Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr 1994 v34 n1 p41(20)

Robert Herrick's Fathers. Rollin, Roger B.

Abstract: Robert Herrick's 'Hesperides' contains several poems that reveal the poet's search for a father or father figure. Among the father figures alluded to or outrightly referred to are Ben Jonson, Endymion Porter, Charles I and God. The allusions to several different fathers is, in a way, Herrick's unconscious search for his father, who died, presumably of suicide, when he was only about 14 months old. Herrick's poetry, however, also shows that he has completed his search and successfully found his true father in God.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994 Rice University

Man's helplessness remains and along with it his longing for his father, and the gods.

Freud, The Future of an Illusion(1)

In the Hesperides of that most eminent of the "Sons of Ben," Robert Herrick, poems that treat strong father-figures loom larger than has generally been recognized. The paternal imagos in these diverse works range from such "literary fathers" as Ben Jonson, to such "social fathers" as Herrick's patron, Endymion Porter, to such "political fathers" as Charles I, to God the Father himself. Taken together, these poems can be seen to constitute an unconscious search for the father--and a psychical struggle to come to terms with him--that lend coherence and emotional force to Hesperides. By examining a selection of these works from a psychoanalytic perspective this study brings to light latent patterns of order and meaning in Herrick's collection; in addition, it suggests new insights into the poet's "unifying personality"(2) and creative imagination as well as new readings of individual poems.


Although Herrick would have been too young to remember it (only a little more than fourteen months old), the death of his father, Nicholas, had to have been one of those crises that forever shape a psychical personality and a life. The loss of a parent during the most formative stage of one's existence is bound to affect an individual in ways both conscious and unconscious, making its mark upon later attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors, and expressing itself in recurrent and deep-seated wishes and fears focusing upon fundamental psychological needs. This would be especially so, as it must have been for Herrick, in the case of the parent's sudden death by suicide. The evidence is circumstantial, but almost beyond a reasonable doubt: Nicholas Herrick did away with himself by jumping from an upper window of his own house in Cheapside on 7 or 8 November 1592.(3) If suicide sometimes seems a rash and desperate act, this suicide was extraordinary in its rashness and desperation, for it took place within a day or so of the signing of the senior Herrick's will and thus quite in disregard of the fact that, in sixteenth-century society, self-destruction was not only viewed as a mortal sin but also as a major crime, one that could result in the confiscation of the suicide's estate. Moreover, the future poet's father, then probably in his late forties or early fifties, left behind six children and a pregnant wife.

His will attests to Nicholas Herrick being of "perfecte memorye in sowle" but "sicke in bodye."(4) What illness afflicted the prosperous goldsmith is not recorded, but that his mind was also affected there can be little doubt. For unless one postulates a body so tortured that it would have been impossible to hold on for even a week so as to deflect the law's suspicions, this suicide practically proclaims itself as such. And the law did have its suspicions. According to F.W. Moorman, "the case was investigated by the Queen's High Almoner, Dr Richard Fletcher, Bishop of Bristol,"(5) whose statement charged that Nicholas Herrick "did throwe himself forthe of a garret window," qualifying the allegation only with an "(as is supposed)." The official statement goes on to note that the dead man's estate shall revert to "said sou'aigne Lady the quene by force of her P'rogatyve royall . . . (if the saide Nich'as Herrick be or shalbe founde felon of himselfe)."(6) However, in spite of every indication that Nicholas Herrick was such a "felon," the bishop soon "gave up all claim to the dead man's goods," probably because Julian Herrick "was surrounded by influential relations . . . and we may well believe that it was owing largely to their instrumentality" that the estate was kept in the family.(7)

We know that Nicholas Herrick was buried on 9 November 1592, in the church of St. Vedast in London. Yet Robert Herrick's only poem referring to him claims that the poet was unaware of the location of his father's grave until he was fully thirty-five years old. So extraordinary a situation may be explained in at least two ways: Nicholas Herrick was buried quickly and secretly because of the suspicion of suicide(8) and somehow the scandalous circumstances surrounding his father's death were kept from Robert Herrick and possibly his siblings for more than three decades; or, in spite of attempts at covering up the scandal, Herrick knew the truth but repressed it. In the latter case, the supposed mystery of Nicholas Herrick's grave is in part a poetic fiction but also a defense against the poet's understandable ambivalence towards his long-dead father--and possibly towards his mother as well. For the effects of the death of the father when the son was still only an infant would have been compounded by years of concealment, evasion, and prevarication with regard to Nicholas Herrick's end, in all of which Julian Herrick had to have had a main hand. It is likely that she felt as much need to protect her children from the truth about their father's death as to conceal that truth from the world. Such a situation would have been confusing, frightening, frustrating, and embarrassing to a child growing up in that family, making the deployment of unconscious defenses almost inevitable. Moreover, it would be natural to respond with ambivalence, anxiety, anger, shame, and even guilt, and unconsciously to turn such feelings against oneself, to displace them upon others, and/or to sublimate them in unconscious fantasies of "good fathers."


