The English Poems of George Herbert. Ed. Helen Wilcox. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. xlvi+ 740pp.+ 6
illus. ISBN 978 0 521 86821 1.
P. G. Stanwood
University of British Columbia
P. G. Stanwood. "Review of The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/revwilco.htm>.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- What audience is this edition of Herbert
meant to serve? The texts are here, but overwhelmed by editorial matter.
Students may find useful comments on particular poems, but no one can
conveniently read sequentially what has become principally a reference work.
And critics and scholars of Herbert may not always feel adequately served by
the commentary. Although Wilcox provides many synopses, she is inevitably
selective and seemingly uncritical about the critics she summarizes. One
instance is the account of “Love (III)”, surrounded by five pages of
discussion and annotation, where Seamus Heaney’s thoughtful reflections are set
against the curious (and for some the rebarbative) remarks of Michael
Schoenfeldt. Wilcox is even-handed here, as elsewhere; but one might wish for
some interpretive guidance, judgement, or opinion.
- Yet Herbert’s subtle poetry is ever
mysterious, and no edition such as this one can possibly satisfy our
continuing—and ineluctable— desire for understanding it. Even so large and
complex a volume as this one must seem inadequate for its subject; but there
are many helpful insights, especially in the glosses for particular lines. “The
Sacrifice” is a fine instance of Wilcox’s thoroughness in providing
scriptural references and explanatory notes. Similarly suggestive is the note
on Perirrhanterium, the subtitle of The Church-porch, with its
recollection of “baptismal cleansing” and association with Psalm 51:7, “Thou
shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: thou shalt wash me, and I
shall be whiter than snow.” The moral precepts set out in the seventy-seven
stanzas of the poem have been “Sprinkled and taught” so that one may now enter
fully into The Church itself. The metaphorical sprinkling with the
perirrhanterium, or aspergillum is indeed associated with Psalm 51, and the
sprinkling and the Psalm at once form the traditional opening or introit of the
Eucharistic liturgy. Wilcox does not mention this further connection; yet
Herbert might surely have intended his readers to think of the rite of
asperges, a point which Wilcox does not quite remark in her otherwise very full
- Many points and queries might be made of
this formidable volume, but Helen Wilcox recognizes the limitations that such
an edition entails. She writes with characteristic generosity in the
concluding sentences of her introduction that “critics who work on Herbert’s
poems will surely continue to challenge, inform, stimulate and occasionally
amuse his other readers [but] the poems will also continue to demand reading
and re-reading in their own right, as well as in the light of changing
knowledge and with the benefit of shifting perspectives” (xxxv). She ends by
writing of "Prayer (I)", which she rightly believes demonstrates Herbert’s
art as an “immense, glorious and sometimes baffling achievement.” This
remarkable poem, a sonnet without a finite verb, ends in a half-line, “one of
Herbert’s most spectacularly flexible phrases”: something understood.
The phrase includes everything in its lack of specificity, for one must be
ready to acknowledge grace even while attempting to define it. Wilcox’s
meticulous attention to Herbert’s poetry aims to unfold these desires, and her
edition succeeds in doing so abundantly.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).