cesare (1995).

2. There is a preliminary section showing a chronology of Herbert's life and times, followed by an elegantly written (though brief) introduction by the editor, then 687 pages of text and commentary, beginning with Miscellaneous Poems, 1-15, and continuing with The Temple, 16-182, from "The Dedication" to "L'Envoy." The volume concludes with a very full bibliography, and various indices-to Herbert's scriptural references, and to first lines, and poem titles. Wilcox's bibliography lists those many works to which she refers in her commentary. While John R. Roberts's George Herbert: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism (revised ed., Columbia: Univ. of Missouri P, 1988) must have been useful to her, there is no obvious reference to this important compilation. The present edition, of course, provides summaries of many of the publications that Roberts describes more fully in his work.

3. Wilcox does not aim to provide a variorum, or a history of Herbert criticism. She is selective in the commentary that she gives, concentrating especially on what is most recent, and what she evidently regards as most significant. Thus she presents each poem with a statement about the text (necessarily brief, for there is usually very little that needs to be said), supplemented by "Sources"-a contextual description. We are reminded that "The Altar", for example, is a "shaped" or "pattern" poem, reminiscent of The Greek Anthology. Then follows a sometimes lengthy account of "Modern criticism." "The Altar" receives just over two densely written pages, with reference to a number of familiar critics (Stein, Fish, Martz, et al.) that Wilcox evidently believes together provide a satisfactory view of the poem. The poem itself finally appears, with most of its sixteen lines receiving an extended gloss or explanation.

4. This method of presentation is familiar from the Longman Annotated editions, such as those by John Carey and Alastair Fowler of The Poems of John Milton (1968), or A. C. Hamilton of The Faerie Queene (1977). But Milton and Spenser offer large and connected works for discussion and annotation of the sort that Herbert's poetic book does not so easily afford. Each one of his lyric poems-most of them short-is surrounded by editorial matter so that The Temple is difficult to see as a whole, as a coherent body of work. It is true that Fowler's annotations of Paradise Lost climb to the top of most pages where a few lines of verse lie crowded; nevertheless, one does not lose sight of the poem. Wilcox's Herbert is less fortunate, and we are left with what must seem a kind of Herbertian encyclopaedia. Few "common readers" of Herbert will wish to use this edition, but no academic library should be without it.

5. …

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