Robert Herrick's commemoration of Nicholas Herrick, "To the reverend shade of his religious Father,"(9) comes early in his book, on the twenty-seventh page of the 1648 edition. It is the first poem of length to memorialize someone deceased. Thus it sounds a new note in Herrick's "humane" collection--unmistakably solemn, serious, and religious. It has been described as "one of Herrick's most beautiful and moving poems," which it may well be, and as an "epigram of praise,"(10) which surely it is not, for (ironically enough) the only real praise it offers is in its title. In that title, "reverend" suggests "worthy of deep respect or reverence" (OED) and "religious" is used in the sense of "pious, godly, god-fearing, devout" (OED). These adjectives, employed to describe a suspected suicide, lead J. Max Patrick to speculate that the poet regarded his father's death as accidental.(11) That is possible, but doubtless the son would have desired his father's death to have been an accident. One way of defending against the unacceptable explanation of self-slaughter would be to insist, as Herrick does in his poem's title, on Nicholas Herrick's piety (in line 2 his tomb is also described as "Religious").

As both a son and a priest, Robert Herrick had a psychological investment in the legal and spiritual status of his father at the latter's death. As a rational human being he had to have faced the fact that all the evidence pointed to suicide. Almost inevitable, then, for him to be ambivalent about the matter, even though as a poet about to commemorate his father publicly, for decorum's sake ambivalence would have to be consciously set aside or at least tempered. Nevertheless, ambivalence does surface in the ceremonial mode Herrick adopts for his poem. Patrick comments that the fact that here the poet employs "the Graeco-Roman equivalents" of the Christian funeral service is not unusual, it being common practice with him,(12) but it is also the case that such "paganizing" allows Herrick to straddle issues of civil and ecclesiastical law. Addressing his father as if the latter were a "shade," an inhabitant of Hades rather than Heaven, also serves to distance the occasion and thus make it more psychologically manageable. Herrick opens his poem with a prayer for forgiveness:

THat for seven Lusters I did never come To doe the Rites to thy Religious Tombe: That neither haire was cut, or true teares shed By me, o'r thee, (as justments to the dead) Forgive, forgive me.

(lines 1-5)

Such a sense of guilt can arise out of "aggressiveness that the ego would like to satisfy upon |others~," aggressiveness which the individual turns back upon himself, "towards his own ego."(13) And indeed, what seems to be a confession for the son's thirty-five-year neglect of customary memorial rituals ("justments") quickly becomes an exculpation and an implied rebuke of someone--those who kept the location of his father's grave from him, or perhaps (unconsciously) the author of the mystery himself, Nicholas Herrick: "I did not know/Whether thy bones had here their Rest, or no" (lines 5-6). "But now 'tis known," exclaims the dutiful son, and goes on to demonstrate just how dutiful: "Behold; behold, I bring/Unto thy Ghost, th'Effused Offering" (lines 7-8). There is nervous excitement in Herrick's repetition of the imperative, and in his pointing to the fact that he has been lavish in his outpouring of tributes: his is an "Effused Offering." With yet another imperative that offering is then itemized, and turns out to consist of vegetation associated with death:

And look, what Smallage, Night-shade, Cypresse, Yew, Unto the shades have been, or now are due, Here I devote.

(lines 9-11)

Herrick's vaguely Roman plants serve the same purpose as the catalogue of English flowers in "Lycidas": they "interpose a little ease" (line 152). But Milton's shepherd is aware that floral offerings have only psychical efficacy, letting "our frail thoughts dally with false surmise" (line 153). Herrick's Herrick is not so self-conscious: his presentation of mortuary plants, on the surface an end in itself, here looks like the defense of "undoing," an attempt to wipe out an impulse like anger or guilt "by some ritual action."(14) Understandably so: Milton is commemorating a dead peer and in a sense himself; Herrick is attempting to come to terms with a dead father, a psychological act which even in more typical father-son relationships can call up batteries of defenses.

By this point in the poem Herrick has moved from pleas--"Forgive, forgive"--to instructions--"behold," "look"--to promises. Because he is a poet he can do more than perform rituals of filial commemoration; he can seemingly do the impossible, repay his father for the gift of life itself, indeed more than repay it:

I come to pay a Debt of Birth I owe. Thou gav'st me life, (but Mortall;) For that one Favour, Ile make full satisfaction; For my life mortall, Rise from out thy Herse, And take a life immortall from my Verse.

(lines 12-16)

The son owes the father and always will--unless the son somehow becomes the father of his father. The life Nicholas Herrick gave Robert--and soon abandoned him to--was "(but Mortall;)." (Herrick's parentheses at once diminish the importance of the limitation--in the next breath it is merely "one/Favour"--and call attention to it.) The Son of God as God the Father could make "full satisfaction" for the limitations of his fallen sons and daughters; Robert Herrick must fantasize about fully satisfying his debt to Nicholas Herrick by raising him, Lazarus-like, from the grave, giving him "a poetic afterlife and assur|ing~ him a place in a poetic eschatology."(15) The poet has acted out what most sons must merely imagine:

