A Very Modern Herbert

Review: Helen Wilcox (ed.), ‘George Herbert: 100 Poems’

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector
• September 10, 2016 4:59 am


In 2013, Cambridge University Press published a collection of 100 poems by Rudyard Kipling selected by Thomas Pinney, editor of the three-volume scholarly edition of Kipling’s poetry, also published by Cambridge. The point of the shorter 100 Poems: Old and New was to show us how vibrant and diverse Kipling’s poetry could be—to change, as William Logan put it in his review at the New York Times, "the way we think about a poet whose poetry we scarcely think about at all." The book was an abject failure, at least according to Logan. The poems were flat, sentimental, and dated. Instead of sparking new interest in Kipling, the volume confirmed, Logan wrote, rightly or wrongly, that the "world that adored his poems is not our world."

Cambridge is back with a new selection of 100 poems—this time from the work of George Herbert—and it is, for the most part, a pleasure to read. Like the Kipling volume, the selections for George Herbert’s 100 Poems were made by the editor of the Cambridge edition of Herbert’s English Poems, Helen Wilcox. The purpose is also similar: to show how relevant, how modern, how diverse, the work of this early seventeenth-century country parson is.

This may be an easier task with Herbert than it is with Kipling. Not because our world is closer to Herbert’s than it is to Kipling’s or because Herbert is somehow more like us than Kipling is, but simply because he’s the better poet. Herbert may seem modern. He’s quick to express doubt, share anxiety, lament suffering—feelings we flatter ourselves by calling "modern." They aren’t. They’re human ones, and what makes Herbert perpetually relevant is the accuracy with which he captures the warring affections of the human heart—toward love and hate, belief and disbelief—in direct, sonorous, if also complex, lyrics.

At times he is overwhelmed by the futility of life. "My stock likes dead," Herbert writes in "Grace," "and no increase / Doth my dul husbandrie improve." At others, he is tempted by the "propositions of hot bloud." "I know the wayes of pleasure, the sweet strains," Herbert writes in "The Pearl,"

The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot bloud and brains;
What mirth and musick mean; what love and wit
Have done these twentie hundred yeares, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuffe is flesh, not brasse; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Then he that curbs them being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.

Still, while Herbert may seem "so familiar," as Wilcox puts it in her brief introduction, that reading him is "a process of self-discovery," he isn’t a modern man, even if Wilcox’s selections can sometimes make it seem so. The selections are mostly guided by aesthetics. Of the over 160 poems that make up the middle section of Herbert’s The Temple, his only published collection of English verse, Wilcox excludes poems whose obscure images or archaic vocabulary make them less immediate for modern readers. She also excludes the long poems that bracket these middle lyrics—"The Church-porch" and "The Church Militant."  This is the right decision. 100 Poems is an appetizer, not the full meal.

Unfortunately, she also leaves out many of the poems that deal with Christian living. The images and language of these poems is clear enough for anyone with a basic understanding of Christian doctrine and practice. They deal with things like fasting, obedience, and keeping the Sabbath. "Who goes to bed and doth not pray, / Maketh two nights to ev’ry day," Herbert writes in "Charms and Knots." "The Sundaies of man’s life," Herbert writes in "Sunday," "Thredded together on times string, / Make bracelets to adorn the wife / Of the eternall glorious King." In "Frailtie," Herbert writes coyly: "Lord, in my silence how do I despise / What upon trust / Is styled honour, riches, or fair eyes; But is fair dust!"

Herbert’s poems are full of such exhortations, and excluding them gives an inaccurate taste of Herbert’s work and a misleading impression of the man.

Wilcox’s claim that Herbert is "fundamentally optimistic"—stated without context or clarification—is particularly odd. He is optimistic about the hope of eternal life for those who repent and profess faith in Jesus Christ. But the sin and disbelief that Herbert sees around him also makes him long for God’s judgment:

I see the world grows old, when as the heast
Of thy great love once spread, as in an urn
Doth closet up it self, and still retreat,
Cold sinne still forcing it, till it return,
And calling Justice, all things burn.

"Man is no starre," he writes in "Employment (II)," but a "quick coal / Of mortal fire: / Who blows it not, nor doeth controll / A faint desire, / Lets his own ashes choke his soul."

Unsurprisingly, neither poem is included in 100 Poems, and readers looking for a quick spiritual pick-me-up from a sympathetic, inclusive Protestant priest might be surprised to read these and other sentiments in The Temple—like his description of the Catholic church in "The Church Militant":

As new and old Rome did one Empire twist;
So both together are one Antichrist
* * *
Thus, Sinne triumphs in Western Babylon
Yet not as Sinne, but as Religion.
Of his two thrones he made the latter best

If the goal of 100 Poems is to select Herbert’s best work as well as to show "the range, moods, subjects, tones, and styles" of it, it’s odd that so many of the pastoral poems and Jeremiads were excluded. Herbert does have an amazing range, but it is sadly narrowed in this otherwise judicious volume.

Published under: Book reviews