This Poetick Liturgie

Critic: A. Leigh Deneef
Source: "This Poetick Liturgie": Robert Herrick's Ceremonial Mode, Duke University Press, 1974, 200 p. Reprinted in Poetry Criticism, Vol. 9
Criticism about: Robert Herrick (1591-1674), also known as: Robin Herrick

Genre(s): Pattern poetry; Lyric poetry; Epigrams; Love poetry; Pastoral poetry

[Deneef is an American educator, translator, and critic. In the following excerpt from his "This Poetick Liturgie": Robert Herrick's Ceremonial Mode, he characterizes Herrick's poetry as "ceremonial" and asserts that "participation in this ritual is the act of writing and reading the verse."]

[The poems to be discussed] can be seen, quite literally perhaps, as the thematic and poetic culmination of the Hesperides. All are concerned exclusively with mutability and all depend upon and proceed from the human condition defined in [Herrick's] pastoral, courtly, and realistic poems. The inevitability of death ... [is] confronted directly and made the basis of a new approach to reality.... Herrick here subsumes his pastoral, courtly, and realistic voices under a more limited "artistic" or "poetic" one. He directs attention in these poems not to the rural, courtly, or epigrammatic features of a poet-singer, but to the strictly artistic qualities of that singer's song.

Likewise, the ceremony Herrick creates here is not to be seen as a primarily pastoral or courtly one, but as a poetic one. [I have elsewhere suggested that Herrick's poetic ceremony] attempts to go beyond transience by creating a realm of artistic stasis through isolation of the fragmentary and seemingly inconsequential acts of ordinary life and through the transformation of those acts into a broader and more complete view of human existence. In the poems which follow, Herrick's transformation of dying and death into significant ritualistic actions heightens and intensifies the meaning of the poetic ceremonial and allows both poet and reader to transcend the insignificance of their ends.

The distinction between the poetic rites of the present group of poems and the pastoral or courtly rites ... is problematic enough to require some recapitulation. In the [pastoral and courtly lyrics], Herrick frequently isolates and "represents" rites which literally exist outside the poem--the hock-cart festival, the May Day ritual, the courtly "wooing" games--and whose significance depends in part on their specifically country or city settings. As suggested, however, Herrick's "re-presentation" of these literal rites is itself ceremonial in form and intent. This "poetic" rite has no actual existence outside the poem and is limited to neither the pastoral nor the courtly worlds as it underlies both. [In some of his verse], Herrick does not "re-present" any literal rite like the hock-cart and his ceremony is rather the rhetorical treatment of the subject, the rite of definitive pronouncement. Nonetheless, these poems are not as different from the pastoral and courtly ones as their respective rituals might imply: the epigrams are characterized by the nature of the speaker, the realistic voice, just as the courtly poems are characterized by a Cavalier voice. In each instance, the specific qualities of the limited personae tend to overshadow and obscure the more abstract artistic ritual involved. In the lyrics and epigrams to be discussed in this chapter, the persona is literally the poet (not Robert Herrick, but a fictitious and conscious mask), even though he makes use of the pastoral, courtly, and epigrammatic forms. Therefore, the reader's attention is not directed in these poems to an external rite to which the lyric may allude, but to the ceremonial artistry creating and shaping that poem. The poem itself is the ceremony and participation in this ritual is the act of writing or reading the verse.

The pastoral forms included in the "artistic ceremonial" are two, the burial instruction and the epitaph. Both, of course, confront death directly and seek to transcend it in their own special ways.... [The] pastoral persona's total commitment to the pastoral life in general, or to certain pastoral rites in particular, engages him, and his readers, in another, more terrifying, commitment--to the inevitability of death as the end of the natural process. The pastoral persona cannot escape the latter commitment given his own terms. By means of the burial instruction and the epitaph, however, Herrick alters those terms and tries again to transcend the natural end to which he has by definition bound his pastoral voice.

Although neither of these forms, "The Funerall Rites of the Rose" provides a convenient starting point for this discussion since it demonstrates the essential features and intentions governing Herrick's burial poems.

THe Rose was sick, and smiling di'd;

And (being to be sanctifi'd)

About the Bed, there sighing stood

The sweet, and flowrie Sisterhood.

Some hung the head, while some did bring

(To wash her) water from the Spring.

Some laid her forth, while other wept,

But all a solemne Fast there kept.

The holy Sisters some among

The sacred Dirge and Trentall sung.