When a child hears that he owes his life to his parents, or that his mother gave him life, his feelings of tenderness unite with impulses which strive at power and independence, and they generate the wish to return this gift to the parents and repay them with one of equal value. It is as though the boy's defiance were to make him say: "I want nothing from my father; I will give him back all I have cost him." He then forms the phantasy of rescuing his father from danger and saving his life; in this way he puts his account square with him.(16)

The ambivalence of Herrick's poem, then, may be traced to conflicting emotions associated with desires for both dependency and autonomy that are characteristic of human psychological development--in this case a personal development conflicted and intensified by the extraordinary circumstances of Robert Herrick's fathering. Thus, "To the reverend shade" can be seen as unconsciously addressing deep-seated and contrary anxieties and wishes--it is not inappropriate that they be summed up in the term "father-complex"(17)--that this essay proposes were of special import to Herrick for much of his poetic life. In other words, the necessary vicissitudes and opportunities of the Oedipal phase were in Robert Herrick's case complicated by the absence of the paternal "rival." This special situation, it will be argued, is reflected in his art: one of the several thematic and emotive threads that pattern his Hesperides is spun out in a series of poems on paternal figures, a series unified by conflicted feelings involved in finding a substitute for the father the poet never had, and in coming to terms with that figure.


"To the reverend shade of his religious Father" was apparently written three years before Julian Herrick died. According to Moorman, soon after the death of her husband she moved in with her married sister in Middlesex.(18) She never remarried, and to what extent Harry Campion, Robert's maternal uncle, may have been a surrogate father is not known. What is known is that at the age of sixteen Robert became a "'bound apprentice'" for ten years to another uncle, the wealthy goldsmith Sir William Herrick.(19) The arrangement did not work out: six years after his apprenticeship began it was terminated, and at the advanced age of twenty-two, the future poet entered Cambridge.(20)

Fourteen of Herrick's letters written from college to Sir William are extant, every one of them asking for money--not his uncle's in most cases, but money from the poet's own "little fortune," his inheritance from his father. Those few hundred pounds Sir William apparently controlled and reluctantly and sparingly doled out.(21) Although those letters exhibit the kind of deference a young man owes a surrogate father, nowhere is there any more than formal feeling expressed. In Sir William, then, young Robert did find a father, but hardly the "good father" about whom children fantasize. Significantly, of the numerous relatives celebrated and commemorated in Hesperides--some of them distant ones--"his most carefull Vncle"(22) is not among them. Every son, of course, harbors wishes to consign his "bad father" to oblivion. It is the central fantasy of the Oedipal stage. In the case of Sir William Herrick, the poet was eventually able to accomplish it. The corollary of "the eternizing power of poetry" is its capacity to cut dead.

Robert Herrick, then, had two "bad fathers," both of whom symbolically mutilated him--one by abandoning him, and one by using money to extend the poet's dependency and deny him his autonomy, his opportunity for self-creation. "We know no time when we were not as now," exclaims Milton's Satan, speaking for every son when the father turns tyrannical, "Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised/By our own quick'ning power."(23) "All |the son's~ instincts, those of tenderness, gratitude, lustfulness, defiance, and independence, find satisfaction in the single wish to be his own father."(24) Being foiled in that "causa sui project" would help explain why father-figures appear and reappear with such frequency throughout Herrick's collection. At a time when most males have come to terms with their fathers and consolidated the masculinity in their characters,(25) Herrick continues his search for the "good father" with whom he can identify and thus crystallize his own identity. "Rescuing" Nicholas Herrick by gifting him with "life immortal" is not enough, just as one father is not enough in this shifting world. Multiple fathers, multiple rescues, can help the son create himself and rescue himself: "This phantasy |of paternal rescue~ is commonly enough displaced on the emperor, king, or some other great man; after being thus distorted it becomes admissible to consciousness, and may even be made use of by creative writers."(26)


While Ben Jonson is the father-figure most readily associated with Robert Herrick, in the order of Hesperides Charles I's appearance precedes that of both Jonson and Nicholas Herrick. In "TO THE KING, Upon his comming with his Army into the West" (H-77), the poet celebrates one of Charles's few successful Civil War campaigns, an incursion into Devon and Cornwall that resulted in the Royalist victory at Lostwithiel.(27) An epigram of praise in Herrick's Anglo-Roman mode, the poem conflates a series of paternal archetypes, with the monarch being presented as god, husband, and hero. Charles is a "universall Genius!" (line 2), a deity who presides over nothing less than the entire world, the second bridegroom Julian Herrick never had, who now will wed and restore the widowed West Country, and a "brave Prince of Cavaliers" (line 8) as well. More than a compliment poem, "TO THE KING" is a fantasy of the comprehensive male ego-ideal, "a substitute for a longing for the father."(28) Although Charles was actually nine years younger than Herrick, the latter's poems to the king not only accept, but suggest an emotional investment in, the convention of the monarch as father-figure. As will be indicated below, however, these poems do so even as they reveal the ambivalence inevitable in such a surrogate-paternal relationship.

