World Literature

Robert Herrick

 

BORN: 1591, London, England

DIED: 1674, Dean Prior, Devonshire, England

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Hesperides; or, The Works Both Humane and Divine (1648)

 

 

Robert Herrick. Herrick, Robert, illustration. International Portrait Gallery.

 

Overview

Almost forgotten in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century alternately applauded for his poetry’s lyricism and condemned for its ‘‘obscenities,’’ Robert Herrick has, at the start of the twenty-first century, finally been recognized as one of the most accomplished English poets of his age. Scholars and critics are gradually appreciating the achievement represented by his only book, Hesperides; or, The Works Both Humane and Divine (1648). While some of his individual poems, such as ‘‘To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,’’ ‘‘Upon Julia’s Clothes,’’ and ‘‘Corinna’s Going a-Maying,’’ are among the most popular of all time, recent examinations of his Hesperides as a whole have begun to reveal a Herrick whose sensibility is complex, subtle, and coherent.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Elizabethan Upbringing Marked by Tragedy. Herrick was born in Cheapside, London, in 1591, and baptized on August 24 of that year. He was the seventh child of a London goldsmith, Nicholas Herrick, and was little more than fourteen months old when his father fell to his death from a window in an apparent suicide. His mother never remarried, and it seems more than a coincidence that father figures would loom large in the poet’s Hesperides. At the time, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I, who oversaw the beginnings of the British Empire as well as a golden age of drama, literature, and music.

Educated at Cambridge. By age sixteen, Herrick was apprenticed to his uncle, but he apparently found either Sir William Herrick or the goldsmith trade undesirable, for the ten-year apprenticeship was terminated after six years. In 1613, at the comparatively advanced age of twenty-two, Herrick enrolled at Saint John’s College, Cambridge. Limited means would eventually force Herrick to transfer to a less expensive college, Trinity Hall. His studies culminated in 1620 with a master of arts degree. By this time, James I had succeeded Elizabeth and established the Stuart line.

The “Sons of Ben’’. Between his graduation from Cambridge and his appointment, in 1629, as vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire, little is known about Herrick’s life. It is almost certain, however, that some of this time was spent among the social and literary circles of London. Here the budding poet at last found a surrogate father in Ben Jonson, the eminent poet, dramatist, actor, and literary lion of London. Herrick became one of several ‘‘sons of Ben’’ who had notable literary careers themselves. Others include Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace. This group, sometimes called the Cavalier Poets by scholars, carried on Jonson’s revival of classical poetic styles.

Meanwhile, Herrick was cultivating a style distinctly his own, earning a reputation as a fashionable poet. His work likely circulated in manuscript form. Some of his works were set to music by the well-known musician Henry Lawes and sung before King Charles I. Charles was the son of James I and had succeeded him in 1625. Herrick also cultivated the royal family with a series of flattering poems. Indeed, the king, though he was nine years younger than Herrick, emerges in Hesperides as yet another father figure.

Country Vicar. Herrick took holy orders in 1623. This step, at the mature age of thirty-two, may indicate that he was unable to find a position elsewhere. In 1627, he became one of several chaplains to accompany George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, on a failed expedition to the Isle of Rhe to liberate French Protestants. In 1629 Charles I awarded Herrick for his service by nominating him to the vicarage of Dean Prior, a hamlet in Devonshire, far to the southwest of London. He was installed there the following autumn.

To become a country parson had to have been a radical change from Herrick’s former life among the literary set at court. Some critics believe he resented this appointment to the remote West Country, viewing it as banishment from London. He wrote one poem describing the people of his parish as ‘‘currish; churlish as the seas; / And rude (almost) as rudest savages.’’ He may have been exaggerating for effect, but whatever Herrick’s true feelings about his congregation, he nevertheless carried out his duties faithfully for seventeen years.

Affected by English Civil War. His service was interrupted, however, at a key moment of the English Civil War. (The English Civil War officially began in 1642 as a struggle between Charles—who believed in the divine right of kings as well as absolute sovereignty and rule—and Parliament, over their proper roles in government, though these tensions had been building for decades. Over the next few years, there were battles primarily between ultraradical Independents—also known as Puritans—like Oliver Cromwell, who wanted to do away with the monarchy and the organized church, and royalists, who wanted the monarchy to remain in power and to retain the church.) Herrick was every inch a royalist (as his poems of praise for Charles I and the royal family make evident) and a rather traditional Anglican in a part of the country sympathetic to the Puritan cause and the parliamentary forces. In 1647, Herrick and more than one hundred Devonshire clergymen were expelled from their parishes for their convictions. He returned to London and took up residence in St. Anne’s, Westminster, sustained by wealthy friends and relatives.