But ah! what sweets smelt every where,

As Heaven had spent all perfumes there.

At last, when prayers for the dead,

And Rites were all accomplished;

They, weeping, spread a Lawnie Loome,

And clos'd her up, as in a Tombe.

The most obvious feature of the poem is the personification of the Rose and her compatriot flowers. Not simply personified, the flowers are also deliberately transformed into religious figures by the imagery: "sanctifi'd," "Sisterhood," "solemne Fast," "holy Sisters," "sacred Dirge and Trentall," "Heaven," "prayers," and "Rites." On a literal level, then, the poem heightens the significance of the Rose's death by placing it in a nexus of religious association. The Rose becomes an image of the Virgin, and the flowers surrounding the bed, or altar, become sacrificing nuns. The death of the Rose is also heightened in meaning because of the action it precipitates--the Sisterhood's ritual of mourning. The ritual, as line 2 suggests, sanctifies the Rose's death by evoking and necessitating a precise public ceremony, as well as by providing the proper "conclusion" to her life.

On a more important level, however, the poem must be read as a process, for it depicts this ritual as primarily a function of art, or the poetry. The poem itself is the tomb of the Rose and the construction of the poem is the ritual of mourning described in it. The sanctification here is something quite different: the beauty of the Rose is removed from the flux of nature to the static realm of art; the death of the Rose is elevated and given special importance by the poetic act it inspires. In this way death is not denied but transcended, though perhaps only for the duration of the poem itself. The artistic ceremonial, therefore, is not simply Herrick's use of classical rites in these poems, but the manner in which he uses a poetic ritual to construct an artistic stasis.

The process of artistic creation at work here is the same in virtually all the poems discussed in this chapter. The singing of specific aspects of experience heightens the significance of the subjects, sanctifies the song itself, and fixes the object of that song in a realm more integrated and more permanent than the natural one. By means of the artistic ceremonial, this realm is art itself.

"To Perilla" is chronologically the first burial instruction in the Hesperides and indicative of the genre's typical form.

AH my Perilla! do'st thou grieve to see

Me, day by day, to steale away from thee?

Age cals me hence, and my gray haires bid come,

And haste away to mine eternal home;

'Twill not be long (Perilla) after this,

That I must give thee the supremest kisse:

Dead when I am, first cast in salt, and bring

Part of the creame from that Religious Spring;

With which (Perilla) wash my hands and feet;

That done, then wind me in that very sheet

Which wrapt thy smooth limbs (when thou didst implore

The Gods protection, but the night before)

Follow me weeping to my Turfe, and there

Let fall a Primrose, and with it a teare:

Then lastly, let some weekly-strewings be

Devoted to the memory of me:

Then shall my Ghost not walk about, but keep

Still in the coole, and silent shades of sleep.

The first part of the poem is a complaint against transience and mutability; the second is an exhortation to Perilla to carry out certain ritualistic actions. The exhortation is the focus of attention, though, and the speaker begins, in line 7, by asking for a preparation of his body to forestall the "putrefaction" which he observes in other poems immediately follows death. In lines 7-8 his body is purified (another form of preparation) by tears from Perilla's own eyes ("that Religious Spring"). Next, it is wrapt in a special winding sheet, again supplied by Perilla, and, in fact, the one in which she slept but the night before. (This surprising emphasis on a kind of ultimate union of the two lovers betrays a vein of the Cavalier wit in this primarily pastoral persona and may threaten the emotional consistency of his statement). Finally, the body is buried amid the typically Roman rites of weeping and weekly strewings.

At least two things are evident in this section of the poem: the precisely ordered sequence of events and the care with which these actions are extended beyond the present moment. Both points are effective in establishing the ritualistic nature of Perilla's duties, and it is clear that her individual deeds are not as important as their sum total. The fact that they are recognized as part of a ritual itself heightens the meaning of the death which occasions that rite. Instead of a simple, natural fact, the speaker's death is now an event worth commemorating in ritualistic form.

Furthermore, the value of this ceremony is demonstrated by the speaker's consolation, as witnessed in the emotional shift from the opening tone of complaint to the calm serenity of the final two lines:

Then shall my Ghost not walk about, but keep

Still in the coole, and silent shades of sleep.

