Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth

Critic: H. R. Swardson
Source: Poetry and the Fountain of Light: Observations on the Conflict between Christian and Classical Traditions in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 40-63

Nationality: British; English

[Swardson is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses the effectiveness of sensuous natural imagery and classical elements in Herrick's poetry.]

One of the chief attractions readers have found in Robert Herrick's poetry is the happy, flowering, lover's world that he evokes in poem after poem in Hesperides, the collection of his secular poems. It is a world of nature, youth, desire, rural delight, sensuous fragrance, and delicate fable. And it is nearly always a classical world, where all the girls are Antheas and Julias and Corinnas and even the 'sea-scourged merchant' is going to Ithaca. As we respond to these poems we are likely to feel that this association— love, nature, pagan antiquity—is naturally felicitous, even inevitable, and that the classicism is a good thing for the poems and the erotic effects they seek. This invites one to ask just how good a thing it is, and in what way—a simple question with an obvious answer, but worth answering clearly.

Let us consider Herrick's sensuous world at its most exquisite, in "The Apparition of his Mistresse calling him to Elizium." Here we have nature voluptuous in roses and cassia, ambergris and gums; and nature abundant 'Where ev'ry tree a wealthy issue beares / Of fragrant Apples, blushing Plums or Peares'. It is the unfading garden where 'in green Meddowes sits eternall May'. And it is appropriately the setting where 'naked Younglings, handsome Striplings run':

And here we'l sit on Primrose-banks, and see
Love's Chorus led by Cupid; and we'l be
Two loving followers too unto the Grove,
Where Poets sing the stories of our love.

Among the company are crowds of poets listening to Homer. Pindar is there and Anacreon whose 'Frantick-Looks, shew him truly Bacchanalian like, / Besmear'd with Grapes.' Ovid lies by Corinna who 'steeps / His eye in dew of kisses while he sleeps'.

If our business is to ask what qualities are given to a poem by such classical reference, the answer here is clear. Herrick is taking advantage of the 'paganism' contained in classical material. The classical atmosphere, or setting, brings with it the 'pagan spirit'. This setting establishes a particular relation to Christian attitudes, indicated in the meaning of 'pagan'—outside the Christian. This is important for Christian writers, and readers, and, indeed, for any milieu in which the audience approaches a work with undeniable allegiance to Christian values—and this is certainly the milieu of seventeenth-century literature. For the classical framework or setting allows a temporary suspension of Christian standards. It may provide, in the modern phrase, a 'moral holiday' in a classical atmosphere. It implies that the action or attitudes are exempt from Christian criteria, particularly that sensuality is free from a Christian sense of sin. It thus helps set the poem in an ethical frame free from normal Christian considerations which, if admitted, might undermine the effect of the poem. This is, of course, a natural and common thing and hardly a conscious programme to baulk moralists. Carew's lovers' Elysium in "A Rapture" is insulated in the same way: 'There shall the Queens of Love and Innocence/Beauty and Nature, banish all offence.' And the Hesperides is full of poems in this completely classical frame—"To Electra," "Lyrick to Mirth," "The Welcome to Sack"—where it works parallel to, and supports, Herrick's flowering natural world.

This is not, however, the only source of reference that works to set off the lover's world in Herrick's poetry. Another interesting component of Herrick's atmosphere of love is the folk-pagan element, the matter of 'the Court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King'. At times this works with the classical reference and at times it works alone to set the atmosphere for the action. The business of the elves in "The Night-piece, to Julia" works this way, I think, casting a permissive fairy light around the tryst where, says the speaker, 'My soule Ile poure into thee':

Her Eyes the Glow-worme lend thee,
The Shooting Starres attend thee;
And the Elves also,
Whose little eyes glow,
Like the sparks of fire, befriend thee.

No Will-o'-th'-Wispe mis-light thee;
Nor Snake, or Slow-worme bite thee:
But on, on thy way
Not making a stay,
Since Ghost ther's none to affright thee.

Then Julia let me wooe thee,
Thus, thus to come unto me:
And when I shall meet
Thy silv'ry feet,
My soule Ile poure into thee.

