Robert Herrick was fifty-seven before Hesperides (1648), his one volume of poetry, appeared; but the timing could have been better. In 1648 or thereabouts, the Quakers came on the scene, overflowing with spontaneous emotion. Their new psychology wasn't his. A year before, Puritans, anathema to the Royalist and Anglican priest, ejected him from his vicarage in Devon. A year later, King Charles, ruler of "this great realm of poetry" (Herrick's phrase), lost his head. In a time of the breaking of nations, the poems themselves rhymed "bowers" with "flowers."
Probably that takes from their credit, and Herrick as a poet looks to the past, part of his limitation. The greatest poets, no exception, are out ahead of the competition, not in their content, in form. Born in 1591 just around the corner from "golden Cheapside," London's street of the goldsmiths, he shared his birthplace with Milton, younger by seventeen years. Milton's is the new voice among seventeenth-century poets, but Herrick, like a contemporary of Edmund Blunden's who survived both world wars and never read Pound and Eliot, doesn't hear it.
The goldsmith's trade, elegant as to products but messy and dangerous, attracted his father, also a paternal uncle. At sixteen he signed articles of indenture with this uncle, William, breaking off his apprenticeship after six years to read law at Cambridge, later divinity. The career he didn't follow stamps his poetry, though, made by hand and only superficially artless. Many poems recall the wares he polished in youth--a jet carcanet or necklace, a bracelet of beads filled with perfumed pomander balls, "jimmal" (double) rings, true love-knots--and some of the epigrams are like cutlet's posies: "Love is a circle that doth restless move/In the same sweet eternity of love."
This one verges on prettiness, and readers who slight him (often intending praise) think he knew little of misgiving or disillusion. Professor X, whose critical opinion legislates for the donnish world, has him executing "thumb-nail painting on ivory." Herrick the scrimshaw-maker needs reedflying, and I want to muster the poetry against him.
He wrote so much of it that, if you look long enough, you find him on both sides of a question. This makes docketing tricky. But the "Argument" to Hesperides (coming first, so numbered H-l) functions as a versified topical index:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of times trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The Court of Mab, and of the Fairy King.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.
Herrick's sonnet in couplets, doing little with the form, resolves itself to multicolored beads on a string. Intermitting his poem after fourteen lines, he doesn't really conclude it. Prosody is how you gauge a poet's psychology, and his is like that backward-looking earl of Surrey's in a well-known sonnet made up of one-line units, "The soote [sweet] season." Not long on developing ideas or tropes or teasing out answers to problems, he gives you catena, but they glitter bravely. Double rhyme gets him started, heard as unemphatic because feminine (a dying fall). Chiming with the "asyndeton"--substantives in series but not modified, so not differentiated--it augurs the open-ended nature of his book. Purpose there is, though rarely pointed or exclusive, Herrick wanting to traverse the spectrum from beginning to end. The last poem in his collection, echoing Revelation, "I am Alpha and Omega," supplies a text for the poetry too.
An adverbial poet, he writes "how" roses came red, etc., sorting through his materials "piece by piece." Close scrutiny, the patient kind that spots resemblances missed by a synoptic eye, ensures that the different pieces make a coherence. "Hock-carts," carrying home the last load of harvest, tell of fruitfulness, so complement "May-poles." But "wakes" in the same line, meaning boisterous festivals, activates another sense, and these two-in-one vehicles hearse the dead season, "borne on the bier with white and bristly beard." The coincidence of opposites, cayenne pepper on the tongue in late metaphysical poets like Cowley and Cleveland, isn't meant to titillate but pays laconic tribute to Nature's undemarcated round. "Glide" is one of Herrick's verbs and chiaroscuro his medium, proper to groves and twilights. His mood (grammatically speaking) is only declarative when--if I have him right-he wants you to catch the jarring note of stridor. Characteristically he favors the optative voice.
The hock-cart gives him his centerpiece in the poem of that name, familiar from anthologies. Marxists, out to demolish another "country-house" poet, think it grist for their mill. In fields around the house--property of Herrick's friend the earl of Westmorland--laborers work the land, ensuring by their labor that "we are the lords of wine and oil." Living off this surplus value, an ungrateful poet bites the hand that feeds him. Anyway the critics--or some of them--think so.
New Historicists, detecting a fellow traveler, see poems like "The Hock-Cart" as participating in an "ideological project." "The Widow's Tears," though one of the religious poems, is such another; and they identify its grieving protagonist with the Anglican church. Persecuted in the here and now, the political Herrick "discovers consolation in a vision of history that transcends present realities." But politics, if not abstract, at least instrumental, is less his subject than intractable life in a world condemned to loss. His mind, too cabined or too capacious, had little truck with ideas. Paying allegiance to beauty, he doesn't know how Time's foot can avoid trampling on it. Politics, at its eupeptic best and worst, means to transcend time, but can't do anything about this.
Not rectifying life, Herrick renders it faithfully, however. But he isn't Breughel, and his peasants, though "tough," aren't naturalistic. "Sons of Summer," he calls them, no surnames or Christian names but figures in a mumming whose end is to tutor us in the "country art" and what it involves: a "maukin" (scarecrow), more than a stage prop, a rout of younglings and their wenches, "bound/For joy" (freed, yet shackled), the shaft horse and "laboring neat" or cattle, less themselves than part of this surround that includes the poet and manor lord.