As long as the ritual of mourning, complete with tears and strewings, is periodically re-enacted, it continually invokes remembrance of the speaker and continually elevates the significance of his death. But this is not an actual ritual: it is a speaker pleading for one. The plea is consoling only insofar as he can construct a rite to transcend his own end. His poetic construction creates the stasis of celebratory affirmation, a stasis in which he is always just dying and Perilla is always mourning. Significantly, this poetic ceremonial places the lonely and solitary act of dying in the context of a more public occasion, for we, as readers, also re-enact the ritual--the awareness of this death and the placing of it within the larger context of human experience. The ceremonial takes both poet and reader far beyond death itself. The possibility of artistic transcendence is affirmed and celebrated, and the reader participates in that transcendence through his experience with the poem itself.

Herrick's other burial instructions, of which there are a surprisingly large number, deviate in smaller points from the form of "To Perilla,", but all attempt to come to grips with and to go beyond the same natural end. More in keeping with our specifically pastoral expectations is "To Laurels":

           A Funerall stone,

        Or Verse I covet none;

             But only crave

        Of you, that I may have

A sacred Laurel springing from my grave:

           Which being seen,

       Blest with perpetuall greene,

           May grow to be

        Not so much call'd a tree,

    As the eternall monument of me.

The poem is representative of a series in which the instructing or pleading speaker addresses laurels, yews, cypress, and other trees and flowers. The plea is always the same: that the continuous growth of the natural object will serve as a living memorial to him. In this poem, he first addresses the laurel as a "sacred" plant, "springing" from his grave. The choice of "springing" evokes associations of the season--growth, freshness, vitality--all of which are appropriate to the plea. The religious connotations of "sacred" are reemphasized as the plant is next seen "Blest" with "perpetuall greene." The evergreen quality extends the image of spring in time and helps to define the laurel's "sacred" nature. Also significant is the emphatic "of me" in the final line, the explicit connection between the speaker himself and the natural object. The ever-green and ever-springing laurel becomes the speaker as nature itself provides a means of negating death.

"His embalming to Julia" represents a more specialized form of burial instruction:

FOr my embalming, Julia, do but this,

Give thou my lips but their supreamest kiss:

Or else trans-fuse thy breath into the chest,

Where my small reliques must for ever rest:

That breath the Balm, the myrrh, the Nard shal be,

To give an incorruption unto me.

Ostensibly, the poem is a request for "incorruption," for forestalling the "putrefying" end of the death-process. The agent of the embalming is Julia; the means, her breath. The poem is effective, especially in the pun on "supreamest," which here probably carries the meaning of "last, final, as belonging to the moment of death," in addition to the more common adjectival sense of "highest" or "best." But the emphasis in the poem is not on any transcendence for the speaker, but rather on Julia herself. In providing Julia with religious significance, the poem becomes an elaborate verse-compliment instead of the kind of artistic transcendence described above.

"To Julia" takes the opening lines of this poem and transforms them into a new and different statement:

JUlia, when thy Herrick dies,

Close thou up thy Poets eyes:

And his last breath, let it be

Taken in by none but Thee.

The ceremony here is severely limited and simplified, but as is usual with Herrick that very act of simplification accomplishes a forceful emotional impact. Nonetheless, though the poem is a masterful compression of feeling and an explanation or at least a suggestion of just how much is involved in the "supreamest kiss," it does not take the speaker very far beyond the finality of death. The ceremony merely transforms the act of dying into an intense and devotional union of the two lovers.

The ceremonial treatment in "To his lovely Mistresses" is much closer to that in "To Perilla":

ONe night i'th'yeare, my dearest Beauties, come

And bring those drew-drink-offerings to my Tomb.

When thence ye see my reverend Ghost to rise,

And there to lick th'effused sacrifice:

Though palenes be the Livery that I weare,

Looke ye not wan, or colourlesse for feare.

Trust me I will not hurt ye; or once shew

The least grim looke, or cast a frown on you:

Nor shall the Tapers when I'm there, burn belw.

This I may do (perhaps) as I glide by,

Cast on my Girles a glance, and loving eye:

Or fold mine armes, and sigh, because I've lost

The world so soon, and in it, you the most.

Then these, no feares more on your Fancies fall,

Though then I smile, and speake no words at all.