These strategies have such interest for us partly because we know what challenges they were thwarting, or attempting to thwart. If this were Ovid, and not a 'let's pretend we're Ovid', there would be no issue. But we are dealing with a Christian poet who felt the sense of opposition between his poetry and his religion, as so many poets of

Herrick's century did. The antagonism between the Christian position and the dominant spirit of the Hesperides is most baldly apparent in the many statements of renunciation in Noble Numbers, the collection of religious poems. A good illustration from these, 'His pious Pieces', is "His Prayer for Absolution":

For those my unbaptized Rhimes,
Writ in my wild unhallowed Times;
For every sentence, clause and word,
That's not inlaid with Thee, (my Lord)
Forgive me God, and blot each Line
Out of my Book, that is not Thine.
But if, 'mongst all, thou find'st here one
Worthy thy Benediction;
That One of all the rest, shall be
The Glory of my Work, and Me.

Herrick often feels (with one side of him) that God is his proper subject. Yet here he runs into one of the perennial difficulties of the poet who, out of conviction, attempts to write directly about the best subject, God. He is baulked by the very ineffability or philosophical aloofness of the Christian God. He gives his poem the ambitious title "What God is" and then he is stumped and must admit

God is above the sphere of our esteem,
And is the best known not defining Him.

Donne described the same problem:

Eternal God (for whom who ever dare
Seek new expressions, doe the Circle square,
And thrust into strait corners of poore wit
Thee, who art cornerlesse and infinite)
I would but blesse thy name, not name thee now.

Samuel Johnson expresses the predicament thus: 'Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator and plead the merits of his Redeemer is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.'

Even the mention of God in such an inappropriate setting as this book of poetry calls for some excuse. It is a violation of a Christian decorum, and Herrick shows how his lovely, flowering world looks from a pious position in "To God":

Pardon me God, (once more I Thee intreat)
That I have plac'd Thee in so meane a seat,
Where round about Thou seest but all things
Uncircumcis'd, unseason'd, and prophane.
But as Heavens publike and immortall Eye
Looks on the filth, but is not soil'd thereby;
So Thou, my God, may'st on this impure look,
But take no tincture from my sinfull Book;
Let but one beame of Glory on it shine,
And that will make me, and my Work divine.

This is hardly tension; it is outright combat, weighted so heavily to one side that there is no possibility of any contribution from the discredited side. It has its polar opposite the single-minded and undiluted eroticism of many of the poems in Hesperides. When both positions are expressed thus it is only possible to alternate between them. Perhaps at the logical, conscious level of thought Herrick as a man could only alternate between these positions. But occasionally, as a poet, he was able to do something else, as we shall see.

First we must notice an effort, even in the Noble Numbers, to bring the worlds together, or at least to place his secular muse in some acceptable position. This involves the common conception of poetry as a 'handmaid' to religion. In "His farwell unto Poetrie" there is at first the sense of only irreconcilable alternatives. Poetry is a lover lingeringly relinquished in the moonlight for stern and high reasons:

I, my desires screw from thee, and directe
Them and my thoughts to that sublim'd respecte
And Conscience unto Priest-hood.

'Poetrie', of course, stands for the many aspects of the world Herrick had evoked in his poetry, the natural world of brooks, blossoms, birds, and bowers, of youth, love, nature, and perfumery—the stuff associated with the Ovidian tradition in particular and with the classical literary tradition in general. This is the core of its attraction and the source of its taint. St Jerome, we remember, relinquished his pagan library in the same mood.

The poem is not a pious recantation, however, but a realization of the value of what is lost. The suggestion is made that poetry is a religious passion, though nature, not God, is its object. Herrick says that he and Poetry

have out-worne
The fresh and fayrest flourish of the Morne
With Flame, and Rapture; drincking to the odd
Number of Nyne, which makes us full with God,
And In that Misticke frenzie, wee have hurl'de
(As with a Tempeste) Nature through the worlde
And In a Whirl-wynd twirld her home, agast
Att that which in her extasie had past.

Poetry's own immortality is set forth:

O thou Allmightye Nature, who did'st give
True heate, whearwith humanitie doth live
Beyond its stinted Circle; giveing foode
(White Fame) and Resurrection to the
Good ...