He is our patron at the top of the hierarchy, but not its end-all and be-all. Like the fat beef our feast's foundation with "upper stories" of mutton, veal, and pork, this structure has its gradations. One supports another, analogizing (says R. B. Rollin) a "mutual dependency of master and servants." All don't earn their bread in the sweat of their brows, but all are yoked together in a commonwealth more ancient than England's. Feeding and growing fat, all owe a last debt to the rough sickle and scythe.
Maybe or maybe not, Herrick the social partisan tugged his forelock to Westmorland. Either way, a gap opens between his politics and his reading of physical process. Not harking back to a better social order, golden age, or earthly paradise, he looks impassively at the natural cycle, en route, says a perceptive critic, Mary Thomas Crane, to developing "an analytical gaze." Disinterested, I think we call him, like all poets of size. But I don't want to offer more praise than he can bear, and a strain of morbidity qualifies the disinterestedness and the analytical posture. He isn't Shakespeare.
All the same Herrick has an unwinking eye, and what it sees on every hand is putrefaction, "the end/Of all that Nature doth intend" (H-432). Under the filmy "lawn" or "tiffany," omnipresent in the poetry, Nature forwards this intention, constant across the social spectrum. Festivals like "The Hock-Cart's" obscure it, but their pleasure is like rain; and not drowning our cares, except as "stout beer" does, makes them spring again. The poem's last lines, fraught with a double sense ("spring" as both verb and substantive), say this. Taking the form of a monitory triplet, they strike the ear as cautionary, exuberant too. Death has its way, but the seasons recur, and in our ending is our beginning.
Temperamentally averse to politics, unlike Dryden whom he overlaps, and not stretching the intellect like Donne and Herbert, Herrick stands comparison with all three, and his short poems put him near the first rank in this kind of enterprise. He left more of them than any other important seventeenth-century poet. (Most are short, not from inanition but compression.) It comes as a shock to discover that Donne, the age's preeminent secular poet, wrote less secular verse, and only Herbert, exclusively a devotional poet, wrote more poems of devotion. If you throw in the "pious pieces," published with Hesperides but segregated as Noble Numbers, and add the "Supplemental" poetry not collected in the 1648 edition, more than fourteen hundred poems constitute Herrick's achievement. Prodigality like his anticipates Dickinson's, she of the gladstone bag stuffed with verse. Swinburne, staking out a high claim, said the lyrical record that begins with Lyly the Elizabethan "grows fuller if not brighter through a whole chain of constellations till it culminates in the crowning star of Herrick."
The poems aren't of a piece, however, and no poet is more "schizoid." (I regret the technical term, but the context it summons seems unavoidable.) Many are highly sexual, opting for a "cleanly wantonness," while others view the body with loathing. The world that threw them up looms out of nightmare. Herrick, who dreamed it, said he sang of Heaven, adding that he wrote about Hell.
Everybody knows the nice old clergyman who kept a pet pig and taught it to drink from a tankard. But he had another side, swimming up to the light in these couplets on one of his parishioners:
Scobble for whoredom whips his wife and cries
He'll slit her nose. But blubb'ring she replies,
Good sir, make no more cuts i' th' outward skin,
One slit's enough to let adultery in.
Other poems in the same vein, a lot of them, are more circumstantial.
Critics don't often say so, but hatred is of his essence, much of it devoted to the "gubbings" or peasants who stalled with him in "this dull Devonshire" (H-51). He took up his Devon "cure" in the fall of 1630, the same month Herbert became rector of Bemerton. The vicar of Dean Prior ministered to a parish of 4000 acres on the southern slopes of Dartmoor, after London like the other face of the moon. Granite tots break the high moorland, empty except for cattle and sheep. Thick hedgerows or balks of mounded earth dwarf the narrow roads, and creepers and wild flowers bloom in the hedgerows before the farmers sickle them down. Herrick's church of St. George the Martyr, built of gray country stone, has a crenelated tower going back to the Normans, but east of the tower the church hugs the ground and leaning gravestones come up to the walls.
Dean-bourn, "a rude river," flows through the land, its bottom, rocky like the natives, whipping the water to frenzy. This "warty incivility" moved him to an apostrophe:
O men, O manners, now and ever known
To be a rocky generation!
A people currish, churlish as the seas,
And rude almost as rudest salvages.
Most of the savages, aptly named, and he thought so more than once, farmed the fields and tended livestock. Some wove the coarse cloth called narrow-pin-whites. Farmers plus tightwads, these husbandmen grudged him his tithes. Revenging himself, he rehearsed their unlovely names--Scobble, Mudge, Dandridge, Coone--in acidulated verses. The parish register preserves the names.
Violent in life, Herrick's parishioners cared little for dying, and dug in their heels when he wanted to baptize their children. While he sermonized they slept, and once, according to tradition, the parson threw his sermon at their heads. For seventeen years he lived among them, then, expelled from his vicarage, hurried off to London, "blest place of my nativity!" A "free-born Roman" (remembering exultant Cicero's "Civis Romanus sum"), he said he would rather die than return to "the dull confines of the drooping West" (H-713). After thirteen years' absence, return he did, however, coming back with the new king in 1660. He had fourteen years more of his clerical life before the end came at age eighty-three.