Literally, the poem contains the ritual of mourning which Herrick continually uses in similar instructions and which provides a "yeerly" transcendence of death's finality through the memorial nature of the rites. In addition to the element of a fairly light-hearted Cavalier humor obvious on one level of the poem's meaning, the fanciful depiction of the ghost rising to accept the offered effusions provides Herrick with a means of demonstrating the significance of the ritual by emphasizing the speaker's serenity. The delicate control of emotional tone here is one of the real achievements of the poem, an achievement made possible chiefly by the ceremonial form. The artistic stasis allows the speaker's death to be continuously commemorated ritualistically, and his response to that ritual indicates its value. Most important in this response is his concern not to frighten those participating in the rite. This unexpected, and somewhat humorous, redirection of emotional concern convinces the reader that the ceremony is effective. The final line, "Though then I smile, and speake no words at all," is a highly compressed statement in which the speaker's emotion is perfectly controlled, yielding a sense of utter serenity. The ceremonial takes reader and speaker far beyond death itself, for death, at the end of this poem, is simply irrelevant.

"Upon himselfe being buried" shows a totally different concern:

LEt me sleep this night away,

Till the Dawning of the day:

Then at th'opening of mine eyes,

I, and all the world shall rise.

The equating of death and sleep (including, of course, the allusion to the Last Judgment and the awakening of all the dead) is traditional in Christian poetry and the image is reminiscent of Donne's "Death be not proud":

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more: death, thou shalt die.

This particular means of transcending death is not often invoked in the Hesperides, and when it is Herrick opens himself to the kinds of dangers noted with the Christian epigrams. In the burial poems, however, he manages to avoid the stock formulae and, in fact, frequently achieves some of his most impressive poetic statements in this vein. Part of the reason for his success in these particular poems is that he can count on a wider range of compacted emotions because of the reader's probable familiarity with the concepts--he can, that is, concentrate on the manipulation of feelings rather than the development of a possible transcendence since the latter is already assumed.

All the poems examined thus far are artistic ceremonials, for the transcendence achieved is primarily a poetic one: it is outside the realm of actual fact and is accomplished by a specifically artistic creation. Herrick's affective intent in these poems can be defined in similar terms: he invites the reader to affirm the possibility of artistic transcendence and to participate in it by experiencing the poem itself. These burial instructions are concerned mainly with establishing a realm of poetic stasis in which the act of death becomes somehow more significant than its natural or actual fact would warrant. The poems are not really an attempt to escape the reality of death, but an artistic placing of the natural act within a more meaningful and less "final" context of human experience.

The epitaph is the second pastoral form included in the artistic ceremonial. It is perhaps a deliberate counterpart to the burial instruction, for it often seeks to evoke in the reader the same responses of recognition, pity, and commemoration (often, in fact, in the same ritualistic terms), while at the same time making the plea for those responses even more public and universal. On the whole, though, the attempt to transcend death is conducted here along somewhat different lines. For one thing, the epitaph is a more conventional "poetic" ceremony. Although it has not been noted as often or as emphatically as necessary, the epitaph, like the ode or the elegy, is one of the traditional poetic forms through which the poet-mourner can confront the fact of death and achieve some measure of consolation. Frequently such consolation comes by way of the epitaph's memorial inscription, for in presenting the essence of the dead person the poet actually recreates the character of that individual in a more static and permanent form. Herrick's artistry in this particular form is most often revealed, however, not in the precision of his portraits, but in the subtle manipulation of the reader's emotional response to the death, a response which is simultaneously purgative, cognitive, and ceremonial. That is, Herrick takes the reader from feelings of sorrow, anxiety, and instability at the opening of the poem to ones of peace and serenity at the close; he redirects attention from the deceased individual to the reader himself, creating in the later an awareness of the significance of this death to him personally; and he always takes the reader beyond mourning to a rite of celebration. All the epitaphs of the Hesperides attempt to place death in a framework of emotional implications which provide it with more meaning and importance than it would otherwise have. Poet and reader are ceremonially united with the deceased in a static moment of celebration in which the literal death often becomes irrelevant.

"Upon the much lamented, Master J. Warr" is an example of the traditional epitaph form:

WHat Wisdome, Learning, Wit, or Worth,

Youth, or sweet Nature, co'd bring forth,

Rests here with him; who was the Fame,

The Volumne of himselfe, and Name.

If, Reader, then thou wilt draw neere,

And doe an honour to thy teare;

Weep then for him, for whom laments

Not one, but many Monuments.

The poem is divided conventionally into two equal parts: lines 1-4 present a summary description of Warr himself, and lines 5-8 present an exhortation to the reader, directing him to the proper emotional response. The summary description is typical enough: the speaker chooses some representative virtues (usually wisdom, learning, wit, courage, or prowess for a man; beauty, faith, love, or chastity for a woman) which found their natural incarnation in this man and which are now extinct because their earthly form is dead.