Homer, Musaeus, Ovid, Maro, more
Of those god-full prophetts longe before
Holde their Eternall fiers; and ours of Late
(Thy Mercie helping) shall resist stronge fate.

And the poem concludes with the familiar idea of poetry as handmaid to religion:

Knowe yet, (rare soule,) when my diviner Muse
Shall want a Hand-mayde, (as she ofte will
Bee readye, thou In mee, to wayte uppon her
Thoughe as a servant, yet a Mayde of Honor.

This gives the appearance of getting the two muses on at least friendly terms. In Herrick's case, however, it seems to me a rather wistful hope to reconcile them on these grounds. The same wistfulness appears, I feel, in something like a conclusion to Noble Numbers:

To God

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
Thy Poet, and Thy Prophet Lawreat.

To call this wistful is not to gainsay the evidence of effort to make the worlds join, to make Apollo's and the true God's priest one. But if it is done, it is not done by writing religious poems after the secular poems. The handmaid idea may apply to Milton; it does not apply very well to Herrick. He is not a religious poet. When he brings the method and spirit of his secular muse to the support of a religious subject the result is likely to be travesty:

To his Saviour. The New yeers gift.
That little prettie bleeding part
Of Foreskin send to me:
And Ile returne a bleeding Heart,
For New-yeers gift to thee.

Rich is the Jemme that thou did'st send,
Mine's faulty too, and small:
But yet this Gift Thou wilt commend,
Because I send Thee all.

The jarring incongruity of subject and tone hardly requires comment. Knowledge of the specific love convention of the exchange of tokens, or of the Petrarchan exchange of hearts, only increases for the reader the grotesque effect. All serious conception of the Circumcision as covenant and symbol (as we have it, for example, in Milton's poem on the Circumcision) is clearly scuttled beyond hope in this approach.

But let us turn now to the sense of a suspect world as it appears in some of the Hesperides poems themselves. The first poem, "The Argument of his Book," is a good place to begin:

I sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers:
Of April, May, of June, and July-Flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails,
Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.
I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse
By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonesse.
I sing of Dewes, of Raines, and piece by piece
Of Balme, of Oyle, of Spice, and Amber-Greece.
I sing of Times trans-shifting; and I write
How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.
I write of Groves, of Twilights, and I sing
The Court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King.
I write of Hell: I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

The poem is not only an 'argument of' his book, in that it states the content; it is also something of an 'argument for' his book in that it defends, or suggests a defence, for the content. We sense this particularly in the defensive, slightly defiant tone of the closing lines. Herrick says, 'I write of Hell'. This begins the seventh statement of subject, each a couplet, each beginning 'I write of' or 'I sing of'. But this is not a new subject; Herrick does not write about Hell. It is a summary of the whole preceding description of his poetry, a kind of wry acceptance of the terms of a pious criticism: such poetry puts one in danger of Hell. The next statement, 'I sing of Heaven', is the same kind of statement and applies to the same poetry, though this is Herrick speaking in his own language, and answering the first statement: Heaven is here too. Hesperides cannot easily be divided into hellish poems and heavenly poems. Herrick refers to the same poems, suggesting perhaps that from one point of view they are hellish, from another heavenly, or that heaven and hell are both present. This paradox is seen also in the oxymoron 'cleanly-Wantonnesse', where the adjective works to take the curse from the noun. And last, Herrick hopes for salvation 'after all'. This could mean 'even after all this sin' but it could also mean 'after all is finally assessed', i. e. what goes now as sin may in the final valuation turn out as something else. Here, although we have a recognition of the tainted nature of his material, we do not have a rejection of it, or a sacrifice of its qualities, but an allegiance to it for what it is. Herrick would like to make this world acceptable but these lines suggest that he would do so, not by changing it, but by changing our viewpoint of the hellish and the heavenly.

Another poem that may be read as part of Herrick's effort to make his secular poems acceptable, to remove them from Christian suspicion, is "When he would have his verses read." First he makes the objection to his poetry appear to be a matter of mood, of the time of day:

In sober mornings, doe not thou reherse
The holy incantation of a verse;
But when that men have both well drunke, and
Let my Enchantments then be sung, or read.

