Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.39

Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, Greg Miller (ed.), George Herbert: Memoriae matris sacrum = To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift. A Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary. George Herbert Journal special studies and monographs.   Fairfield, CT:  George Herbert Journal, 2012.  Pp. xxi, 199.  $15.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Moul, King’s College London (

Most of the major and many of the more minor English poets of the seventeenth century – including John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley and Richard Crashaw – wrote poetry in Latin as well as in English, often (but not only) at the beginning of their careers. Of these, only Milton’s Latin poetry has attracted much attention, or even consistent inclusion in accessible editions of the poet’s work. The considerable volume of Latin poetry by George Herbert has, by contrast, been almost completely neglected, and remains difficult to access: there is, for instance, no readily available paperback edition of Herbert’s verse which includes any part of the Latin work, either in the original or in translation (though the new Penguin edition will remedy this). Whereas in other countries, neo-Latin literature has been incorporated to a greater or lesser extent into the ‘national’ literature, this has so far not often been the case with British neo-Latin poetry, which has been routinely ignored by classicists and English scholars alike.1

The problem is of course a circular one: a lack of modern editions with reliable translations and up-to-date commentary on political and historical as well as linguistic points makes it very difficult for young scholars to branch out into the field, whatever their background. Interested non-experts are put off attempting to incorporate such material into their teaching because of the lack of appropriate resources; and as a result few new scholars are produced who might be equipped to produce the books that are needed in the first place. Given this frustrating situation, the modest but discernible recent (and ongoing) surge in relevant publications is most encouraging. This meticulous yet accessible parallel-text edition of Herbert’s most accomplished and engaging Latin verse collection should certainly be included in this expanding list.

Memoriae Matris Sacrum (‘To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift’), consisting of five Greek and fourteen Latin poems, in a variety of metres, was published in 1627 alongside John Donne’s commemorative sermon for Herbert’s mother, Lady Danvers, who was buried on the 8th of June that year. The poems are remarkable for their imagery, emotional intensity and poetic range, and Catherine Freis, Richard Freis and Greg Miller have produced a wonderfully thorough edition, satisfying the needs of both the serious textual scholar – with a full apparatus and meticulous detail on points of punctuation and accentuation – and the informed literary critic of Herbert who may have little Latin: the edition offers a clear and unpretentious parallel text, plus, in the notes to each poem, a more literal ‘construe’ of the Latin; detailed comments on points of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, which are always related back to the meaning of the poem; as well as (crucially, and too often ignored) a full guide to the metres of the collection, including a glossary of metrical terms. Anyone with a serious interest in Herbert, or in early modern Latin poetry in England, should certainly acquire this edition.

It is wonderful to see these important poems taken seriously and presented in such a way as to make them accessible to readers with relatively little Latin – or even, if we are honest, quite a lot, since this material is dense and often difficult linguistically, as well as engaged with a wide range of further texts and contexts, whether historical, theological or literary. The expert Latinist will find much if not all of the grammatical commentary redundant, but will still learn much from the list of parallel passages in The Temple (given as an appendix). Similarly, anyone who knows Herbert well may spot most of those parallels (and more) for themselves, but remain very grateful for the helping hand through the intricacies of the Latin.

The only shortcomings of the volume arise perhaps inevitably from the level of care the editors have taken to help their Latin-less (or nearly) readers. Amidst such detailed commentary, the bigger picture is sometimes lost, and I missed an overview in the preface or introduction to the key themes and images of the collection as a whole, such as Herbert’s striking obsession, in his grief, with his mother’s body, his insistent self-representation as both child (of his mother) and parent (of the poems), and the interesting role of invective in the collection. Similarly, the parallel translations – reasonably enough, perhaps – offer relatively little if read alone. They regularly differ only slightly from the more literal ‘construe’ given in the notes, and the language is often awkward, and occasionally hard to follow. (I am not however going to cite examples: as an active translator of neo-Latin verse, including Herbert, I am well aware how difficult it is, and how unfair it seems to single out a handful of duff lines from an entire collection.) The editors criticize – with good reason – an earlier parallel text edition of Herbert’s Latin verse by McCloskey and Murphy (now out of print and hard to obtain), but my personal feeling was that they have erred perhaps too far in the opposite direction, taking such pains to be loyal to the ‘clear literal meaning’ of the text that the metaphorical energy of Herbert’s Latin has sometimes been lost. (I say ‘Latin’, because on the whole I found the translations of the Greek more satisfying in this respect, and in general a little bolder.) Especially given the decision to print a ‘construe’ in the notes, the editors could perhaps have been a little more courageous in the parallel translations.

Intertextual links to the English poetry of Herbert are a strength of the volume, though some very marked parallels between this collection and Herbert’s other Latin poetry are not noted – for instance, the striking image in the very first poem associating writer’s ink, as it stains water, with the spreading stain of grief, is similar to that found in the first poem of Herbert’s Passio Discerpta collection, where ink is compared to the guilt of sin. The near- repetition of the image increases our sense of its programmatic force, which both denigrates and emphasizes the act of writing itself. Finally, as a classicist, I quite often felt the lack of notation or discussion of various classical allusions, especially to Latin verse. But given Richard Freis’ record of scholarship on classical Latin poetry, I am confident that this was an editorial decision, driven – perhaps correctly – by the editors’ sense of their most likely readership.

This is a review service for classicists, and I am conscious that my small set of reservations is largely derived from my classicist’s perspective. But small they are indeed: no reader with an interest in Herbert, classicist or otherwise, should be deterred from adding this most useful and enlightening book to their library.


1.   Recent and forthcoming volumes on Neo-Latin are G. Manuwald and L. Houghton, Neo-Latin Poetry in the British Isles (2012); J. Bloemendal and H. Norland Neo-Latin Drama in Early Modern Europe (Brill, forthcoming); V. Moul, ed., Neo-Latin Literature (Cambridge, forthcoming); S. Knight, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (Oxford, forthcoming).

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