The exhortation is somewhat less conventional, for instead of simply directing the reader to show his capacity for pity by weeping over this lamentable death, the speaker inverts the beneficiary. The reader's tear does not honor Warr as much as Warr's death honors his tear: "And doe an honour to thy teare." Warr's death, that is, and the reader's response to that death, are equally important and interdependent--both allow a demonstration of essential humanity. This is not sentimentality, at least not in any derogatory sense, but an expression of feeling for, and a recognition of oneness with, another human being. Furthermore, Herrick's redirecting of the reader's response is at the center of the ceremonial, because the poem provides the reader with a ritualistic and formal act which, if he participates, makes this death more significant than merely the end of a person's life. The rite makes the poem a vehicle for a ceremonial union of one being with another. By showing his feeling for Warr, the reader is united with him in a static moment in which the literal death is of no account.

A similar use of the epitaph appears in "Upon a comely, and curious Maide":

IF Men can say that beauty dyes;

Marbles will sweare that here it lyes.

If Reader then thou canst forbeare,

In publique loss to shed a Teare:

The Dew of griefe upon this stone

Will tell thee Pitie thou hast none.

By shortening the summary description to just two lines, Herrick focuses attention on the exhortation, which is here more vehement than that in the preceding poem. Actually, it inverts the previous injunction: if the reader does not weep, he will disclose (and discover) his heartlessness and callousness. Once again the emphasis is on the reader's response, not on the person who has died; the death is given additional significance because it provides a means toward self-awareness and emotional commitment. Also important is the fact that this death is a "publique loss." All Herrick's epitaphs seek to convince the reader that such is the case, for only if he is related to the death can he respond emotionally to it and participate in the ceremonial union the artist and the poem demand.

In "Upon a Maide" Herrick combines the conventional summary description of the epitaph with the ritual of mourning of the burial instruction:

HEre she lyes (in Bed of Spice)

Faire as Eve in Paradice:

For her beauty it was such

Poets co'd not praise too much.

Virgins Come, and in a Ring

Her supreamest Requiem sing;

Then depart, but see ye tread

Lightly, lightly ore the dead.

The final lines still concentrate on the emotional response to this death, but they add an element of sacramental ritual to heighten the importance of that response. The last line is a good indication of the poet's emotional control as the simple repetition of the word "lightly" provides a feeling of tender and ritualistic concern appropriate to this "supreamest Requiem." And, of course, "supremest" may again carry the punning connotations already seen in "His embalming to Julia."

Two more short poems dealing with this combination of epitaph description and burial mourning are "An Epitaph upon a child" and "Upon a Child. An Epitaph":

VIrgins promis'd when I dy'd,

That they wo'd each Primrose-tide,

Duely, Morne and Ev'ning, come,

And with flowers dresse my Tomb.

Having promis'd, pay your debts,

Maids, and here strew Violets.

BUt borne, and like a short Delight,

I glided by my Parents sight.

That done, the harder Fates deny'd

My longer stay, and so I dy'd.

If pittying my sad Parents Teares,

You'l spil a tear, or two with theirs:

And with some flowers my grave bestrew,

Love and they'l thank you for't. Adieu.

The first poem presents a typical plea for the burial instruction's ritual of mourning and remembrance, and emphasizes two aspects of that rite: its repetitiveness ("each Primrose-tide," "Duely, Morne and Ev'ning") and its fulfillment by means of rather simple yet sanctifying acts (here strewing violets). The second poem is formally closer to those constructed of summary description and exhortation. The description gives an important emphasis to the poem by defining the child in terms of the parents. The image of line 2, the child's "gliding" by her parents' sight, is effective in capturing the fleeting nature of time (and hence life), and is reminiscent of one of Herrick's epigrams:

THousands each day passe by, which wee,

Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Furthermore, by focusing attention on the parents' sight, the image prepares for and supports the redirection of emotion in the exhortation, not toward the child herself, but toward those parents. It is a peculiar twist, although, as the final line clarifies in its emphasis on "love," the end of the emotional appeal is still the same--ceremonial oneness and cognition of human feeling. In a sense, the reader is asked to become the parent of this child.