An objection may be merely temperament, a censorious disposition. The objector is called 'rigid Cato'. (We note how the use of 'Cato' avoids direct conflict with a Christian position.) Herrick suggests that his poetry has its proper function in a perspective that is just as fundamental to man's nature as is his moral perspective. This perspective is induced when 'the Rose raignes', when nature, beauty, and joy appeal to man:

When Laurell spirts 'ith fire, and when the
Smiles to it selfe, and guilds the roofe with
When up the Thyrse is rais'd, and when the
Of sacred Orgies flyes, A round, A round.
When the Rose raignes, and locks with ointments
Let rigid Cato read these Lines of mine.

Such joy has, Herrick suggests, a religious quality of its own. He will have the songs to Bacchus, the 'sacred orgies', and he will call them sacred, implying a ritual and ceremony in a kind of counter-religion to that of a man who, we might say, in the sober morning has poorly drunk and fed. In this setting his poetry appears as a 'holy incantation', part of the liturgy.

We find these religious terms in other poems, working into Herrick's pagan world. At times the suggested parallel with religion appears to be a fairly superficial play on Christian terms, as in "His Prayer to Ben. Johnson":

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

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

Yet, although this is playful, it shows how easily Herrick slipped into these terms when treating of his secular world. And, in the reference to pagan, or pre-Christian religion, there is still a submerged suggestion that this religion represents a 'live option', a counter religion: 'For old Religions sake.' Insofar as 'old Religion' calls up the qualities of the original pagan life it catches up the spirit of Ben's tribe and links this spirit with a sympathetic religion. There is even the suggestion of a kind of reestablishment of the 'old Religion' among the sons of Saint Ben, the raising of 'a new Altar'. In this same category of surface play on Christian terms we may place all the 'hymns' to Venus and Cupid, 'vows' to Mars, 'canticles' to Apollo and Bacchus.

At times there is only an implied analogy to religious values. "To live merrily, and to trust to Good Verses" is an example of this. Here the speaker experiences one of those joyful moments 'when the Rose raignes, and locks with ointments shine'. The parallel to the situation described in the earlier poem is made specific:

Now raignes the Rose, and now
Th' Arabian Dew besmears
My uncontrolled brow.

It is a time for the mirth associated with earth's flowering. Appropriately, it is an occasion to toast the classical poets. At the gayest moment, however, comes the common reminder of death, a reminder to the worldly celebrant so frequently used for religious purposes: worldly pleasure is unsubstantial, temporary; therefore rely not on it but on eternals of the spirit. And Herrick takes the manner of one finding the serious lesson in mortality; he has found a 'text'. But the text is not the immortality of the virtuous soul but the immortality of good poetry. This is the unblessed poet's equivalent to religious immortality. In other words, death is conquered not by renouncing the 'frail world' whose beauty dies, in favour of an everlasting other world, but by realizing most successfully the beauty and mirth in the natural world. Thus you do not abjure verses but 'trust to good verses'.

And when all Bodies meet
In Lethe to be drown'd;
Then onely Numbers sweet,
With endless life are crown'd.

We would be wrong, of course, to take this as an overt and serious challenge to Christian values. It is not a matter of Herrick's questioning the Christian scheme, and we have no right to say that he does. It is more a matter of finding a place, a justification, an acceptance, for other values that Herrick feels intensely but which have no reasoned and recognized sanction.

The last stanza certainly avoids direct conflict with a Christian point of view. The classical scheme of the after-life, Lethe, etc., is assumed and the whole poem remains in a frame of classical reference. The fact that we have 'Bodies' and not souls meeting at Lethe further insures avoidance of intrusive associations that might point up the departure from the Christian cosmology. But it is not quite a 'moral holiday', even though the classical reference does give it a setting that nourishes the 'pagan spirit'. We see that the poem is not irrelevant to the 'Christian attitude' toward this spirit if we sense the contrast of Herrick's text on mortality with the usual Christian text. It is this that connects it with the half defensive, half defiant tone of "The Argument of his Book," the mild suggestion that 'idle verse' has its own claims on heaven.

At other times we find religious terms working more subtly on obviously 'pagan' material. One example is the short poem "To Sylvia":

I am holy, while I stand
Circum-crost by thy pure hand:
But when that is gone; Again,
I, as others, am Prophane.