Another Ovid among the Goths, he lamented the "hard fate" that dictated his "long and irksome banishment," but is on record as having invented his most "ennobled numbers" in the country (H-51). Exile turned him queer, though, and buried in his church or churchyard, he didn't stay under. Tradition, laying an ear to the pulse of his strangeness, says he haunted about the parish, the furies that possessed him still unappeased in death. Tormenting him, they put his art in motion. All poets are hobbled by defects of temper--costive Jonson, hermetic Donne, Herbert whose smarting eyes hint at sexual "displacement." But sometimes the thing that cripples them gives their genius its bent, as Edmund Wilson argued of Jonson. This is Herrick's case.
The genius comes and goes and his repertory, like Dickinson's, could do with judicious pruning. (Each is ample enough to afford it.) Seneca, the poor man's philosopher, guides his hand in rumpty-tumpty verses like this one: "By time and counsel, do the best we can,/The event is never in the power of man" (H-294). He had his homiletic voice, never muted for long.
One of his dreary apothegm-poems directly precedes "Corinna's Going a-Maying"; and moderns, high on ironizing, think such incongruities deliberate. But they prompt speculation about this poet's sense of our great compositional fetish, point of view. Winding up the poem, he bids us "hear all men speak." If prudent, however, we will "credit few or none" (H-177). Then follows his memorable seize-the-day injunction ("Get up, get up for shame"), leaving prudence to shift for itself. Perhaps like inconscient Shakespeare, juxtaposing without irony the banal and profound, he allowed integrity to both. This is another aspect of the disinterested poet.
Finicking beyond the general ran, he blotted every line, and manuscript copies show him hard at work in his workshop. Not getting a tough-minded critic's approval, sixty-seven lines are dropped from the marriage hymn for Sir Clipsby Crewe, already a great poem, but he craved perfection. His name, as he reminds us, rhymes with lyric, and in his own estimation his lyrics were little stars. Like daughters of Hesperus, the evening star, they lighted the heavens. Or he thought of them as golden apples in a "sacred grove" (H-265), the Garden of the Hesperides. Dragons guarded the trees that grew in the garden, and only Hercules had enough valor to climb them. Most poets worth reading know how good they are.
Luckier than some, he gets his due in all the anthologies. But his poetry, offering few handholds, hasn't much appealed to teachers and New Critics, i.e. close readers, Cleanth Brooks excepted. Donne, who needs explicating, serves the trade better. (Students think they have the poem if they know what it "means," and look up to the teacher who tells them.) "Exceptionally self-sufficient," says Herrick's modem editor, supposing that for "natural perfection" like his, "analysis is possible but extraneous."
Question-begging, this needs a wary response, though some of the poems, semianonymous like Jonson's echo song from Cynthia's Revels, justify the description; and in some the masculine wit, resembling Donne's, is uninflected. No obtrusive personality, only a "persona," in Herrick's "Kisses Loathsome":
I abhor the slimy kiss,
Which to me most loathsome is.
Those lips please me which are placed
Close, but not too strictly laced.
Yielding I would have them, yet
Not a wimbling [hole-boring] tongue admit.
What should poking-sticks make there,
When the ruff is set elsewhere?
A "ruff" is a gathered neckpiece, and "poking-sticks" of wood or bone, penetrating its flutings, forced them open. This version of "Love's Progress" doesn't lapse in tact, like Donne's, and has the virtue of being much shorter.
Outproducing his contemporaries Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace put together, Herrick worked in a greater variety of kinds. He wrote songs, the best in English, odes worthy of the Greek and Latin masters he went to school to, epitaphs, alehouse catches, scurrile epigrams, charms, pastorals, tales of fairy land, panegyrics to friends. Both grave and sexy, manly and tender, his redeem this marmoreal verse form, bringing his statues to life. Much on the point are the second wedding song and the Horatian tributes to his old schoolfellow, John Wicks. Horace's "labuntur anni" poem (Carmina, II, XIV) isn't better than the one beginning,
Ah Posthumus! Our years hence fly
And leave no sound; nor piety,
Or prayers, or vow
Can keep the wrinkle from the brow.
But we must on
As Fate does lead or draw us.
Partly an omnium gatherum, Hesperides is more than the sum of its parts, and aesthetic considerations modify its naively linear pattern. Thirty-six pages in the 1648 edition separate two paired drinking poems, "His Farewell to Sack" and "The Welcome to Sack," suggesting a real-life poet's time on the wagon. But their complementarity argues the controlling presence of a regisseur, not autobiographical, only artistic. Blinded by age or chance, he asks a favor of his mistress Bianca:
Go thou afore, and I shall well
Follow thy perfumes by the smell.
Or be my guide, and I shall be
Led by some light that flows from thee.
But Blanche, a.k.a. Bianca, married to another blind man,
swears her husband's lovely, when a scald
Has bleared his eyes. Besides, his head is bald.
Next, his wild ears, like leathern wings full spread,
Flutter to fly, and bear away his head.
Inspecting his material with an eye alert to more than one reading, Herrick isn't telling us that beauty always lives in the eye of the beholder, only sometimes.
Moderns think they see the point of his juxtapositions, and Henry Morley, the Victorian man of letters, thought he designed his poems "as foils and settings to one another." But his psychology is less modem (undercutting, sardonic) than old-fashioned ecumenical. Looking back to Shakespeare, he looks forward to Yeats in whose meditated collections similar-dissimilar poems occupy the same page, "green boughs" complementing "barren." Nobody doubts that the poems reflect experience, but it seems best not to read them, Herrick's either, as true confessions.