These little epitaphs on children are among Herrick's best in the genre. In them he rings some of his finest emotional tones, all within the very limited space afforded by the form. To illustrate, we may examine two child-epitaphs which are, on the surface, almost identical. The first is "Upon a child that dyed":

HEre she lies, a pretty bud,

Lately made of flesh and blood:

Who, as soone, fell fast asleep,

As her little eyes did peep.

Give her strewings; but not stir

The earth, that lightly covers her.

The poem begins by equating the child with a tender and fragile bud, then personifies this image by adding "flesh and blood." The next two lines advance the summary description by giving the process of her death. Her "peeping" eyes might be intended to carry on the "bud" image of line 1, in which case the bud would be just breaking through its calyx--only to be covered up again. And the poem ends with the traditional Roman exhortation to give strewings and not to disturb the grave.

The epitaph is serious, somber, and delicate; it presents an appropriately tender image for the child; it has a consistent and logical three-part movement; and it evokes the intended emotions of reverence, pity, sorrow, and so forth. Further, by directing attention away from the literal death to the figure of the child herself, Herrick has constructed a poetic ritual in which the reader is united with him in an act of ceremonial commemoration. That the child has died is finally not as important as the fact that her death provides a means of celebrating her. She becomes, in a sense, more important than she was because of the artistic ritual her death occasions. Nonetheless, the poem is not totally satisfactory, for the statement seems too emaciated, the major image serves no developing function, and emotional response is not directed and controlled carefully enough.

In what is surely a later version of the same poem, "Upon a child", Herrick adds considerable life to the death-portrait:

HEre a pretty Baby lies

Sung asleep with Lullabies:

Pray be silent, and not stirre

Th'easie earth that covers her.

The poem's title is ambiguous and does not immediately limit the work to the epitaph genre, although that possibility is not excluded either. The significance of the ambiguity is appreciated when we see that it is only in the final line that we learn for sure that the child is dead. Thus Herrick can develop certain emotional attitudes and elicit certain responses unencumbered by the austere fact of the child's death.

The opening line, "HEre a pretty Baby lies," presents the literal image of a child asleep on a bed or in a crib and evokes feelings of tenderness, peace, and security. The second line reinforces this image and these emotions, but takes them a step farther. The reference to singing the child asleep with "Lullabies" evokes emotional associations of maternity, thereby adding feelings of love and concern to those established by line 1. This is a conventional summary description and the first half of the poem ends. But the description is conventional only in the structural sense, for nothing has yet been said about the child herself--attention is focused strictly on the emotional context in which the child is seen. And, to repeat, neither the subject matter of the couplet nor the tense of its verbs gives any sure indication that the baby is dead. We seem to be in a suspended present.

With line 3, "Pray be silent, and not stirre," the exhortation begins. Literally, the line implies that if the reader is not silent, or if he stirs, the child will awaken. Though a new section of the poem has begun, the image and emotional overtones of the first part are carried on. But there is one important change simply by virtue of the imperative: the reader is drawn into this tender, peaceful setting, made an actual participant, and given the responsibility to maintain the scene exactly as he found it.

In the final line the child's death is bluntly confronted. Although this death was never quite beyond expectation, the depiction of the intensely emotional situation makes the suddenly factual emphasis somewhat startling. The literal image immediately alters: the earth itself is both bed and blankets. Yet the change in image is not really that drastic, for the visual picture is not one of a grave either. The insertion of the word "earth" in that part of the final line where we expect to find "covers," and the use of "covers" to define the action of the earth rather than as a noun describing the baby's blankets, maintain the identical image of the first three lines. Only the "material" of the bed has changed. Similarly, though the knowledge of the child's death is now certain, the emotional attitudes and responses are not significantly altered either. They may be deepened by a gentle poignancy, but peace, calm, serenity, and love are still the dominant tones.

If the image and emotional responses remain the same, what of the exhortation? It seems clear that it too is unchanged by virtue of the description of the earth as "easie." Of course, "easie" could refer to the fact that the grave is freshly dug, but that places too realistic an emphasis on the actual and jars with image and tone at this point. Even the more conventional sense of "not pressing tightly" seems inappropriate at this point. More likely is the implication that the earth is "easie" just as a child's blanket would be "easie": if, as the exhortation warns, either is disturbed, whether by noise or movement, the child will awaken. The assumption behind the line is not that death is analogous to sleep, but that death is sleep. The child will quite literally awaken when this "easie" earth is stirred. There is nothing especially unique about the idea itself, particularly for an Anglican priest. In the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel, the Spirit of God says, "O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves ..."; according to Matthew 27:52, at the ninth hour of the crucifixion, "the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept, arose ..."; and Jesus, according to John 5:28-29, says that "the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his [the Son's] voice, and shall come forth...." Herrick uses similar Christian associations with the word "sleep" in "To the Lady Crew, upon the death of her Child," "On himselfe," "His own Epitaph," "Upon his kinswoman Mistris Elizabeth Herrick," and "Upon himselfe being buried." What is unique is his revitalization here of the stock classical ending of "Upon a child that dyed" for an effective consolation.