This is more than the playful use of religious comparisons for hyperbolic compliment, the practice so common to Elizabethan courtly poets and, as we know, occasional in Herrick too. To appreciate this we might set the poem alongside an Elizabethan conceit employing the religious comparison, an instance excellent and successful in its own right and, at first glance, apparently working the same effect as Herrick's lines. I refer to the Earl of Oxford's 'Heav'n pictur'de in hir face, / Doth promise joy and grace.' Here is the full context:

What cunning can expresse
The favour of hir face,
To whom in this distresse,
I doe appeale for grace,
A thousand Cupids flie,
About hir gentle eie.

From whence each throwes a dart,
That kindleth soft sweete fier:
Within my sighing hart,
Possessed by desier:
No sweeter life I trie,
Than in hir love to die.

The Lillie in the fielde,
That glories in his white:
For pureness now must yeelde,
And render up his right:
Heav'n pictur'de in hir face,
Doth promise joy and grace.

I do not mean to say that the idea of 'heavenly grace' here is without strong effect in its connotations, that it does not give a rich qualification to the conception of the woman. This happens through the religious reference in both poems. But in Oxford's poem the grace, translated to its earthly result, is quite limited and works no change in the speaker or his world. And his world, we might add, with its 'soft, sweet fier ... possessed by desier', is quite vulnerable to a religious criticism. Herrick's religious conception, however, does work a fundamental change. He is sanctified by his lover whose arm around him makes a cross, or sign of a cross, and blesses their relationship. The word 'pure' here then has an added meaning. As an epithet for mistresses it is standard for beauty, whiteness. But in this context it also conveys the idea of religious purity, unstained innocence. The poem as a whole recalls the world of Donne's lovers; Herrick often reminds us more of Donne than of Jonson—a point to remember when we use such labels as 'tribe of Ben'.

The religious suggestions are fundamental in "To the Water Nymphs drinking at the Fountain":

Reach, with your whiter hands, to me,
Some Christall of the Spring;
And I, about the Cup shall see
Fresh Lillies flourishing.

Or else sweet Nimphs do you but this;
To' th' Glasse your lips encline;
And I shall see by that one kisse,
The Water turn'd to Wine.

The familiar English scene of village maids drawing water has apparently inspired this poem. Herrick is attracted to the beauty of the girls in this setting, and, calling the country girls 'nymphs', he casts them and the scene into the perspective of his classical world. Their charm and beauty are felt by the speaker (and the reader) to convey the appeal of that world; in fact, they minister that enchantment to him when they give him the cup. Notice the quality of this enchantment:

And I, about the Cup shall see
Fresh Lillies flourishing.

We cannot miss the overtones of the Eucharist in the presentation of the cup nor the general suggestion of Christian service in the 'Fresh Lillies flourishing', which calls up many religious associations. Yet it is the whiter hands, the bodily beauty and grace, that are the lilies; they, with all their sensual significance, are the power that perform the miracle. The last stanza repeats even more forcefully the pattern of the first. Here the 'Water turn'd to Wine' makes the girls priestesses in a miraculous transformation recalling Christ's miracle; the enchanted world of the nymphs is evoked by a religious miracle. But here, too, the sensual quality is not diminished but intensified by the very religious terms that at the same time transform and remove the experience from the crudely or purely sensual. The erotic attraction is simultaneous and strong. The water is turned to wine partly because the lips are 'ruby' lips, as the lilies were brought forth by the 'whiter hands'; the miraculous act is a kiss.

This is no mere alternative to the religious position, at least not in the way the alternative is usually seen. Here, the use of terms drawn from the religious vocabulary works to remove Herrick's natural world from purely sensual indulgence. It may, in the end, tend to modify the destructive antithesis with the Christian position. But the source of the appeal of that world, its sensual attraction, is not sacrificed but intensified at the same time that it is elevated. From this elevation it is a stronger competitive force against the religious challenge, for it is conceived religiously too; as a ceremonial order of experience it is less vulnerable to the attack that sees it as a wanton departure from order. One more poem may illustrate this:

To the Lark
Good speed, for I this day
Betimes my Mattens say:
Because I doe
Begin to wooe:
Sweet singing Lark,
Be thou the Clark,
And know thy when
To say, Amen.
And if I prove
Blest in my love;
Then thou shalt be
High-Priest to me,
At my returne,
To Incense burne;
And so to solemnize
Love's, and my Sacrifice.

