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Monday, September 1, 2014

Herrick the Divine


For me and for most readers, Herrick is the poet of an elegant sensuality heightened by the transience of things. This tone, reminiscent of ancient Greek lyric, is unforgettably expressed in several of the most-anthologized lyrics in the English canon: "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," “Delight in Disorder,” “To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good verses,” and a few others. We think first of the “blossoms, birds and bowers” of his “Argument,” though he later includes hell and, more puzzlingly, “times trans-shifting“ among his themes. His metrical facility is admirable, lending captivating music to his words, and, apart from his masterful handling of complex forms, he undertook fruitful experiments such as shape poetry and the use of iambic monometer.

Herrick’s small collection of religious poems Noble Numbers has received comparatively little attention, and, indeed, to most commentators while the poems may be noble, they are neither as graceful nor as powerful as what he labeled his “jocund” pieces, his “unbaptized rhymes.” (“His Prayer for Absolution”) [1] The fact that two of the poems in the group are pieces for royal performances suggests that political as well as religious gain may have motivated the author. [2] Yet the charms of Herrick’s masterful prosody are no less evident in Noble Numbers; his experimentation has free rein (as in the concrete poem "This crosstree here”). “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour” is an entire chamber concerto in sound effects. Further, the spiritual sentiments of this rural vicar little deserve condemnation or excuse as partisan works. Approached with a sympathy similar to that readers bring to Donne’s religious work undeterred by the “licentious” poems composed in his youth before he converted to the Established Church and became a prominent preacher, Herrick’s Noble Numbers will imply a perfectly coherent religious view as well as rewarding the reader aesthetically .

The collection begins with a “His Confession,” apologizing for his earlier work in a way reminiscent of Chaucer’s “Retraction.” As if this opening were insufficient to guarantee his sincerity , the second poem (“His Prayer for Absolution”) repeats the theme, asking God to blot out each line that falls short of the divine. One might be uncertain whether he (and Chaucer, Andreas Capellanus, and others who employ the same convention) had experienced a change of heart or were simply trying to better their eternal odds by recording such pious sentiments. In either case these poems gracefully indicate an ambivalence that must be universal.

Having thus made the transition from secular to holy, Herrick begins grandly with a tour de force of metaphor.

TO FIND GOD.
by Robert Herrick

WEIGH me the fire ; or canst thou find
A way to measure out the wind ;
Distinguish all those floods that are
Mix'd in that watery theatre ;
And taste thou them as saltless there
As in their channel first they were.
Tell me the people that do keep
Within the kingdoms of the deep ;
Or fetch me back that cloud again,
Beshiver'd into seeds of rain ;
Tell me the motes, dust, sands, and spears
Of corn, when summer shakes his ears ;
Show me that world of stars, and whence
They noiseless spill their influence :
This if thou canst, then show me Him
That rides the glorious cherubim.

In “To Find God” Herrick spins out a series of images for impossibility reminiscent of those in Donne’s celebrated “Song” (“Goe and catche a falling starre”). Here, however, rather than the fruitless search for a woman both “faire” and “true,” the poet’s object is the Godhead. When this spiritual theme becomes explicit in the final line, it is with a surge of fancy analogous to cinematic special effects as one is asked to visualize the ineffable mounted atop a cherub, like Vishnu riding Garuda. The shift from glorious elaboration of the futility of words to the emphatic closing affirmation which stretches faith to its limit (or beyond) is could hardly be more dramatic.

Similarly, even for Christians accustomed to the eucharist, Herrick’s imagination may seem to strain with “To his Saviour. The New Year’s Gift.” In which he presents Christ with his bleeding heart as though his god were Huitzilopochtli, and then expects in return a piece of bloody foreskin. In “To Keep a True Lent” he recommends that the Christian “circumcise thy life.” It is as concrete and physical a faith as Crashaw’s sensibility. Yet while Crashaw was hyperemotional, Herrick is cool and measured even while deploying daring imagery. His use of mistletoe, for instance, in “To God” as an image of dependence is original but wholly orthodox and coherent, gaining added weight as a revision of the plant’s pre-Christian associations. It is as though he dares doubt by using extravagant language.

Such figurative language is a natural consequence of the attempt to describe what the poet has already characterized as indescribable, unlike any other entity. The unique category occupied by Christ in which all usual assumptions may be overturned is implied by his exceedingly brief lyric “On Christ’s Birth.” Thus not only the apocalyptic reversals (the lowly made high, death is life) occur, but even worldly categories are turned upside down. Herrick the aesthete celebrates the humble, the low, and the common in “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” “A Thanksgiving to God, for his House,” “The New-Year's Gift,” and “His Wish to God.” In the last he wishes he might live in an almshouse possessionless so that he might more rigorously focus on Jesus. Surely poverty would be the appropriate penance for a lover of the pleasurable and the beautiful.

These thoughts occur only within the orthodox teachings and practice of the church. Herrick would not venture to speculate on the divine. “To Find God,” however, goes further and positively asserts his unknowability. Now, of course, the negative characterization of deity is a sophisticated and world-wide form of theology. Called apophatic in the Christian tradition or associated with the term via negative it has played a role, often closely associated with mysticism and the direct experience of the divine since the earliest times. The Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Johannes Scotus Eriugena are among the most influential Christian thinkers in this tradition, but similar thoughts appear in many other systems, including Maimonides’ Judaism and the Hinduism associated with the phrase “neti neti.” Far from associated Herrick with these names as a religious thinker, it seems that he simply judged God to be beyond the reach of language, perhaps beyond the limits of his imagination as well, and thus concluded that it was best to simply accept the mores of his own timed and place rather than trying to develop his own notions about a topic fundamentally imponderable. His acceptance of the Established Church led to the loss of his living during the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate which implies something beyond opportunism. [3]

Yet, as with thorough-going skepticism, the believer in a deity that can in no significant way be described might be at a loss as to what to do next. Herrick did not hesitate. He simply assented to what his society accepted as religious truth. The triple rhymes of “His Litany to the Holy Spirit,“ the ringing rhymes of the carols to the king, the satisfying stanzas of “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” each ending in a snap, these musical effects remain the reason we read Herrick, but we have as much reason to read the Noble Numbers as the rest of his most melodic verses.


1. Leah Sinanoglou Marcus Herrick ‘s “Noble Numbers and the Politics of Playfulness” in English Literary Renaissance no. 1, 1977, 1-8-126 provides a good summary of such negative judgments and proceeds to justify Herrick’s religious poems on the grounds of both his defense of the Established Church and his pastoral care for a remote and largely uneducated congregation. My own interest is more toward the aesthetic and, unlikely as it may sound, the mystic potential of Herrick’s religious writing.
2. “A Christmas Carol Sung to the King in the Presence at Whitehall” and “The Star-Song : A Carol to the King Sung at White-Hall.”
3. The same cannot be said for Donne’s convenient conversion.

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