This is part of a continuing series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In these essays I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.
Until the Renaissance most poetry was performed. Epics were chanted and lyrics were sung in elegant courts no less than in peasants’ farmyards. During Elizabethan times and afterwards poets like Dowland, Morley, and Campion wrote music as well as words. In the seventeenth century the Cavalier poets wrote lyrics which, though not made literally for presentation with music, were nonetheless outstanding for verbal melody. Among the poets of this generation, Robert Herrick may be the most musically accomplished.
Herrick was allied to the throne through the apprenticeship he served for his uncle, a jeweler to the king, before attending Cambridge as well as through his ordination as an Anglican priest. During the Protectorate he lost his position due to his Royalist sympathies and his refusal to accept the Covenant institutionalizing the Scottish church, but regained his vicarage after the Restoration. Best known for the carpe diem theme of his most popular lyrics, he also wrote epitaphs, religious poems, and reflections on mortality as well as pieces praising various members of the nobility, relatives, and Ben Jonson, whose classicism he admired and imitated. Most of these themes are noted in “The Argument of his Book” which serves as preface to his only published volume Hesperides.
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.
The catalogue significantly opens with “pretty” topics most prettily stated. The love poems by this lifelong bachelor are justified as treating “cleanly wantonness” and the Horatian advice to “seize the day” is called “Time's trans-shifting.” With the final two lines he seeks to place his values in an ultimately Christian framework, though his devotional works, the “Noble Numbers,” have never been as popular as those widely read as Epicurean.
Perhaps the most anthologized of these is “To the Virgins, to make much of Time.”
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The encouragement to make the most of love-making in youth is familiar from a great many Greek and Roman poems, though many elders today would question whether mature life is a long slide downhill even in terms of sensuality – was youth really “warmer”? The theme is, of course, also familiar from Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” The semi-canonical Wisdom of Solomon 2:8 provides an even closer parallel for Herrick’s opening phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered.” An appetite for food, like an appetite for love, is to Herrick no sin but rather a celebration of creation requiring no apology.
He seems rather a wet than a dry Epicurean. As one of the “Sons of Ben” Herrick would have known the “Leges Conviviales” Jonson had engraved over the chimney in the Apollo or Old Devil Tavern at Temple Bar where the writers gathered. In the English version, “Rules for the Tavern Academy or, Laws for the Beaux Esprits,”
Let the learned and witty, the jovial and gay,
The generous and honest, compose our free state;
And the more to exalt our delight whilst we stay,
Let none be debarr'd from his choice female mate.
A similar genial acceptance of human nature and the measured pursuit of pleasure characterizes his “Farewell to Sack” in which he declares that in the future, while he will not drink, he will nonetheless “admire” and “love” wine.
A few of his epigrams were sufficiently racy to be exiled to a “detachable appendix” by a Victorian editor. His appreciation for women was generally expressed in an exquisite and refined manner, yet could be far more erotic than the obscene works of the second Earl of Rochester a little later in the seventeenth century.
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes!
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
—O how that glittering taketh me!
In the first the insistent triple rhymes and the excited repetition of “then” suggest the intensity of the persona’s admiration. The unexpected scientific term “liquefaction” sounds nearly alchemical, expressing a feeling altogether beyond ordinary experience. (Indeed “vibration” was also a word unrecorded before the middle of the seventeenth century.) The lady appears in the second stanza as though she were an apparition, nearly too dazzling to behold. The observer’s enthusiasm leads him to what most readers find to be conventional hyperbolic praise of the beloved. Some readers see the figure enriched and complicated by a semi-submerged fishing metaphor, linking “liquefaction” with “cast” and then the closing verb “taketh,” suggesting capture.
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.
Some would take this poem as approving a particular sort of art that conceals art, English gardens rather than French, for example, or colloquial verse in preference to highly artificial rhetoric. Yet surely the primary meaning is the particular erotic charm of the beloved in deshabille. Like a blazon in its progress downwards, one item of dress succeeds another, while – after the lady is placed with the referenced to “the shoulders” parts of the body are never mentioned, but only seven accessories to the lady’s dress. These inanimate objects are said to be “wanton,” erring, “enthralling, “neglectful,” and “tempestuous,” all of which are more likely said of human behavior than of the drape of costume. In fact, of course, the reader is never in doubt that the looseness of the lady’s laces and sashes betokens a similar complaisance in affairs of love. It is close to a via negativa of erotic desire – the beloved herself being ineffable, she can only be praised in terms of her attributes.
In a clear case of form’s identity with content, the poem opens with Herrick’s typical conversational iambic tetrameter, the most natural meter in English, but the first foot of the second line is a trochee, adding energy to launch a line that ends with a languishing luxurious “wantonness,” over which the tongue lingers, expressing the persona’s admiration of the lady. Line eight repeats this variation with “confusedly” as the lengthened word, intensifying its implication. The majority of the couplets use not rhymes but half rhymes, providing sonic analogue for the beloved’s elegant insouciance.
Herrick’s reputation has suffered since Eliot expressed a preference for the Metaphysicals. His wit was perhaps not as philosophical as Donne’s and his style, even in his own age, may have seemed old-fashioned, but I would second the opinion of Swinburne, another poet who valued melody more highly than poets and critics seem to do today. In his preface to an 1898 edition of Herrick Swinburne says, “His work is always a song-writer’s; nothing more, but nothing less, than the work of the greatest song-writer -- as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist – born of English race.”