By presenting a carefully controlled action involving the speaker, the child, and the reader, the epitaph becomes its own poetic ritual; and that rite, by enlisting the reader's participation and by directing his emotional response, transforms the literal death into a transcendent sleep, a waiting for the Last Judgment. More than the earlier version, the poem exploits the ceremonial possibilities: it asks, indeed demands, celebration and commemoration rather than mourning. The control of image and emotional tone here demonstrates Herrick's poetic ceremonial at its very best. The reader is taken with the poet into a controlled artistic stasis in which death as an inevitable natural fact becomes suddenly quite irrelevant.

The control that the ceremonial nature of Herrick's epitaphs exerts over the emotional context can be seen in one final example, "An Epitaph upon a Virgin":

HEre a solemne Fast we keepe,

While all beauty lyes asleep

Husht be all things; (no noyse here)

But the toning of a teare:

Or a sigh of such as bring

Cowslips for her covering.

The rite here is similar to that in previous poems, but the emotional force of that rite is underscored by the poet's subtle use of alliteration in the final three lines, as well as by the sensitive and intensely felt image of "the toning of a teare." The serenity evoked in "Upon a child" is again called forth here, this time more by language than by association. And again the tone, the mood, and the ceremonial governing both extend the significance of the death far beyond its natural "end."

The importance of Herrick's burial instructions and epitaphs to the volume as a whole cannot be overemphasized. The sheer number of them suggests that the poet is somehow deeply committed to the ceremonial artistry they portray. The key to this art is the ceremonial's power to transform death into an act or state of more meaning, more public and universal significance, than its literal condition would warrant. Death is transcended, though not escaped, by means of a poetic rite: the speaker and the reader are transported from the graveyard to a heightened, controlled, and ordered stasis of art itself.

In "A Dirge upon the Death of the Right Valiant Lord, Bernard Stuart," Herrick combines both the materializing summary of the epitaph and the ritual of mourning of the burial instruction. More important, however, is his use of both pastoral means of transcendence to prepare for a third means--the promise of poetic immortality.

1. Hence, hence, profane; soft silence let us have;

  While we this Trentall sing about thy Grave.

2. Had Wolves or Tigers seen but thee,

  They wo'd have shew'd civility;

  And in compassion of thy yeeres,

  Washt those thy purple wounds with tears.

  But since th'art slaine; and in thy fall,

  The drooping Kingdome suffers all.


  This we will doe; we'll daily come

  And offer Tears upon thy Tomb:

  And if that they will not suffice,

  Thou shalt have soules for sacrifice.

Sleepe in thy peace, while we with spice perfume thee,

And Cedar wash thee, that no times consume thee.

3. Live, live thou dost, and shalt; for why?

  Soules doe not with their bodies die:

  Ignoble off-springs, they may fall

  Into the flames of Funerall:

  When as the chosen seed shall spring

  Fresh, and for ever flourishing.


And times to come shall, weeping, read thy glory,

Lesse in these Marble stones, then in thy story.

The poem begins with a two-line invocation, or, more specifically, a call to the ritual of mourning. The "Trentall," of course, as a dirge, refers to the poem itself; in a like manner, the ceremonial of the described rites is also the ceremonial of art--here the construction of a complete masquelike ritual in which the reader is asked to participate.

Lines 3-8 present a summary description, though one a bit different from the preceding mainly because of the kinds of allusions made. The first of these, the "Wolves or Tigers" which "wo'd have shew'd [Stuart] civility," refers to the depiction in Genesis of man living in accord with all the animals. Stuart becomes therefore the noble and unfallen Adam, the archetypal man-figure. The next allusion carries this elevation even further, for line 6, by referring to the "purple wounds" washed with tears, alludes to and associates Stuart with Christ, the novus Adam, in whose death (literally, not allegorically) "the drooping Kingdome suffers all." It is not necessary to suggest any archetypal myths at work in the poem, although the need to overcome the fact of death by constructing "singing monuments" does have mythic proportion. This point is simply that the character of Stuart is elevated to almost supernatural status by the allusions. This is not a typical summary description, even though most are rhetorically inflated.