You often hear Horace in him, and "Non omnis moriar" ("I shall not wholly die") is one of his particular topics. Perhaps he means what he says, though praise of poetry as "repullulating" or regenerating (H-794) was already old hat when he set up as a poet. (Nothing outlives Shakespeare's powerful rhyme in the sonnets.) Hesperides voices the convention first in the motto from Ovid: "Our song alone escapes the greedy funeral pyre," and after that Herrick goes back to it often. Live by his Muse he will "when others die/Leaving no fame to long posterity" (H-592, "On Himself"). Readers may feel that he protests too much, however; and a modern critic, Ann Baynes Coiro, leery of the chest-thumping, calls him anxiety's poet.
How much the notorious hedonist loved wine and pretty girls is a question. His mistresses, at least seventeen of them, all curds and cream, seem to this reader too good to be true. Maybe he was lucky, and fact and fantasy, withershins for most of us, coincided for him. But the wine-bibbing and romancing come partly from Greek Anacreon and the Alexandrian poets whose lyrics went under his name. The last poem of Hesperides draws a distinction between poetry and truth: "Jocund his Muse was, but his life was chaste." On the other hand he was translating Ovid.
His watchword is Horace's "Nunc est bibendum," "Now is the time for drinking"; but like Horace, in his character of Old Flaccus (let's hear it for the golden mean), he prefers a clear head to fuddled: "When our drinking has no stint,/There is no one pleasure in't!" (H-304).
Though Lowell thought him "the most Catullan of poets since Catullus," he doesn't run to the furor poeticus. Frenzied self-mutilating, as in the terrifying Attis poem, is outside his ken. Amorous, possibly perverse, he isn't sex-crazed; and love, scorching his finger, spares the burning of his heart (H-85).
Inviting you to read him autobiographically, he refers to himself by name more than any other major poet in English. Fifty titles in Hesperides begin with the personal possessive, "his," and many are called "On Himself." But the favor of intimacy is always at a remove. The elegy "to the reverend shade" of his father, though chronicling this parent's suicide, muffles it beneath a cloak of latinity. Urgent poetry, Herrick's demands a hearing, at the same time stops our ears. Robert or Robin (the poet's nickname) was fourteen months old when his father Nicholas threw himself from the attic window of his London house. For thirty-five years--"seven lusters" is Herrick's phrase--his death festered in memory until the son, confronting it, heaped the grave with "smallage" (celery or parsley), night-shade, cypress, and yew. Making satisfaction for his own "debt of birth," he offers "justments" to the dead, shorn hair, a libation of tears. Imperatives and the asseverating tone ask forgiveness, but its occasion remains mysterious. Up to now, Herrick says, "I did not know/Whether thy bones had here their rest, or no," a trivial-seeming disclaimer.
A large number of poems--somebody counts 158 of them--deal with specific mistresses, and biographers identify flesh-and-blood ladies. How they relate to the poet is worth noting. Wives and daughters of family or friends make the list, plus cousins and parishioners, all safely out of bounds, Blushing prettily, they smell good, and Herrick handles and smells them (H-375). Julia, his favorite, recalls his mother Julian, also called Juliana; and another mistress, "his dear Valentine" (H-789), is still in her nonage. The man who liked little girls thought latent better than fledged, the way violets, spring's "virgins," are better than roses. Chaste "i'th' bud," these showy flowers exfoliate as they get older, growing to a much-too-muchness (H-205).
A bachelor, Herrick needed taking care of, and his widowed sister-in-law Elizabeth kept house for him in Devon until her death in 1643. Though he never touched her carnally, he doesn't decline but adjusts the idea, vowing to keep her person embraced and kissed, "but yet be chaste." His poem is entitled "No Spouse but a Sister." Later, Prudence Baldwin, an old maid, took her place. Not tempting him herself, she kept him from temptation, staying on when the "summer-birds" had flown (H-387). He had the best of both worlds, and in a self-composed epitaph bragged about this. Every flower was in the word bachelor (H-546).
An old lean wife, materializing in one poem but appropriated from Ovid, kisses away his tears, while his son, supplied by Virgil, sings for them both (H-336). Elsewhere, a careful parent meditates "My Daughter's Dowry" (S-3). But it's all fantasy, and there is no son, wife, or daughter. Imagining a wife, he supposed her harried by lustful suitors. Fly them or lose your liberty, he said, in language highly charged with images of rape, and might have been admonishing himself (H-465).
In 1640, briefly up in London, he caught the eye of an official snooper whose job was checking up on the clergy. This functionary linked him with Thomasin Parsons, lately "brought to bed" of an illegitimate child. Addressee of a poem of his (H-979), she was daughter of a friend, organist at the Abbey; and for a time they lived under one roof. Some think Herrick fathered her bastard. But the ladies he made up to were like "yond moon,"
Which shining in her perfect noon,
In all that great and glorious light,
Continues cold, as is the night.
The coldness had its virtue, and allaying passion, preserved it, like life under glass. Roses look best wrapped in sheer linen, "as in a flowery nunnery" (H-78, 767). Virgins live there, untouched by human hands. One of the great poems, "Lily in a Crystal," shows them drawing their cobweb-lawn over a "smiling" rose, fairer and happier, being entombed. Unmixed with color, cream is merely "naked," a pejorative for Herrick, but drop in a strawberry, and it wantons with the sight. This activity is only teasing, though. Interpenetrating is out, as when Donne transplants his single violet.
