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This article is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

George Herbert Revisited Anne Ridler

THE POEMS OF George Herbert that appear in every anthology of devotional verse (The Elixir', 'Vertue', 'Love bade me welcome') have a deceptive simplicity, which perhaps partly accounts for the varying estimates of his status as an English poet, over the years since his death, and the long period during which his poems were thought of chiefly as Sunday School gift-books. We know that his contemporaries rated him highly, and editions of 'The Temple' were frequently reprinted until the end of the 17th century, but in the 18th, William Cowper was unusual in admiring the poems, though he thought their language gothic and uncouth.

It was Coleridge who revived respect for Herbert, printing three of his poems in the 'Biographia Literaria'. He described his conversion in a letter to William Collins in 1818, saying that he used to read the poems for amusement at their quaintness, but now found more substantial comfort in them than 'in all the poetry since the poems of Milton'. He and Charles Lamb disagreed on the subject: it was Coleridge's sensibility to language that made him perceive Herbert's greatness - especially the purity of his diction. He read the poems with close attention, sometimes making comments in the margin of his copy which bring him very close to us as readers. 'I do not understand this stanza', he remarks of some knotted lines in 'The Church Porch'; and he suggests the word 'nest'as an emendation for 'box' in the margin of 'Vertue' ...


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