In these last three poems we are asking the same kind of question we began with, questioning then the affective value of classical reference. Now, from the opposite direction, we ask, what do these religious terms introduce into the poem? They obviously suggest a kind of blessedness in the lover's world—an idea that reminds us of a similar conception in Donne's 'love's-saints' poems. They show us that this order of experience may also be conceived in religious terms; it has aspects that parallel the religious order. Herrick argues the claims of the sensual experience by using religious terms; he puts the experience in competition with religion by using the religious terms themselves. The two orders of experience may be seen in contrast but it is not the kind of contrast that we have between the wantonly carnal and the spiritual, the contrast the Christian easily makes. It may be less a contrast than a general subsuming or admittance of Herrick's flowering world into that religious conception of experience that is the basis of his undeniable belief as a person. The religious terms work partly to cast an acceptable colour over the experience, but primarily they heighten and transform it, giving it a ritual and ceremonial formulation, without sacrificing its essential quality.

Herrick does this with some of the seemingly most mundane aspects of the worldly experience he presents with such gusto. Consider the little poem, "Meat without mirth":

Eaten I have; and though I had good cheere,
I did not sup, because no friends were there.
Where Mirth and Friends are absent when we
Or Sup, there wants the Incense and the Wine.

Here the mirth that is of such recurring importance to Herrick is heightened by the ceremonial conception. 'Incense and the Wine' suggests the religious service. The phrase daringly implies in this communion of friends a kind of 'holy communion'. In other words, human conviviality, the mirthful, is comparable to the holy. Herrick's mirthful world, experienced with its own ceremony, does not allow a simple polarity of the natural and the spiritual—a polarity that is inevitably, by customary Christian belief, detrimental to the natural. For in these poems man is not just of nature; to approach the natural world in the ceremonial way is, in fact, not 'natural' in the sense that 'natural' links man to the animal creation. It manifests something distinctive in his human nature, something that is comparable to a parallel manifestation of his human nature in its religious expression.

Once we realize the fundamental part these religious terms play in Herrick's conception of his secular world we are conscious of religious overtones in other poems, which, taken in isolation, might not alert us to the issue, but, viewed in the context of Herrick's whole work, suddenly take on a new significance. "His returne to London" is one of these:

From the dull confines of the drooping West,
To see the day spring from the pregnant East,
Ravisht in spirit, I come, nay more, I flie
To thee, blest place of my Nativitie!
Thus, thus with hallowed foot I touch the
With thousand blessings by thy Fortune
O fruit-full Genius! that bestowest here
An everlasting plenty, yeere by yeere.
O Place! O People! Manners! fram'd to please
All Nations, Customes, Kindreds, Languages!
I am a free-born Roman; suffer then,
That I amongst you live a Citizen.
London my home is: though by a hard fate sent
Into a long and irksome banishment;
Yet since cal'd back; henceforward let me be,
O native countrey, repossest by thee!
For, rather than I'le to the West return,
I'le beg of thee first here to have mine Urn.
Weak I am grown, and must in short time fall;
Give thou my sacred Reliques Buriall.

The occasion of the poem is Herrick's return to London in 1647 following his ejection by the Puritans from his parish in Devonshire. It was, in effect, a return from the priesthood to a secular life; Herrick apparently assumed layman's dress and desired to appear before the public as a layman—as the addition of 'esq'. after his name on the title-page of his book of poems the following year suggests. In the poem the return is conceived as a pilgrimage to a holy city, a 'blest place' touched by a 'hallowed foot'. The 'pregnant East' is not only the place of sunrise from which the day springs but it also suggests the ancient source of religions. This is rather startling when we remember Herrick's situation: he is coming from the service of God to secular life in the city. The city thus enshrines the secular delights that Herrick returns to as a religious devotee. London furthermore has a local deity in a fully pagan conception: 'O fruit-full Genius! that bestowest here / An everlasting plenty, yeere by yeere.' The symbolic return to a lost religion is further associated with classical paganism in the identification of London with Rome and Herrick's claim to be a Roman. This religious conception of secular values provides a unifying perspective on all the elements in the natural world that Herrick was attracted to; it shows how deeply he valued them, not only in that they each brought pleasure but in that they represented a coherent order of experience, an order that in his poetry could be grasped whole by the imagination, however fragmented and disordered it might appear to the moral judgment in plain Christian daylight.

