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:>. 

  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. 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. 

  6. 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 discussion. 

  7. 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. 


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