Fruit in its see-through container, a "clean and subtle skin," has more beauty to commend it than when displaying "tinctures natural." Preference goes to the "broken beam"; art gladdens more than nature (H-560); and life, especially female life, shows to most advantage when you enamel it. In one of the Julia poems (H-88), that is what the poet does, new-creating a mistress out of topaz, opal, or chalcedony (transparent quartz). While the men of reform were stripping England's great churches down to naked stone, Herrick, unwilling like King Lear to reason the need, cultivated his artificial garden. There in green meadows eternal springtime embroidered the margins, and perpetual day, double gilding the air, saw to it that no night could ever rust the enamel of the light (H-575). Like those tinctures that "paint the hemisphere" (H-767), making picture-postcard sunsets, this enamel deceives us. But you had to have it; otherwise you looked into the void.
The world, an "isle of dreams," sponsors bad ones, and "tears and terrors" beset us as we sit at water's edge (N-128). This is where the poetry comes in, not escapist but a recomposing of chaos. Never mind the matter, the best of it lifts the heart, so cunningly does Herrick simulate emotion, poignant, exhilarated, and comic:
Some few sands spent, we hence must go,
Both to be blended in the urn,
From whence there's never a return.
Wild I am now with heat;
O Bacchus, cool thy rays!
Or frantic, I shall eat
Thy thyrse, and bite the bays.
We have hurled
(As with a tempest) nature through the world,
And in a whirlwind twirled her home, aghast
At that which in her ecstasy had past.
Saying over past times, real or imagined, a wild wicked old man flutters and crows, rearing his limbs above his chair "in a fit/Of fresh concupiscence" (H-336). Brio is Herrick's particular distinction, and whether writing youth's passion or going down with old age, he keeps our colors flying.
But though his most famous poem, "Corinna's Going a-Maying," enjoins fruition and the active life, the conventional "carpe diem" piece recoils on itself. What we seize runs through our fingers, "all love, all liking, all delight," and "decaying" and "Maying" make a rhyme. Nature, tending to dissolution, decks our portals with whitethorn, the emblem of joy and pain; and Apollo, "the god unshorn," is shorn of both hair and young manhood. Even as they greet the sun, flowers, pearly with dew, are seen as weeping. They know how vapor or a drop of rain, like the days of our life, can't be found again once you lose it.
Dwelling on this rueful insight rather than the cheerful codicil sets Herrick apart from his fellow Cavaliers and Epicureans. "Song" and "shade" merge for him; the quick and the dead announce a community; and the same covering, a grave cloth, serves both bed and bride (H-336, 515). "Only a little more," not wine, women, and song, is the heart of the poetry, work of a poet fascinated by the multitude who lie in vaults beneath the earth, rotting "piecemeal" (H-211). His brio is complicated.
In a trusting-to-good-verses poem (H-201), things that warm the cockles--golden pomp, the immense cup--occupy him for almost ten stanzas; then, seeing a "text," he breaks off. It isn't "Exegi monumentum," all that, but the death's head. "Death is the mother of beauty," not exactly as Stevens and other poets intend this. No flower dearer than the tulip, having "so short a stay," and leaves look bravest when they say goodnight (H-216, 467). Singing "in a round"--1) harmonizing, 2) cyclical--flower-crowned virgins used to rejoice us, and treading the earth, adorned its smoothness with "disheveled" hair (H-274). On the side of unkempt life, equivocally, though, the hair is like and unlike those "littering leaves" in "Sunday Morning." Obliterating sorrow, triumph, and love, also impassioned maidens, it salutes them as it does this. But it signals times to come when the world will be shapeless, turning back once more to old chaos (H-154).
Contrasting with death's punctilio, high-toned "disheveled" might overburden the poem, but Herrick's modest phrasing, investing it, sustains it. Still his meadows, "unthrifts" whose stock has been squandered, have to pay for their profligate behavior. More risk-taking, this trembles on bathos, but he escapes, set clear by self-deprecating whimsy.
Electing the short poem and suiting his diction to it, he tilts at the grand style; and "I sing," his opening gambit, glancing at Virgil, indicates what he would have made of Paradise Lost. A minimalist who studied in Jonson's school, he exploits a narrow compass, only a pair of stanzas in "To Daffodils," cut short like the life they describe. Thought in this compacted poem doesn't tax us more than the mottoes on sundials, but, pulling hard at its metrical tether, convinces us. Dispensing with or tinkering the thus-we-see conclusion, he arrives at his point by adjusting his stanza--dilating and contracting it in "Gather Ye Rosebuds." Coming after tetrameters, his three-foot line, both diminished and augmented (feminine), makes a grave antiphon: "And this same flower that smiles today,/Tomorrow will be dying"--its -ing ending inquiring if we didn't know that. Rhyme, often oxymoronic, stands in for comment: "flying" and "dying"/"getting" and "setting"/"marry" and "tarry," meaning "languish." We end as often with an imperative: "Then be not coy," worth heeding but not the heart of the poem.