Thus, Herrick was in London when he published his one and only poetry collection, Hesperides; or, The Works Both Humane and Divine. The ‘‘Divine’’ part of the title refers to a smaller book of poems titled His Noble Numbers; or, His Pious Pieces, Wherein (Amongst Other Things) He Sings the Birth of His Christ, and Sighs for His Savior’s Suffering on the Crosse. This book, appended to Hesperides, has its own title plate, which curiously bears the publication date 1647. Some critics believe Herrick intended to publish His Noble Numbers first, then realized the aesthetic value of displaying a progression from secular to religious poetry.

Restored to Position. Shortly after Hesperides was published, Charles I was removed from the throne by the victorious Independents led by Cromwell. The king was executed in 1649, and Cromwell ruled England as a commonwealth until he died in 1648. Cromwell’s son Richard succeeded him, but his rule was even more unpopular than his father’s, and Parliament invited the return of the monarchy in 1660. The year of the Restoration, Herrick personally petitioned to be returned to his former vicarage. Charles II, the son and heir of Charles I, granted his petition and sent him back to Dean Prior in 1662, where he served until his death at the end of harvest season in October 1674. There is no verifiable evidence that he continued to write poetry in his later years.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Herrick's famous contemporaries include:

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): English philosopher, whose treatise Leviathan (1651) is a fundamental work of political theory.

George Herbert (1593-1633): Welsh-born religious poet and Anglican priest who wrote The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633).

Thomas Carew (1595-1640): An English Cavalier poet who associated with Ben Jonson and his circle of literary friends. His poetry collections include Poems (1640).

Rene Descartes (1596-1650): French mathematician and rationalist philosopher, often remembered for his adage ''I think, therefore I am.'' His books include Discourse on Method (1637).

John Milton (1608-1674): This highly celebrated English poet is most famed for the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667).

Charles I (1600-1649): King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1625-1649. A proponent of divine right, he was convicted and executed during the English Civil War.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Herrick's ''To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time'' could be the most famous ''carpe diem'' poem in the English language. Here are other verses expressing, or questioning, the same universal theme:

''Mignonne, allonsvoir si la rose'' (1553), a poem by Pierre de Ronsard. This French poet famously compares his reluctant lover's beauty to a flower destined to droop and wither.

''The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'' (c. 1590), a poem by Christopher Marlowe. A famous English pastoral love poem with romantic ideals as straightforward as its meter: ''Come live with me and be my love.''

''Song to Celia'' (1607), a poem by Ben Jonson. A brief seduction poem from the literary patriarch of the Cavaliers: '''Tis no sin love's fruit to steal; / But the sweet theft to reveal.''

''To His Coy Mistress'' (c. 1680), a poem by Andrew Marvell. A strong carpe diem argument is presented in a courtly seduction poem featuring the lines: ''Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime.''

''Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'' (1943), by Dylan Thomas. This lament upon mortality, Thomas's most famous poem, urges the reader to ''Rage, rage against the dying of the light.''

 

Works in Literary Context

More than the other ‘‘sons of Ben,’’ Herrick follows Jonson’s prescriptions for writing well, especially by reading the ancients. Herrick often mentions, quotes, or borrows from the works of classical writers such as Anacreon, the legendary Greek poet of wine, women, and song, and with Roman poets such as Horace, Ovid, and Martial. The aspiring poet’s own sensibility, Jonson counseled, should be imposed on the borrowed subjects and formal elements. Herrick obeys, in scores of classically styled epigrams, odes, and lyrics, even in imitations of Jonson himself, such as ‘‘Delight in Disorder.’’

Carefully Constructed Poetry Collection. Today most readers encounter Herrick in anthologies, a few poems at a time, as he was read when a limited number of his lyrics circulated in manuscript. When he published Hesperides, however, he had something else in mind. His was a rare literary feat. He seems to have been the first poet, and still the only important poet, to gather practically all of his verses (more than fourteen hundred poems) into one elaborately designed volume and see it through the presses. Hesperides is also the only major collection of poetry in English to open with a versified table of contents.

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day. Among Herrick’s most admired work is ‘‘Corinna’s Going a-Maying,’’ a tightly structured lyric combining Christian and classical elements and examining mutability. Corinna is being seduced out of bed, to join in the ceremonies of May Day, when the townspeople go into the country to gather greenery. Lying in bed, she is warned, is a sin against the religion of nature. The final stanza reminds Corinna (and the reader) that as creatures of nature, we are all subject to time, and thus youth and love are not forever.

This is one of Herrick’s recurrent themes, generally called ‘‘carpe diem,’’ a Latin phrases meaning ‘‘seize the day.’’ Herrick muses on the briefness of life and the importance of living it to its fullest every day. It is captured most famously in ‘‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,’’ with its well-known opening ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying: / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.’’ Though a Christian priest, Herrick seems to perceive death as ultimate oblivion, without transfiguration. Like the classical Stoics, he responds to the prospect of inevitable death by affirming life, lived modestly and taken as it comes.

