Friday, March 13, 2015

`A Happie Fortune'

The book is substantial, built to last, more like the house of bricks than the house of straw. Bound in leather, with marbled endpapers, fore-edge, top and foot, its cover and spine are stamped with gold. No foxing is apparent and the leather is hardly scuffed. The complete title:  The Poetical Works of George Herbert. With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes, by the Rev. George Gilfillan. It was published by D. Appleton & Co., New York, in 1854. At the front, the book is signed in pencil “Eli [?] L. Belcher. 1867.” Below that is another, smaller signature in black ink: “Helen A. Pinkerton 12-1945.” Helen writes in an email: 

“Going through my books of poetry, I came upon an old favorite, one of the earliest books I acquired when I began at Stanford in 1944-45. . . . I bought it just at the end of my second year at Stanford, probably at a bookstore in Palo Alto. There were quite a few excellent stores at that time. That I spent my hard-earned money on Herbert tells me that I must have already had contact with [Yvor] Winters and was exploring his favorite poets.” 

Helen shipped the book to me and it arrived on Wednesday. She left no marginalia but placed light pencil checks beside the titles of a dozen poems in the table of contents, “. . .including `Church Monuments,’ which tells me that I was using the book when I took his finest course, `English Lyric Poetry,’ in my Junior year.” 

Winters judged “Church Monuments” among the finest poems in the language. In a letter written April 19, 1958, to Allen Tate (ed. R.L. Barth, The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, 2000), he says: “This is the only great poem that Herbert wrote. In his other poems there is a kind of childish pietism which is very hard to take. This poem is absolutely serious; it would appear to come from another hand.” 

As a critic, Winters is careful to judge poems, even individual lines in poems, not poets. The greatest poets write awful poems, and mediocrities occasionally write quite good ones. Here is Winters in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967): 

“Of George Herbert's poems, the best, after `Church Monuments,’ is certainly `The Pulley,’ and after this a few other anthology favorites: `Throw Away Thy Rod,’ `Sweet Day,’ and `I got me flowers.’ These poems have grace, but they exhibit a cloying and almost infantile pietism. This pietism is the characteristic mark of almost all of the poet's work, and in most of his poems it leads him into abject clich├ęs. For the reader who shares Herbert's faith, or for the reader who is merely in search of easy emotion of any kind, these poems are likely to seem better than they seem to me. For this reason `Church Monuments’ is not characteristic of Herbert’s work; and because it is not characteristic, or so I suspect, it has been neglected by critics and anthologists. `Content’ contains a few lines toward the end which are among Herbert’s best.” 

The final two stanzas of “Content,” in particular the last two lines, are wonderful:  

“He that by seeking hath himself once found,
                     Hath ever found a happie fortune.”

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