Constriction tested his powers, and at least once he squeezed himself into a "monostich," one foot per line. This amused him, but the exercise was salutary too. As frugal poets can tell you, a well-wrought urn does better than half-acre tombs. Often his pentameter lines resolve to couplets, not yet closed but getting there, says Morman, an early and able critic of his. In "The Christian Militant" he mediates between Chaucer's "riding rhymes" and the heroic couplet of the Augustans:
A man prepared against all ills to come,
That dares to dead the fire of martyrdom,
That sleeps at home, and sailing there at ease,
Fears not the fierce sedition of the seas.
The couplets go on like this--balanced, cinched, and chastened. For Herrick as for the Augustans, being prepared exacts a full look at the worst in himself. Plagued by demons, he sees the need of coercing them, and this is why his style is fined down.
"Life Is the Body's Light," a title like one of Robert Bly's, gives the gist of his philosophy. But rigor makes the light, not setting the house on fire. I equate the rigor with his commitment to tightly ordered structures. Circumscribing his range, they dictate his meaning. All poetic forms have their de-corum-putting it too offhandedly: tetrameter for comedy or formal panegyric, blank verse for discursive thought--and Herrick, understanding this, chooses the centripetal kinds. That way, he stays close to his center of gravity.
In his most ambitious poem, among the greatest in a century where contenders are many, the center widens, also growing denser; and a limited poet discovers more than he knew before or knows elsewhere. The poem is his "Nuptial Song or Epithalamion," celebrating the marriage of Sir Clipsby Crewe and his lady. Bride and groom "bill too long" in Herrick's earlier marriage hymn (H-149A), perhaps avoiding or postponing the moment of truth, not these two. His eyes, like a madman's, "roll about" in his head; and hers, though veiled, look "bright" with expectation. An actor in the ceremony, Herrick is his own auditor, and helping to orchestrate a theatrical performance, puts questions but addressed to himself. "Lying alone" as consummation approaches, he hears the clock toll the hours, striking "ten, eleven, twelve, one." Only once in his poetry is he man enough, as we used to say, to realize an achievement of such magnitude as this--mockepic, homely, comic, and sober.
Sixteen turbulent stanzas urge the claim of the body, blooming and blown, treading (i.e. pacing, also copulating like a love bird), smelling, pounded, perspiring, frying, burning to cinders with sexual heat (but the phoenix is in this too), brustling: plumped-up like a swan or the bridal bed. But though Eros gets first place, meter and a crafty rhyme scheme conspire to curb him. Matter is hectic, the manner hectic-seeming yet exerting control, in every stanza five rhyming couplets descending in line length from five feet to two. "Love the confusion," says "Empedoclean" Herrick, whose chaos, imitating life, at the same time confers it and is the condition of form. Illustrating this paradox, the poem's longest line and its shortest chime together, the poet like his wedded pair throwing about the bed sheets but keeping within the frame.
Distanced in the beginning (seen "from far"), the bride is more and less than human, purging the scene she plays in of excess: a goddess (but venereal), a flower, jewel, or plant. The mode is injunctive, but she glides sedately through her agitated world--the last couplet in one stanza rhyming "slow" and "go"--and this contention persists. First of all and mostly phallic, the bridegroom shakes the stage like a bolt of thunder. But this hero is Christ-like and remembers the Harrowing of Hell. "Treading" (heard from three times) is carnal. The ground they walk on is painterly, however, vermilion and amber, also holy, invoking Scripture (Exodus 3:15). Paradise, our mise-en-scene, is "the shrine of holy saints," also a houri's paradise where the air is "charted" or steamy. Ablutions, though purifying, are "bedabbled," a spattering like disorder, ardent Nature "melts" but does this "in numbers," and the "maze of love," recalling Theseus and his meditated passage through the dreadful cave to safety, is erotic, even profoundly, a type of "that great labyrinth" Yeats turned aside from out of pride.
Menace colors the poem, as it must every true celebration, Spenser's in his marriage hymn, Shakespeare's at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Some gin" or snare is laid for the bride's feet, and love or luck, "spells/And magics" are needed to "shield" her. Young men and women strive to win her garters, and a playful poet bids them not to "fall/Foul" in their pastimes. But every line of poetry, run-on or closed, has to have its brief autonomy; and for an instant the admonition stands alone: "O do not fall."
Personal at its core, the "Nuptial Song" keeps an eye on history, a seedbed of discords. Eris, goddess of Discord, mars the wedding feast of Thetis and Peleus, insuring war to come, and here she is again, waiting to divide another couple. Both have "hells/To pass," a double entendre. Shakespeare at sonnets entertains it too, thinking bitterly how his angelic friend pleases himself "in another's Hell" or pudendum. The hint of malign contingency isn't wholly assimilated by the ribald wit, however.
As the poem and its arousals subside, "two nations," twins in the womb, "may blaze the virtue of their sires." This is if things go right. But Herrick's reminiscent phrasing summons tricky Jacob and his brother Esau, who lost his birthright for a mess of pottage. A different preview of the future, it isn't cheerful, and "bestroking" or propitiating Fate, like the anxious bridegroom, doesn't come amiss. Perhaps if we do that, the planets will look down benignly. Whatever Herrick means to tell us, his poem, like Spenser's, ends "in hope," but the future has yet to be written.