The competition of this pagan counter religion with Christianity is not much below the surface here. Viewing Herrick's worshipful return to the secular city and knowing the facts of his situation, we see what a reversal is achieved in his use of religious terms. The 'long and irksome banishment' in the 'dull confines of the drooping West' actually represents his service to God in the priesthood, his normally and officially holy life. Seldom in Herrick is the conflict this open.

Not only does Herrick introduce Christian or religious suggestions into his pagan world, he also moves in the other direction and involves Christian subjects in the atmosphere of his mirthful natural world. In "Ceremonies for Christmasse" the Christmas 'ceremony' means the same old ceremony of mirth in the same spirit:

Come, bring with a noise
My merrie merrie boyes,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good Dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your hearts desiring.
With the last yeeres brand
Light the new block, And
For good successe in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the Log is a teending.

Drink now the strong Beere,
Cut the white loafe here,
The while the meat is a shredding;
For the rare Mince-Pie
And the Plums stand by
To fill the Paste that's a kneading.

Here the 'pagan spirit' is accommodated to and joins, without tension, the joy of the Christmas season. In a sense the 'raigne of the Rose' and the Christian reign are united.

Likewise, in "Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve," the ceremony is almost a rite of nature. Within the Christian celebration we recognize Herrick's 'flowering world':

Down with the Rosemary and Bayes,
Down with the Misleto;
In stead of Holly, now up-raise
The greener Box (for show).

The Holly hitherto did sway;
Let Box now domineere;
Untill the dancing Easter-day,
Or Easters Eve appeare.

Then youthfull Box which now hath grace,
Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place,
Unto the crisped Yew.

When Yew is out, then Birch comes in,
And many Flowers beside;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kinne,
To honour Whitsontide.

Green Rushes then, and sweetest Bents
With cooler Oken Boughs;
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turne
do's hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

The ceremony of mirth receives its fullest expression, however, in one poem, "Corinna's going a-maying." It is not necessary to dwell in great detail on its mingling of Christian and pagan elements; the poem has, for this, caught the attention of many critics and has been expertly analysed by Cleanth Brooks [in The Well Wrought Urn, 1947]. Brooks points out, in the flowers bowing to the East, in the birds saying matins and singing hymns, in the village houses becoming 'arks' and 'tabernacles', that the May Day rites are conceived 'as religious rites, though, of course, those of a pagan religion'. It is a 'sin' and 'profanation' to abstain from these rites of nature. Use of the word 'sin' in this way, a near reversal of common Christian application, points up a 'clash between the Christian and pagan world views'. Man's relation to nature is significant in this. 'Corinna', says Brooks, 'is actually being reproached for being late to church—the church of nature. The village itself has become a grove, subject to the laws of nature. One remembers that the original sense of "pagan" was "country-dweller" because the worship of the old gods and goddesses persisted longest there. On this May morning, the country has come into the village to claim it, at least on this one day, for its own. Symbolically, the town has disappeared and its mores are superseded.' These elements qualify the theme in that 'the poem is obviously not a brief for the acceptance of the pagan ethic so much as it is a statement that the claims of the pagan ethic—however much they may be overlaid—exist, and on occasion emerge, as on this day'. Corinna, who is told to 'Rise; and put on your Foliage' along with the other 'budding' boys and girls 'is subject to nature, and to the claims of nature.... Not to respond is to "sin" against nature itself.' Brooks points out, finally, a 'reconcilement of the conflicting claims of paganism and Christianity' in 'the village boys and girls with their grass-stained gowns, coming to the priest to receive the blessing of the church':

And some have wept, and woo'd, and plighted
And chose their priest, ere we can cast off sloth.

All this amounts to a most mature and compelling expression of the carpe diem theme.