The next poem but one in Hesperides likewise features Charles, this time as Queen Henrietta Maria's husband. What is on Herrick's mind here is separation, the husband separated from the wife, a situation that can at any time become permanent, as it did in the case of his own parents. "To the King and Queene, upon their unhappy distances" (H-79) promises reunion, couched in a conventional metaphor for sexual intercourse, the mixing of two streams. Beneath the panegyric's decorous surface a kind of primal scene fantasy is being played out, with Charles depicted as "the best Husband," Maria "the very best of Wives" (lines 3, 4)--the perfect parents everyone wants and no one gets.

In another epigram of praise, "TO THE KING, To cure the Evill" (H-161), Herrick presents Charles as a Christ-figure with the power to heal the sick. Patrick identifies the "Evill" of the title as scrofula, an enlargement and degeneration of the lymph glands, which folklore held a king's touch could cure.(29) In phrases as heavily inlaid with biblical language and allusions as any among his secular poems, Herrick portrays himself as a hapless searcher for the "Tree of Life," its "Fruits" and healing leaves, and curative waters ministered by an angel, and finds all in Charles's "Blest Hand" (lines 1, 7). The lines quickly turn melodramatic as Herrick cries: "I kneele for help; O! lay that hand on me,/Adored Cesar!" (lines 12-13). Charles is demigod as well as monarch and in this deity, Herrick testifies, "my Faith is such,/I shall be heal'd, if that my KING but touch" (lines 13-14).

The poem's final couplet, however, is not without its ambiguity:

The Evill is not Yours: my sorrow sings, Mine is the Evill, but the Cure, the KINGS.

(lines 15-16)

If Herrick were pleading for relief from a physical illness these lines would be gratuitous--the king is not scrofula's victim but its physician; however, if the poem is intended to patch up a falling out (for which the poet in line 16 may be taking the blame) and perhaps to secure patronage or have it reinstated, this conclusion makes sense. The epigram then would be a poetic equivalent of the mitte pecuniam letters sent by the young Herrick to his uncle, a delicate negotiation with a father-surrogate who must be praised and placated because he has the power to punish or to reward.

Herrick's Royalism can scarcely be doubted, and the notion of the king as the father of his subjects is traditional, but monarchs make problematical paternal surrogates: their extraordinary power forces the subject into a regressive child-parent relationship, yet despite that power, like natural fathers kings are subject to "Times trans-shifting" (H-1, line 9). This painful truth another poem, the occasional lyric, "TO THE KING, Upon his welcome to Hampton-Court" (H-961), does its best to suppress. Ann Coiro has pointed out that the historical event upon which this work is based took place in 1647, when the king was actually in the Parliamentary army's custody "and under virtual house arrest at Hampton Court."(30) Yet Herrick still presents him as a god-king--"Great Cesar" (line 1), "Pompe of Glory!" (line 4),

Our Fate, our Fortune, and our Genius; To whose free knees we may our temples tye As to a still protecting Deitie.

(lines 14-16)

More than ever the poet has reason to spin a wish-fulfillment fantasy around his monarch. Herrick's poem defends against the fact that it is actually Charles who needs to be rescued by imagining that the king has again taken up his former role of rescuer of his children/subjects. Such a denial is necessary because in this case the poet-son is unable to "rescue" the royal father as he did Nicholas Herrick. As a king Charles will be remembered whether he appears in Hesperides or not. Thus deprived of his power, the poet is reduced to fantasizing. History has its way with him.

In an earlier poem, "TO THE KING" (H-264) Herrick had portrayed Charles as not only a god-king, "CESAR," but also as an admirer and judge of poetry, one who had only to approve a single Herrickean lyric and it would become "The Heire to This great Realme of Poetry" (line 5), Hesperides itself. Here, the son's covert rivalry with his surrogate-father (as one who has carved out a realm of his own) is minimized by the plea for the father's approval of the son's work; thus the latter is able to establish his identity (as poet-king), if not his autonomy, without destabilizing the filial relationship.

Herrick's "great Realme of Poetry" becomes cosmic and Charles is apotheosized in yet another epigram of praise, "To the King" (H-685). Here Hesperides is

characterized as an "immensive Sphere" (line 2) in which Charles shines like the sun. He is, moreover, a sun god who "Must not be lookt on, but at distances" (line 10, emphasis omitted), lest the gazer be blinded. The subordinate status of the poet and other mere subjects is emphasized, yet the cosmos in which the king blazes forth is of Herrick's own creation. Once again, then, the poet is able to have it both ways: as creator of a fictive world he crowns and fathers himself, even as he apotheosizes his king-father.

Both of these earlier poems to the monarch may be viewed as representing a form of psychological progress towards the resolution of Oedipal issues which "TO THE KING, Upon his welcome to Hampton-Court" does not. It would seem inevitable that a surrogate relationship such as Herrick's with Charles had to have become increasingly untenable as the Civil War wound down. For if the father figure is no longer able to control his own destiny, his psychical effectiveness can easily diminish. Other paternal imagos would prove to have more staying power for Robert Herrick.


