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Sidney Gottlieb George Herbert and Robert Overton For the purposes of literary scholarship, some pairings make a great deal of sense, even at first glance. The essays in the present volumeprovide several good examples: Herbert and Elizabeth Bishop, Herbert and Frost, Herbert and Sidney, Herbert and Donne.1 While elaborating on the subtleties and intricacies of these connections is no simple critical challenge, the essential "rightness" and value of these linkings is obvious and inarguable. All the more reason for me to feel some trepidation as I turn to the subject of my essay, which in the context of these others may need a little explaining, if not defending. George Herbert and Robert Overton: the title proposes not a match of strong poets but rather what may appear to be a fearful asymmetry. The examination of such asymmetries need not be tiresome, and in fact, as the work of various scholars has shown, it can be very revealing, sharpening our sense of what makes Herbert's poems so brilliant, distinctive, and if not inimitable than at least perilously imitable. Stanley Stewart, Helen Wilcox, and Helen Vendler, among others, have many interesting things to say about "Herbert and . . .": that is to say, Herbert and Harvey, and Wesley, and Washbourne, and Colman, and Knevet, and on and on.2 Still, though, their studies provide chastening answers to the question of what remains after the epigones fall far short of Herbert's metrical, structural, and musical inventiveness, his intellectual and emotional density, and his experiential integrity: alas, we are often left with failed wit, prolixity rather than profundity, and, in Vendler's harrowing phrase, "solemn tastelessness."3 This may not be the most promising way to introduce yet another discussion of "Herbert and . . . ," especially when I acknowledge that Overton too is sometimes prolix, often solemn, and 186Sidney Gottlieb not often witty. But let me describe briefly why I find the study of Herbert and Overton, the radical military leader, pamphleteer, and friend of Milton, so fascinating and potentially important. My primary effort will be to examine some of the broader implications of Overton's selections from and adaptations of Herbert, written into his length manuscript miscellany written while he was in prison. First, a comparison of a few texts and techniques will reinforce the usual lessons about Herbert's stylistic excellence and his imitator's deficiencies, but also provide useful insight into the life and mind as well as interests and poetic talents, such as they are, of Overton — who, although I hesitate to push such judgments, is historically a far more significant person than Herbert. I hope I need not apologize too much for focusing on Overton as much as Herbert. Imagine for a moment if we were to discover a manuscript volume written by, say, Churchill, in which he copied out and modified selected poems of, say, Hardy. It would be perverse if all that we paid attention to were stylistic and technical details, and if our chief arguments revolved around affirming Hardy's poetic superiority to Churchill. I also want to use the Herbert-Overton connection as a springboard for some observations on large topics that deserve (and are starting to receive) extensive investigation: on not only the midseventeenth -century reception ofHerbert but the conditions of poetic reading at this time; on "editorial" interventions in the transmission of poems, by Herbert and others (the simple change in terms, from thinking of Overton as a "poet" to Overton as an "editor," opens up some interesting areas of study); on the dynamics of mid-seventeenthcentury manuscript culture; and on Herbert and radicalism, defined both broadly and specifically, a much-neglected topic. I will not be able to treat each of these topics extensively, but I hope to indicate that in examining Herbert and Overton, there is much more at stake than tracing what happens when a relatively unskillful poet rewrites a skillful one. Let me begin with a few words about Overton's background and the circumstances under which he reworked Herbert.4 Overton's life was marked by a series of military successes and political and personal misfortunes. We know little about his early life, not much more than that he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 185-200
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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