Like many "mea culpa" poets--Sidney is one the priest appeals from our vexed condition in certain "pious pieces." Only a fifth of his total output, they have the look of an afterthought, some reprobate's retraction. But his title, Noble Numbers, implies a qualitative distinction, the real thing against its counterfeit, and a separate title page, dated 1647, suggests that Herrick meant to give them pride of place. Many are didactic, like Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs, or are headed like his with frosty-sounding titles--"Wages," "Temptation," "Labor," "Prayer." Unlike Herbert's they don't often pay more than they promise. Half are cast in couplets, others in quatrains, and some are rhymed versions of a prose commentary on Scripture. A contemporary scholar, M. K. Starkman, walks us through Herrick's metrical prayer book: "creeds and graces, confessions and thanksgivings, litanies and dirges, nativity and circumcision songs, anthems and carols, plus a large body of near-catechetical wisdom." Twentieth-century readers haven't gone back to it often.
But Noble Numbers has its modest niche, and poems like "A Christmas Carol" keep unembarrassed company with Herbert:
We see Him come and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
In a "Litany to the Holy Spirit" Herrick redefines congruity, less tidy than it used to be:
When the artless doctor sees
No one hope, but of his fees,
And his skill runs on the lees,
Sweet Spirit comfort me!
When the passing-bell doth toll,
And the Furies in a shoal
Come to fright a parting soul,
Sweet Spirit comfort me!
Mixing jest and earnest, his whittled-down triplets quiver like Roethke's in "I Knew a Woman":
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
Simple enough, the religious poems mustn't be called naive; and some I know have this grace before meals by heart:
Here a little child I stand,
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks [toads] though they be,
Here I lift them up to Thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat and on us all. Amen.
Praise ought to include what the poems don't do, however. They don't swoon like Crashaw's, or brim with passion like many of Donne's and a few of Jonson's. Disappointing modern readers, all decline to negotiate our dark night of the soul. Commentators on Herrick lay their even tenor to his uncomplicated faith, often called childlike. I think the circumspection tells of a pestered spirit who reined himself in as he could.
Doing that wasn't easy or always successful. Part of his poetic furniture is the lar or household deity, and an epigram describes him stuffing this idol with meal cake (H-393). From Latin books and old wives' tales, he learned that the holy bread charmed "the danger and the dread" (H-1065). But part of the offering was his "peculiar," meaning personal to him. This indigenous thing, often bizarre and sometimes repellent, needs zeroing in on.
Earlier editors cleaned up the poetry, Grosart (1876) culling "Selections" for the women of his family, Pollard (1891) relegating the epigrams to an appendix, Rhys (1908) omitting offensive lines, replaced with ellipses in the Everyman edition. But to get his quiddity you have to take the worse with the better. The sophisticated maker, delighted with perfumes and gossamer visions, is also the monstrous man-child who daubed the body with excrement, urine, and phlegm. Even in Noble Numbers where you expect a whitened sensibility, he can't help but soil himself and his clothing. No purifying "this my Augean stable" (N-75, 49).
Devoted to antiquity, he isn't an antiquarian but goes to the past for a literary frame, efficient in blocking off the turbid stuff his cards dealt him. His Roman censor's mask, judicious but agreeable, answers the need; and wearing it let him keep life at a distance. Celebrating life, this hedonist feared it. But he doesn't succeed in spite of himself, and his strength as a poet is part and parcel of his sickness. His most memorable poems take their vitality from the tension between Yea and Nay.
Epigrams pleased him best, among poetic forms the one he most often went back to. At least 150 of them, scattered through Hesperides, reveal "a coarse-minded and beastly writer whose dunghill," said Robert Southey, reviewing the 1823 edition, "ought never to have been disturbed." Moderns, smiling or bristling at this, might consult their unexpurgated Herrick: "Craw cracks in syrup, and does stinking say,/Who can hold that, my friends, that will away?" (H-428). If you plunge a finger into sugar syrup, then into cold water, the hardened sugar on the finger breaks off with a crackling sound. But the "syrup" meant here is liquid feces.
On an indulgent view, point-counterpointing Herrick resembles Shakespeare at sonnets; and maybe his fly-in-amber, interred in a room "more rich than Cleopatra's tomb" (H-817), does better for another look, less poetic. But the imagination is beastly or worse that fosters complementarities like this:
Sealed up with night-gum, Loach each morning lies,
Till his wife, licking, so unglues his eyes.
No question, then, but such a lick is sweet
When a warm tongue does with such ambers meet.
Herrick's biographers blame the beastliness on Saint Ben or Martial, models for satire. Natural, they say, for "the naughty mischievous" youth to fancy the epigram, a foil to the delicate beauty of his muse. The plumminess aside, this doesn't differ much from modern rationalizings of Southey's "filth and ordure."
Criticism in our time assimilates Herrick to My Lord's chaplain, buttering up his masters while reviling the hoi polloi, or thinks he meant to poke fun at his own lyrics, exploding their images of beauty, innocence, and wealth. Under the "veneer" and "artifice" of his elegant (fictitious) world lay the real thing; and depicting it, he forced us to face up to the truth. Generally words like "grim" or "brutal" describe it. But Herrick is less criticizing than savaging his subjects. Not making a corrective point--satire's business--his pathological disgust or fascination with disgusting things denies the chance for any point, ameliorative or scabrous. Only on a sentimental view is the grimness he mucks about in more real than the loveliness. Turning from loveliness to "batten on this moor," he isn't aiming at truth but self-laceration. Among major poets, none backed away with more revulsion from the face he met in the mirror.