Ben Jonson, pater familias to the "Sons of Ben," is the subject of five poems in Herrick's secular collection. The poet's intention is that the reader believe all of them to have been written after Jonson died in 1637, for the first one, "Upon Master Ben. Johnson. Epigram" (H-382) begins: "After the rare Arch-Poet JOHNSON dy'd." In the remainder of the poem, however, it is Jonson the playwright and actor who is celebrated rather than the famous poet. In fact Jonson himself is almost absent from the epigram, which in the main is a diatribe against the post-Jonsonian stage. The poem's conclusion does praise Jonson as the sole repository of wit, but for an epigram in praise of a surrogate father, "Upon . . . Johnson" is notable mainly for the hostility it vents against Ben's survivors. It is as if Herrick were displacing upon nameless and faceless (and therefore less threatening) actors and dramatists his own uuconscious rage at "Father Ben" for abandoning him by dying--just as his natural father had done. Freud in fact observed that it is common for a son to find "relief from the conflict arising out of |his~ ambivalent emotional attitude toward his father by displacing his hostile and fearful feelings on to a substitute for the very same person."(31)

Ambivalence towards his poetic father is also present in the poem that immediately follows "Upon Master Ben. Johnson," an epigram whose title, "Another" (H-383), is as terse as its text:

THou had'st the wreath before, now take the Tree; That henceforth none be Laurel crown'd but Thee.

(lines 1-2)

Although the flattering implication here is that Jonson was the world's last remaining poet, there is an aggressive edge to the humorous notion that the laurel wreath of this literary "father" is not sufficient honor for him, that he should appropriate the whole laurel tree. In fact, the poem can be read as implying that from this surrogate-father his poetic sons will receive no legacy--and that they are worthy of none. A psychological disadvantage of installing the father as ego-ideal (an important step in the son's progress through the Oedipal stage) is that the son may fail to measure up to the paternal achievement.

Psychological conflict is also in evidence in a later poem in the order of Hesperides: "His Prayer to Ben. Johnson" (H-604) indicates that the literary son has still not fully come to terms with his deceased literary father. The source of "His Prayer's" mild and subtle humor is the substitution of the pleasant convention of "the religion of art," in this case specifically "the religion of poetry," for Christianity:

WHen I a Verse shall make, Know I have praid thee, For old Religions sake, Saint Ben to aide me.

(lines 1-4)

In the Protestant usage of the time Jonson is technically a "saint" because he is in heaven; here, however, Herrick plays upon Catholic usage by portraying his parental surrogate as a canonized hero of poetry's religion who can intercede for those who pray to him. This characterization at once elevates the father-figure and--because Jonson's personal reputation was far from saintly--may license some gentle fun at his expense. The mild humor continues in the next stanza; however now the poet himself also becomes its butt:

Make the way smooth for me, When I, thy Herrick, Honouring thee, on my knee Offer my Lyrick.

(lines 5-8)

The "Lyrick" is, of course, "His Prayer" itself, and the gentle humor of the stanza--besides the serendipitous rhyming of "Herrick" and "Lyrick"--resides in the image of the poet piously kneeling to signify his spiritual submission to the canonized Jonson. In the last stanza, however, the relationship undergoes a subtle shift:

Candles Ile give to thee, And a new Altar; And thou Saint Ben, shalt be Writ in my Psalter.

(lines 9-12)

That "the religion of poetry," with its emphasis upon decor, is like that of Herrick's fairies, "part Papisticall," (H-223, line 25) is another aspect of the poem's humor that slyly subverts its praise. So too with the prayer's concluding promise: the "Psalter" is, of course, Hesperides itself, so Herrick is implicitly and comically promising Ben Jonson what he explicitly and seriously promised Nicholas Herrick, "life immortall." This reiteration of the fantasy of paternal rescue, though not seriously intended, can, nonetheless, be seen as yet another unconscious expression of Herrick's effort at self-fathering, of reaffirming his own identity as a poet and facilitating his psychological rapprochement with his literary "father."

Herrick's final acceptance of his role as a "son of Ben" characterizes the last two poems to Jonson in the order of Hesperides, "Upon Ben. Johnson" (H-910) and its immediate sequel, "An Ode for him" (H-911). The first of these takes a form in which Jonson himself was master, the epitaph. In the tradition of that mode the poem is based upon the fiction that it is being read from a tombstone by a passerby. It also employs the convention that poets' true accounts are to be read in their works, not in the events of their lives:

HEre lyes Johnson with the rest Of the Poets; but the Best. Reader, wo'dst thou more have known? Aske his Story, not this Stone. That will speake what this can't tell Of his glory. So farewell.

Herrick has seldom written a more cliched poem. Consequently it may seem to express merely formal praise, as hollow as it is perfunctory. But it is often an error to examine the poems of Hesperides in isolation, as recent Herrick criticism has amply demonstrated.(32) Being an imitation of the Jonsonian epitaph, it actually honors its subject as much by what it is as by what it says. But if this subtlety may be lost upon readers, leading them to the conclusion that "Upon Ben. Johnson" is merely another de rigueur tribute to a dead poet by a live one, that impression is corrected in the next poem, "An Ode for him."