It is, withal, necessary to emphasize one point about the use of religious terms in this poem, for their effect may be misunderstood. We have seen in some preceding poems that the claims of Herrick's natural world are often made compelling as a kind of parallel or counter religion. In this kind of poem the claims are, in a sense, made against a Christian conception of experience. In "Corinna," however, which is the best of the ceremony poems, the tendency is very much toward inclusion in a Christian conception—without a sacrifice of any of the vital qualities of the pagan world. Certainly the pagan attitude gets its due. At first glance the poem may seem like a love poet's parody of a religious poem, sensual love receiving an ironic sort of sanction by a witty reversal of sin and virtue wherein the terms of worship are applied to this pagan activity. But the poem is not a parody. The 'sin' is not religious piety; if we take the literal interpretation, sloth, if anything, is the sin. The matins that the birds say and the hymns they sing are not just rites of nature; we have no reason to believe they are not sincerely Christian too. 'Few beads are best,' but the beads are still said. They are not the alternative to this activity. Finally, the wooing ends with the choice of a priest for marriage.

Such mirth is thus not licence, as the typical carpe diem poem would have it, nor is it to be abjured, as strict Christian moralism might have it. At the same time that the poem works against the narrowly pious attitude in Christianity, it makes some use of the undeniable wisdom in the Christian order of life, including its action within some lawful boundary and recognizing considerations that are entirely foreign to the classical carpe diem statement. So we have 'harmless folly', 'cleanly wantonness', and fun that ends in marriage. The classical carpe diem argument which abounds in Elizabethan and Cavalier lyrics makes an illuminating contrast when set alongside Herrick's treatment of the theme. Consider first Ben Jonson's "Song to Celia":

Come my Celia, let us prove
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours, for ever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his guifts in vaine.
Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
'Tis, with us, perpetual night.
Why should we deferre our joyes?
Fame, and rumor are but toyes.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poore houshold spyes?
Or his easier eares beguile,
So removed by our wile?
'Tis no sinne, loves fruit to steale,
But the sweet theft to reveale:
To be taken, to be seene,
These have crimes accounted beene.

The customary end of the argument is adulterous seduction, a goal unchanged from Catullus to Jonson. With this we may compare Herrick's famous "To the Virgins, to make much of Time." The first three stanzas proceed in the normal way:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
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 neerer 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.

But the fourth stanza puts in place of the usual enticement a word quite foreign to the classical carpe diem poem: 'marry'.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

The end in marriage, the sound advice against becoming an old maid, corresponds to the choosing of a priest after the frolic in "Corinna." Herrick is able to make the carpe diem argument, and do some justice to it, yet end within the Christian fold.

In conclusion it must be remembered that this effort either to compete on even terms or to reconcile the 'pagan spirit' with religious attitudes is not anything like a consistent programme in Herrick's poetry. The proportion of poems in which it appears is small. A great many of the poems in Hesperides may be mere erotic 'indulgence' as they have been called. But we need not require a conscious and consistent formulation on the part of the poet. What gives these occasional poems their special interest and, I think, excellence, is that in them we do not have purely erotic or voluptuous effects but we have the various manifestations of the 'pagan spirit'—nature, love, fairy lore, verse, wine, mirth—conceived as an order of experience, an order deserving ritual, ceremony, and art. It is this ceremonial quality, a ritual elevation, that helps give this experience a value beyond that of immediate pleasure. The worth of this kind of experience is most frequently realized or defined against the opposition or resistance, often implicit, of common Christian attitudes. The opposition stands against both the 'pagan ethic' and the classical literary tradition. This is what we mean when we speak of a tension between Christian and classical traditions. It is not present in the mass of purely erotic poems, such as "The Vine" or the various anatomies of woman. Nor is it really present in the many recantations Herrick makes in the Noble Numbers, at least not as a fruitful source of definition and understanding of complex and paradoxical values. It is most fruitful in those poems which are neither complete renunciations nor simple paeans of joy, but in which some effort is made to assert the claims of one order of experience without denying the certain and recognized value of another order. This, I take it, is what occurs in "Corinna."

Source: H. R. Swardson, "Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth," in his Poetry and the Fountain of Light: Observations on the Conflict between Christian and Classical Traditions in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 40-63.