Sexual disorder seems key to his work, both begetting and disabling. Scatological Herrick is also a voyeur, inclined to masturbative fantasies, infantile, and narcissistic. Like E. M. Forster he petered out in silence, and only a single poem marks his last twenty-six years. Drowning in delights, he couldn't "die" (H-175), i.e. experience sexual climax, but then he didn't want to. A poem called "The Frozen Heart" gives his likeness, all snow and ice. Though he thought about melting, only love could "supple" him, and rather than "be thawed or heated so," he stayed lost forever, coupling with eternal cold (H-113).
Tantalizing us is what the poems do, and he calls to mind Tantalus, the fruit over his head always receding. Or he resembles the gods who don't sit down to table "yet love the smell of meat" (H-736). Dreams were his specialty, congenial though "empty." This wasn't faute de mieux, and the women he desired were like Ixion's cloud (H-105), nothing there. When fictive Electra climbs into his bed, he kisses her, panting, but calls night to witness, "that was all" (H-56). Though a warrior-mistress (virginal but masculine) gives him a good look at "the happy dawning of her thigh," he can't kiss that tempting nakedness. Waving a wand like a rap across the knuckles, his "sprightly Spartaness" forbids him, saying, "Hence, remove,/Herrick, thou art too coarse to love" (H-142). Love itself was the culprit, however, all that sweaty jigging and poking.
Erotic energy, quickening his poems, gives the body a wide berth and is dispersed among things. Clothes make the man or woman, substituting for them. If he really does "delight in disorder"--the title of a famous poem--he restricts it to a petticoat or shoelace. An odd kind of metonymy reduces his women to disjecta membra (Julia's leg). Much to-do about foreplay, nongenital pleasure, oral and tactile, sometimes olfactory. Like Ovid called Naso, Herrick has a nose, and it snuffs up fishy smells. No eye sharper, but his doesn't act on what it perceives. Frustrating the reader, this suits the voyeur.
Gliding, spectral, but innocuous, the type of the passive man, he watches from the grave while his "lovely mistresses" bring him liquid refreshment (H-634). When the coast is clear, he licks up this poured-out sacrifice, no scenario wilder. The ladies turning pale, an avuncular poet says he won't hurt them; however, we don't have to be told. Perhaps their "fancies" envisaged sexual coupling, but the chance for that is lost and likely never existed.
Convention, prescribing for the natural world, says that trees are male, while the dependent plants that encircle them are female. His poem on the vine (H-41) reverses this relation or has it both ways, and "she" is also "he," a young man but "ravished." "Soft nervelets," crawling and enthralling, "surprise/Her body, buttocks, and her waist," and writhing, brush her forehead, their "rich clusters hid among/The leaves." This female prisoner can't help herself (otherwise it's no go), but violation isn't in the cards, and the creeping/ creepy leaves conceal without invading "those parts which maids keep unespied." Awaking from sleep, the poet, a witty punster, finds his flesh "more like a stock than like a vine." But this erection does him no good. The snakelike thing goes through all the motions, and the real thing, though tumescent, is dead.
Weird and often edged with pathos, much of Herrick is fun, however, like this couplet "Upon Julia's Breasts": "Between whose glories, there my lips I'll lay,/ Ravished in that fair Via Lactea." You could call this puerile, but readers with an ear will want to listen to the rhyme, self-conscious, absurd, and attractive. The Herrick we remember gratefully, too big for a clinical casebook, has his hands on all the ropes. It took clarity on his part, says Gordon Braden, "to make his favorite poet-figure into an impotent, drunk old man."
In poems like the "Farewell" and "Welcome" to sack, some unnamed "thing" is his subject, only wine in the event but he keeps mum on its nature. Powerful similitudes conceal it, leading us on ("the warm soft side/Of the resigning, yet resisting bride") or putting us off (hairy comets that foretell "the coming of some dire events"). Efficient against his enemy, torpor, the prodigious thing rouses the frost-bound blood, but its "witching beauties" strike fear in a shrinking bachelor.
Others desire their lips and "hers" espoused. But this lover faineant, confining his muse to its "inadulterate strength," swears for the future to "smell of the lamp, not thee."
His abdication is mean, and "whimpering" a protest--semi-pornographic, that--the banished creature smiles knowingly. Maybe, in his "raked-up ash-heap," no fire remains. Wine might get him going, swelling the nerves with "spirit" and making him "active to do," recalling the "vital spirit" that brought natural heat to the body. Also, though, Herrick thinks of virile Hercules who, drinking deep, "kept heat for fifty maids" a night. Skeptical readers want to know, Is he pulling our leg?
Not always the wished-for thing, consummation has its scary side, and a comical off-rhyme suggests it. Sea-scourged Ulysses, nearing home, is before us, soon to greet his Penelope "after long divorcement." (Ambidextrous Herrick plays the woman and her spouse.) Off to landward, "fires betray/The smoky chimneys of his Ithaca," ambiguous solace. Possibly this hero ought to keep going, or like "prophetic Daphne" pursued by Apollo, would do better changing into a tree.
Readers who think so aren't finding Herrick out but collaborating with him, and his best poetry sponsors a rival creation. Resembling baroque churches in the century he lived in--"about the roof a siren in a sphere," one of Bernini's--it reorders the real world, lighting up vivid but surprising interiors. Nothing in nature is like them--except his comic-sinister heart.
By Russell Fraser