Whereas his epitaph refers to his subject as "Johnson," Herrick's ode begins familiarly--"AH Ben"--as if his former mentor were as much a peer as a father-figure. Whereas the epitaph is abstract and general, the ode is concrete and particular, waxing nostalgic about the "Lyrick Feasts" (line 4) hosted by Jonson at various London taverns. The pronouns "we" and "us" are liberally employed in the descriptions of these festivities, making such generous compliments as "each Verse of thine/Out-did the meate, out-did the frolick wine" (lines 9-10) seem personal and based upon lived experience.

The first stanza having established a relationship between literary father and literary son that is respectful but easy, the second stanza is free to take a stance more typical of the celebratory ode. Although Herrick begins with a familiar possessive--"My Ben" (line 11)--he goes on to request that Jonson send down merely the excess of his wit for surviving poets. That request is made on behalf of "us" (line 13)--presumably the other "Sons of Ben" as well as Herrick himself. The anger at Jonson's survivors and/or at Jonson himself vented in "Upon Master Ben. Johnson" is here replaced by an acceptance of his fellow writers and a straightforward installation of the literary father as the literary son's ego-ideal and friend, a gratifying combination. Behind the ego-ideal, notes Freud (with the patriarchal bias so typical of him), "there lies hidden an individual's first and most important identification, his identification with his father in his own personal prehistory."(33)

In Herrick's arrangement of his Jonson poems, then, inevitable filial hostility has found safe expression, anxieties of punishment have been dealt with, and their place has been taken by a reinforcement of the literary son's identity and autonomy. Such a sequence parallels the classic resolution of the Oedipal conflict, "an intensification of |the son's~ identification with his father" that is, paradoxically, liberating.(34)

Other potential father-figures are honored throughout Hesperides--patrons, noblemen, high-ranking ecclesiasts, bureaucrats, scholars, relatives, and so forth.(35) In addition, certain paternal types--tyrants, schoolmasters, parsons, etc.-are ridiculed in satiric epigrams.(36) Space does not permit a consideration of these pieces here, but it may be noted in passing that, taken together, the two groups of poems constitute further evidence for the good father/bad father ambivalence that characterizes this vein of Herrick's collection.


"What constitutes the root of every form of religion," claims Freud, is "a longing for the father."(37) That longing, as we have seen, is eventually satisfied in Hesperides by the "rescue" of Nicholas Herrick, the "annihilation" of the "bad father," Sir William Herrick, submission to the king as both "good father" and paternal demigod (if a contingent one), and finally the installation of Ben Jonson as a literary "good father." With Herrick's His Noble Numbers, however, it is as if the entire psychical process must be undergone all over again.

After a ritual confession that "those Lines, pen'd by my wanton Wit,/Treble the number of these good I've writ" ("His Confession," |N-1, lines 3-4~) and a ritual "His Prayer for Absolution" (N-2) for his "unbaptized Rhimes" (line 1), the poet seems to despair of ever satisfying his longing for his heavenly father. "To finde God" (N-3), for example, uses the convention of the catalog of impossibilities to argue that God cannot be comprehended. However, the very next epigram, "What God is" (N-4), indicates that while the Father can be known, he is beyond human categorization and praise: "GOD is above the sphere of our esteem,/And is the best known, not defining Him." Nevertheless, the series of six epigrams that follows does in effect attempt such a definition. The Heavenly Father is announced to be, first, the being beyond being ("GOD is not onely said to be/An Ens, but Supraentitie" |N-5~); then, benignly mindful of shiners as well as "the Just" (|N-6~, 4); angry without passion (N-7); incomprehensible (N-8); demanding (N-9); and, in "Affliction" (N-10), doling out punishment and grace in equal measure:

GOD n'ere afflicts us more then our desert, Though He may seem to over-act His part: Sometimes He strikes us more then flesh can beare; But yet still lesse then grace can suffer here.

(lines 1-4)

Careless readings of His Noble Numbers have given Herrick the reputation for being a devotional poet whose Christianity is childlike or even childish, but there is little that could be characterized as innocent or naive in this opening sequence. Abstract, ambiguous, and almost emotionless, these six epigrams are far more theological than religious. The kind of sentimental anthropomorphizing of the deity associated with Sunday-school religion is absent here. On the other hand, if these poems can be said to bespeak a paternal deity at all, he is certainly a remote, vaguely benign, but just as vaguely threatening figure--what the father seems like to the child in the pre-Oedipal phase--a primal (as opposed to a childish) imago.

Herrick's God will remain so for approximately the first third of His Noble Numbers. For example, among these ninety-odd works there are six times as many poems about paternal punishment as about paternal love. Epigram after sacred epigram deals with God's anger, with scourging and other forms of correction, and with the deity's whips, staffs, and rods. This is a heavenly father who punishes at a distance, and, sometimes, for reasons difficult to discern.

The psychoanalysis of individual human beings teaches us that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes with that relation, and at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.(38)

If this be the case, the first third of Robert Herrick's Pious Pieces reflects not only the Old Testament's God of Wrath, but the Nicholas Herrick who inexplicably "abandoned" his son and thus subjected him to tribulations both numerous and severe. At times, indeed, there is more than a hint of sadomasochistic fantasy in His Noble Numbers' poems of paternal correction, such as the prayer, "To God" (N-48):

MAke, make me Thine, my gracious God, Or with thy staffe, or with thy rod; And be the blow too what it will, Lord, I will kisse it, though it kill: Beat me, bruise me, rack me, rend me, Yet in torments, I'le commend Thee: Examine me with fire, and prove me To the full, yet I will love Thee: Nor shalt thou give so deep a wound, But I as patient will be found.