The chorus responds to this description by reinvoking the same ritual of commemoration seen in other burial poems. By anointing the body in order to preserve it from the "end" of "putrefaction," the chorus emphasizes that the concern for stasis, even now that Stuart is dead, is still paramount.

At line 15 the focus shifts as attention is directed not so much to the present or past Stuart as to his "future." The lines provide a specifically Christian hope based upon a set of natural images. The key to those images occurs in the final two lines of the section:

When as the chosen seed shall spring

Fresh, and for ever flourishing.

"Seed," "spring," "fresh," and "flourishing" all evoke associations of the natural regenerative cycle, but these associations are placed within a Christian supernatural context by line 16: "Soules doe not with their bodies die." "Chosen" calls to mind once again the Adamic motif by making Stuart one of his lineage.

Again the chorus responds, although the response is quite different. Stuart's glory will be remembered not by the lines on his tombstone or by their rituals, or even by his Christian immortality, but by his "story." As we will discover from Herrick's other artistic ceremonials, his use of "story" here refers to poetry. It is this poem, in fact, which preserves Stuart and insures his immortality by seeing to it that "no times consume" him. All means of transcendence are ultimately subsumed under and find their resolution in the artistic ceremonial itself and for that reason the concluding lines of the "Dirge" are appropriate. Art provides for, gives reality to, and is less qualified than all the other separate means of transcendence, for only art is finally and visually successful in creating a stasis outside time....

It is not necessary to regard every poem in the Hesperides as ceremonial to see that celebration is the governing intention behind most of them and that the poetic ceremonial is the shaping principle through which that intent is most often actualized. By transforming literal and private actions into significant, public rituals, Herrick's poems continually isolate and re-present, in heightened and ordered form, key moments of human experience. By freeing these moments from temporal control, the poet leads us to an understanding of what each involves. Surely one measure of his success in demonstrating how meaningful these ritual moments are is the freedom and the ease with which we, as readers, can commit ourselves to the constructed rites.

To a large extent, however, the true success of the Hesperides lies not with individual poems. There are, certainly, some poems here as fine in their way as any in the century--"Corinna," "Delight in Disorder," "The Night-piece, to Julia," "The Argument," the "Sack" poems, and so on--but it is a feeling of joy and festivity, even of a kind of free abandonment to the vitality of communal impulses, which is evoked by a reading of the volume as a whole. The artistic stasis which Herrick achieves within the limits of his poetical garden does in fact go far beyond the mutability concerns giving rise to the book. In this way Herrick raises larger questions about the act of creative writing itself and the function of poetry within the framework of human experience.

To pursue this line of thought but one step further, it is possible perhaps to see the Hesperides as a kind of poetical dialectic. By using different personae, Herrick is able to pit one ceremonial approach to existence against another, to show that each is significant on its own terms and within its own limits, and to demonstrate that the poetic ceremonial, the rite of artistic or imaginative creation, is one means of actualizing all these approaches simultaneously. Herrick's own consciousness of the artistic rite in which he is engaged gives ultimate meaning to the volume that rite produces. The British novelist-poet-critic, Paul West, in a book entitled The Wine of Absurdity, acutely summarizes in abstract form this final level of meaning:

All man can do is to re-create himself, each within his own limits, taking his mystique where he finds it without expecting morals from it, being as rational as he can ..., and acting with as full a sense of responsibility as he can manage in a world where he is always in motion. To remain a coherent person entails always an effort of imagination, for imagination is the only means we have of going beyond minimal awareness. To be ourselves is to deal with ourselves on the move between inexplicable birth and inexplicable death; and imagination, whether we call it mystique or reason or action [or the construction of poetic rituals], is the only weapon we have against death.

Robert Herrick may not ultimately be a "Great Poet" in Eliot's sense of the term, but his achievement is none the less because of that. To participate in his poetic ceremonial fully and consciously is to understand how far the creative act may take us.

Source: A. Leigh Deneef, in his "This Poetick Liturgie": Robert Herrick's Ceremonial Mode, Duke University Press, 1974, 200 p. Reprinted in Poetry Criticism, Vol. 9.