 

Works in Critical Context

Over the past three centuries, the perceived unevenness of Herrick’s poetry, its mixture of high and low forms and themes, has divided literary critics. Whereas one nineteenth-century poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, hailed Herrick as ‘‘the greatest song-writer—as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist—ever born of the English race,’’ Robert Southey called Herrick ‘‘a coarse-minded and beastly writer, whose dunghill ... ought never to have been disturbed.’’ Even so, his reputation has steadily increased with nearly every close study of Hesperides. Critics have uncovered complex nuances in Herrick’s simple poetic style, causing them to reevaluate the country parson’s genius. Today, Herrick’s poetry has attained the critical renown he always knew it deserved.

Little Acclaim in His Lifetime. The earliest known criticism appeared in The Muses Dirge (1625) by Richard James, who compared Herrick to Jonson and Michael Drayton. Other poets favorably mentioned Herrick, indicating that he may have enjoyed some literary popularity in his lifetime. In the absence of much evidence, it is difficult to determine the reception Hesperides received on its publication in 1648. The timing was unfortunate, as the Civil War took center stage.

Critical Attention in Nineteenth Century. In the century after his death, Herrick gained only marginal recognition from English commentators. Interest revived around the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1804, Nathan Drake provided one of the first comprehensive retrospectives on Herrick, calling him instrumental in developing a trend toward simpler poetic structure. Some critics found his work too vulgar to deserve high praise, but the American commentator Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Herrick’s lyrics unrivaled in diction and structure. Later in the century, Swinburne and other critics wrote favorably of Herrick, and George Saintsbury’s Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (1893) acknowledged him as a ‘‘natural man’’ whose poetry is an expression of his delightful surroundings.

Twentieth Century. Twentieth-century scholars cite a 1910 study by F. W. Moorman as pivotal to the revival of Herrick’s reputation. Later critics offered fresh insights into the sources, structure, and themes of Hesperides. Several noted theorists, such as C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Northrop Frye, examined Herrick’s poetry in the course of presenting their own literary principles. Another milestone in Herrick criticism, Sydney Musgrove’s The Universe of Robert Herrick (1950), perceives Herrick’s poetry as neither ‘‘trivial’’ nor ‘‘pagan,’’ but as a reflection of a seventeenth-century English Christian worldview. As he predicted, Herrick’s tombstone has vanished, but at last, ‘‘the eternizing power of poetry’’ has brought him more admiration than he might have imagined.

 

Responses to Literature

1. How well does Herrick handle the tension between his religious faith and the vivaciousness of his secular poetry? Create a presentation for the class in which you explain your point of view.

2. Some scholars have deemed Herrick to be an ‘‘occasional’’ poet—that is, a poet who writes about special or ceremonial occasions. Citing several of Herrick’s works, identify some characteristics of this type of poetry and write a paper with your findings.

3. Hesperides was published at the height of the English Civil War. Study the history of this conflict and write a paper about several poems in which Herrick refers to the war or reveals a position toward it.

4. Perform a close reading of the opening poem of Hesperides ‘‘The Argument of His Book’’ in a small group. With the group, examine questions such as: How does Herrick’s view of his poetry concur with, or differ from, your own?

5. Herrick’s literary mentor, Ben Jonson, championed a revival of classical styles of poetry. In a short essay, describe how Herrick emulates thematic or formal elements of classical poetry. Cite two or more specific examples.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Braden, Gordon. The Classics and English Renaissance Poetry: Three Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Coiro, Ann Baynes. Robert Herrick’s ‘‘Hesperides’’ and the Epigram Book Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Deming, Robert L. Ceremony and Art: Robert Herrick’s Poetry. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1974.

Hageman, Elizabeth H. Robert Herrick: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Miner, Earl. The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Moorman, F. W. Robert Herrick: A Biographical and Critical Study. London: John Lane, 1910.

Musgrove, Sydney. The Universe of Robert Herrick. Auckland, New Zealand: Pelorus, 1958.

Rollin, Roger B. Robert Herrick. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Rollin, Roger B., and J. Max Patrick, eds. ‘‘Trust to Good Verses’’: Herrick Tercentenary Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.

Periodicals

Chambers, A. B. ‘‘Herrick and the Trans-shifting ofTime.’’ Studies in Philology 72 (January 1975): 85-111.

Coiro, Ann Baynes. ‘‘Herrick’s ‘Julia’ Poems.’’ John Donne Journal 6 (1987): 67-89.

Ingram, Randall. ‘‘Robert Herrick and the Makings of ‘Hesperides.’’’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38 (Winter 1998): 127-48.

Kimmey, John L. ‘‘Robert Herrick’s Persona.’’ Studies in Philology 67 (April 1970): 221-36.

Schleiner, Louise. ‘‘Herrick’s Songs and the Character of Hesperides.’’ English Literary Renaissance 6 (Winter 1976): 77-91.

Whitaker, Thomas R. ‘‘Herrick and the Fruits of the Garden.’’ English Literary History 22 (March 1955): 16-33.