Freud discovered such daydreams of punishment in preschool children, and noted that adults who continue to harbor phantasies of this sort develop a special sensitiveness

and irritability towards anyone whom they can put among the class of fathers. They allow themselves to be easily offended by a person of this kind, and in that way (to their own sorrow and cost) bring about the realization of the imaginary situation of being beaten by their father.(39)

Although depicting the Heavenly Father as a God of Wrath is common enough in seventeenth-century poetry--Donne's Holy Sonnets is but one case in point--given the psychological patterns evinced above it is not unreasonable to posit a connection between Herrick's poems of paternal punishment in His Noble Numbers and what has heretofore been characterized as his father-complex.

The paternal imago, however, is never a simple one, and in the same section of His Noble Numbers there are occasional references to God's love and mercy, and, most importantly, there is one of the major works of Herrick's sacred collection, "A Thanksgiving to God, for his House" (N-47). Here the poet unconsciously expresses a classic return-to-the-womb fantasy by means of a highly believable evocation of seventeenth-century English country life, a life wherein the Heavenly Father provides, if not munificently, at least with agreeable sufficiency. In direct contrast to so many of the sacred epigrams, "A Thanksgiving" is concrete, particular, and personal. Herrick's "little house" (line 3) is an inheritance from God the father, the poet's security amid the flux of nature and history. Its "humble Roof"

Is weather-proof; Under the sparres of which I lie Both soft, and drie, Where Thou my chamber for to ward Hast set a Guard Of harmlesse thoughts, to watch and keep Me, while I sleep.

(lines 3-10)

"The terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood," notes Freud, can arouse a

need for protection--for protection through love--which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one |God~.(40)

The image of that powerful father begins to undergo a change in the second third of His Noble Numbers, starting with a series of ambitious carols and other lyrics on the infancy of God's Son (N-96, N-97, N-98, and N-102). Christ's presence, minimal in the first third of Herrick's sacred collection, figures more importantly in the second third and becomes more closely identified with God the Father (as in "His wish to God" |N-115~). Thus, the poet's image of the Son as a loving deity has the effect of softening the image of the Father as a god of wrath. Poems such as "To God" (N-103) and "To his deere God" (N-104), for example, convey a sense of a heavenly father who is more generous than punitive. Poems of paternal judgment, correction, and punishment are, as noted above, fewer than in the first third and, indeed, Herrick's persona comes to understand on a general level why "Good men |are~ afflicted most" (N-108). On the whole the poet's emphasis is now upon "The goodnesse of his God" (N-122), upon "Gods Grace" (N-132), upon "Gods Bounty" (N-135), and "Upon Gods Blessing" (N-140). The most noteworthy poem in this section of His Noble Numbers deals with heaven, "The white Island: or place of the Blest" (N-128), and there are fewer works where Herrick's persona abases himself before the father-figure as abject son and sinner. The undercurrent of ambivalence towards God that darkens and perplexes the opening third of the collection is less frequently felt. It is as if, by overcoming his neurotic self-image as a preeminent sinner and by crystallizing his identity as an ordinary Christian (nowhere in His Noble Numbers does this priest specifically adopt the persona of a priest), Herrick's speaker has become better able to accept both God the Father and himself.

Symbolizing the process of integration is "To God" (N-191) in the last third of His Noble Numbers; it is only the second poem in the entire collection to mention the Holy Trinity. This sacred epigram concludes with a confident placement of the paternal deity:

And though the Father be the first of Three, 'Tis but by Order, not by Entitie.

(lines 5-6)

The "Inconfused Unity" (line 2) of the Trinity is assurance that the figure of paternal justice is balanced off by the figure of filial mercy.

One of the major works in this last part of the collection, "His Meditation upon Death" (N-230), contrasts sharply with a parallel poem of the first third of His Noble Numbers, "His Letanie, to the Holy Spirit" (N-41). The latter is a death-bed fantasy, a black comedy full of sin (stanza 1) and sickness (stanza 2), "Furies in a shoale" (stanza 6), "despaire" and "doubt" (stanza 9), the devil (stanza 10) and hell-fire (stanza 11), as well as the reiterated plea to God--"Sweet Spirit comfort me!" "His Meditation," however, recalls the Neo-Stoical Herrick of Hesperides:(41)

BE those few hours, which I have yet to spend, Blest with the Meditation of my end: Though they be few in number, I'm content; If otherwise, I stand indifferent.

(lines 1-4)

The prospect of "that Gen'rall Doome" (line 23) and of facing God the Father as "Judge" (line 25) here evokes Christian resolve rather than (as formerly) despair:

Let me, though late, yet at the last, begin To shun the least Temptation to a sin.

(lines 29-30)

Given the speaker's achieved spiritual equanimity, it comes as no surprise that "His Meditation" concludes with a fantasy of Christian optimism rather than in terror: "I rise triumphant in my Funerall" (line 35).

