The quaint complexity, spiritual inensity and metaphysical reach of George Herbert's poetry have made him one of the most popular devotional poets in the English tradition of religious poetry. In the 19th Century he was printed and re-printed in all kinds of editions, from the leatherbound deluxe to the small popular fit in your pocket devotionals. I have several copies, of various ages and values, and I try to resist the temptation to pick up others as they are published, or older ones with their copper plate illustrations, extravagant fonts and decorated pages.
The critical edition by Helen Wilcox, published by Cambridge a few years ago, and costing an arm and a leg in hardback ( in my case a gift from Sheila) but mercifully now available at an affordable paperback, is definitive. The introduction, critical notes and comments demonstrate the editor's easy expertise in the history, culture and religious thought of the 17th Century, and as a reader who loves the poetry enough to be a true critic - wise, informed, erudite and generous in the rich flow of information and comment.
The Everyman Edition is a lovely volume, as the new Everyman volumes are - clothbound, high quality paper, clear print in a good sized font, and again good introduction and notes full of information. And in hardback at £12.99 almost one tenth!! of the cost of the hardback Cambridge Edition.
The Editor is Ann Pasternak Slater - her middle name one of the celebrated names of Russian literature - she is Boris Pasternak's niece. Describing Herbert's capacity to take ordinary things and discern eternal significance, and commenting on his phrase 'heaven in ordinarie', she says, "The commonplace is not merely capable of sanctity; it is what can most easily explain the transcendent to us".
Only a few of Herbert's poems are anthologised these days; understandable for a writer whose every line is resonant with biblical words, ideas and associations, and whose every other line alludes to Christian experience, or classical reference, or theological or liturgical connections. Take the poem below; replete with suggestion yet no active verb - he never says what prayer IS. But every clause is a facet glinting with possibility and hesitant insight. If you know it, enjoy it. If you haven't come across it before, enjoy it. Maybe, when all is said and done, the most we should hope for in our prayers is that there is "something understood."
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.