There is also symbolism in Herrick's studied arrangement of the last ten poems of his collection, N-263 to N-272, a sequence that depicts Christ as "loving Saviour" (N-266, line 10). This group of linked poems, beginning with the much-admired "Good Friday: Rex Tragicus, or Christ going to His Crosse" (N-263), offers a concrete and human image of the deity that in every way contrasts to the elusive and angry abstraction who dominates the earlier Noble Numbers. In these poems too the Herrickean persona is very much in evidence: most of them, by means of a kind of extended "composition of place," foreground the fiction that the speaker is physically present for the Son's last days on earth. This Everyman observes and comments upon the various stages of the Passion, sometimes even addressing Christ directly (N-264, N-265, and N-267). In this sequence the Son is shown in the process of becoming, for Herrick, the Father, and his human face makes him wholly accessible.

Immediately preceding Herrick's versified passion play is his final epigram "To God" (N-262), a poem that is in effect the valediction to his volume. Here, the poet-persona who, at the beginning of His Noble Numbers, hyperbolically berated himself for his works of "wanton Wit," his "unbaptized Rhimes," now shows himself to be at peace with himself and with his heavenly father:

THe work is done; now let my Lawrell be Given by none, but by Thy selfe, to me: That done, with Honour Thou dost me create Thy Poet, and Thy Prophet Lawreat.

Here, at long last, Herrick has become able to perceive himself as the good poet-son, the kind in whom the critic-god and good father is bound to be well pleased. While it may not be in the nature of a father-complex ever to be fully resolved, for the Robert Herrick who presents himself in His Noble Numbers it has at least been transcended. The dutiful son has finally found his lost father.(42)


1 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), p. 695. All subsequent citations of Freud (with the exception of note 39) will be taken from this reader.

2 T.S. Eliot, "What Is Minor Poetry?" in On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957), pp. 34-51, 43.

3 Robert Herrick, The Complete Poems, vol. 1, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876), p. xxxix. (The historical record is unclear here. The register of the church where Nicholas Herrick was buried records the date of his interment as 9 November 1592. Since it is unlikely that he was buried on the same day that he died, his suicide must have taken place a day or two earlier.)

4 Grosart, p. xl.

5 F.W. Moorman, Robert Herrick: A Biographical and Critical Study (New York: John Lane, 1910; rprt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), p. 12.

6 Moorman, p. 13.

7 Moorman, p. 14.

8 Grosart, p. xlii.

9 Robert Herrick, The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, ed. J. Max Patrick (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963), H-82. All quotations from Herrick's poetry are from this edition and will be identified by the poem numbers assigned by the editor.

10 Ann Baynes Coiro, Robert Herrick's "Hesperides" and the Epigram Book Tradition (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988), p. 133 (Professor Coiro does call attention to the "anxiety and guilt" of the poem's opening and its seemingly facile conclusion, pp. 133-34.)

11 Patrick, p. 41n.

12 Ibid.

13 Freud, p. 756.

14 Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), p. 54.

15 Robert H. Deming, Ceremony and Art: Robert Herrick's Poetry (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1974), p. 120.

16 Freud, p. 393.

17 Freud, p. 503.

18 Moorman, p. 15.

19 Grosart, p. xlv.

20 Grosart, pp. xlv-xlvi.

21 Grosart, p. xlviii.

22 Grosart, p. xlix.

23 Paradise Lost, 5.859-61, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Meritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press-Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1957).

24 Freud, p. 293.

25 Freud, p. 640.

26 Freud, p. 393.

27 Moorman, p. 131.

28 Freud, p. 643.

29 Patrick, p. 90n.

30 Coiro, p. 16.

31 Freud, p. 493.

32 See, for example, John L. Kimmey, "Robert Herrick's Persona," SP 67, 2 (April 1970): 221-36, and "Order and Form in Herrick's Hesperides," JEGP 70, 2 (April 1971): 255-68; Coiro; and Roger B. Rollin, Robert Herrick, rev. edn. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992).

33 Freud, p. 639.

34 Freud, p. 640.

35 See, for example: H-117, H-146A (for another "bad father," note lines 18-22), H-168, H-245, H-250, H-301, H-359, H-365, H-377, H-451, H-459, H-506, H-745, H-763, and H-1062.

36 See, for example, H-97, H-111, and H-435.

37 Freud, p. 505.

38 Freud, p. 504.

39 Sigmund Freud, "A Child Is Being Beaten," in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), pp. 107-32, 123.

40 Freud, p. 703.

41 Rollin, esp. chap. 3.

42 For support and assistance I am grateful to the Department of English, Clemson University, and especially to Wendy Kay Styles and Mary Eberhart. For their valuable consultations, thanks to Lucy Rollin (Clemson University) and Peter Rudnytsky (University of Florida).

Roger B. Rollin is William James Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson University. His Robert Herrick (rev. edn.) was published in 1992, and he is coeditor of "Trust to Good Verses": Herrick Tercentenary Essays (1978). From 1990 to 1993 he served as president of the American Culture Association.