BORN: 1591, London, England
DIED: 1674, Dean Prior, Devonshire, England
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
Hesperides; or, The Works Both Humane and
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.
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.
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).
René 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).
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.
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.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
“Mignonne, allons voir 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.”
Responses to Literature
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
Chambers, A. B. “Herrick and the Trans-shifting of Time.” 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.
The English poet and Anglican parson Robert Herrick (1591-1674) invented a fanciful world compounded of pagan Rome and Christian England, of reality and fantasy, which he ruled as his poetic domain.
Robert Herrick's 83 years stretched from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare was writing history plays and Edmund Spenser was publishing The Faerie Queene, to the Restoration period, when John Dryden was composing heroic drama and John Milton was publishing Paradise Lost. He was contemporary with the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert and is classified with the neoclassic or Cavalier poets Edmund Waller, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.
Little is known about Herrick other than what may be gathered from a few extant letters and the 1,403 poems in his only book, Hesperides; or, The Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (1648). Unknown are what school he attended, what he was doing in 1620-1622, 1624-1626, and 1648-1660, and even the days of his birth and death. Although he probably preached at least 1,500 times, no sermon has survived.
In 1556 Nicholas Herrick, son of an ironmonger in Leicester, went to London. After 10 years as a goldsmith's apprentice, he set up a prosperous business in that craft. In 1582 he married Julian Stone, daughter of a prominent London mercer. Their fifth son, Robert, was born in their Cheapside mansion on Goldsmith's Row, and he was baptized on Aug. 24, 1591. From his father's craft Robert derived the delight in metals, jewels, and amber which shines in his poetry; and his maternal grandfather's trade inspired the fascination which silks, sheer linens, and other fine textiles had for him.
His eldest brother died when Robert was 14 months old, and a few days later his father fell from the fourth floor of their home to his death. Legally a suicide's property could be confiscated, but since the cause of death was uncertain, his widow managed to retain the estate, worth £5,000 at a time when a laborer's hire was a few pennies a day.
Robert had an excellent schooling in Latin, but when he was 16 his practical, bourgeois relatives apprenticed him to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, a leading goldsmith. But Robert proved more proficient with words than metal. About 1610, when his brother took up farming, Robert memorialized the occasion in "A Country Life," a poem imitative of Horace and Ben Jonson but distinctively his own. He had already begun to invent his poetic world and populated it with friends and relatives, imaginary mistresses and faithful servants, rascals and fairies, and peasants who made sacrifices to Jove and danced around Maypoles.
With Herrick's twenty-first birthday, in 1612, he inherited £800 from his father's estate, left its management to his uncle, and arranged to leave his apprenticeship in 1613. Shortsightedness may have handicapped Herrick for goldsmithing; he later mentioned his waning eyesight, and throughout his poetry he tends to concentrate on things seen close up—flowers, miniatures, a pipkin of jelly, and those "little spinners," the spiders.
At 22 Herrick was about 6 years older than most undergraduates when he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, as a fellow commoner, paying double fees. Ever eager to enjoy what was available, he participated in student pleasures, made lifelong friends of John Weekes and Clipseby Crew, and laid a foundation in experience for his poems about sack. In them he hailed that potent sherry as "the drink of Gods and Angels," urging the wine to come to him "as Cleopatra came to Anthonie."
Despite the gusto with which Herrick celebrated inebriation and imaginary mistresses in poetry, he had his family's common sense, and from Horace he had learned the value of moderation. So he suggested to his uncle that it might be wise for him to transfer to a less expensive college and study law. This he did, entering sober, intellectual Trinity Hall and assuring his uncle that he would live economically as a recluse, with no company but upright thoughts. He earned his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in 1617-1620.
In the next 3 years Herrick may have tried to practice law. Perhaps he studied divinity. At any rate, on April 24, 1623, he and his friend Weekes were ordained deacons and, on the next day, priests in the Church of England. This uncanonical haste suggests that he became some nobleman's chaplain. So does his presence as a chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham in 1627, when that royal favorite led a naval attack against the French at the I ˆle de Ré. Two-thirds of the English forces were killed, but Herrick survived to be rewarded by Charles I with the vicarage of Dean Prior in Devonshire.
While waiting for this benefice, Herrick wrote songs and carols which were set to music by the leading court musicians, Henry Lawes and Nicholas Lanier, and were sung before the King. He also celebrated the birth of Prince Charles in a pretty pastoral.
In September 1630 Herrick began his clerical duties at Dean Prior. Typically, he made the best of his environment, thanking God for his "little house" and writing poems about his spaniel Tracie, his pet sparrow, and his maid Prue, "by good luck sent." For 17 years he conducted services, baptisms, marriages, and funerals; interested himself in local folklore; flattered female parishioners in verse; exposed the vices of men named Scobble and Mudge, Groynes and Huncks, in biting epigrams; and "became much beloved by the gentry."
The peace of Devonshire was blasted by the civil war which broke out in 1642. The fact that the conquering Puritans were slow to oust Herrick from his vicarage suggests that he was popular with his parishioners and faithful in his duties. In religion he was moderate and reasonable; his sacred poems express a broad Protestantism based on Scripture and common sense. It was his outspoken royalism which caused his expulsion in 1647.
Presumably Herrick returned to London to see his book into print in 1648. Then he drops out of sight until 1660, when he was restored to his vicarage. If he wrote more poems, they have not survived. He was buried at Dean Prior on Oct. 15, 1674. His successor 30 years later reported that he had been a "sober and learned man"; and after more than a century locals recalled "that he kept a pet pig, which he taught to drink out of a tankard."
The many roles which he played in his poetry only partially correspond to the real Herrick. Indeed, it is misleading to identify the "I" in his verse with all the personae he assumed—inebriate, lover, and sensualist; scholar, moralist, and royalist; innocent child, advocate of moderation, and obscene epigrammatist. The fact is that he ranges over the whole human comedy, singing of nature, seasons, youth and love, physical dews and rains, and balms which symbolize the spiritual heaven. He extends to the causes of things and the twilight realm of fairies; and he meditates upon hell, death, and heaven, urging readers to gather the roses of joy while they may. And he concludes his volume with His Noble Numbers; or, His Pious Pieces, Wherein (amongst other things) he sings the Birth of his Christ: and sighes for his Saviour's suffering on the Crosse.
The first edition of Herrick's Hesperides seems to have been large and popular with royalists but unsuited to Restoration and 18th-century taste. Not until 1810 did a second edition appear. Despite some attacks on his "naughty" material, the fame which he was certain he deserved came to him, and today his position as one of the great lyrical artists is secure. Moreover, scholars are beginning to recognize that his technical brilliance is complemented by complex profundities.
The standard editions are The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, edited by L. C. Martin (1956), and The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by J. Max Patrick (1963). The sparse biographical data and the background are attractively set forth in Marchette Chute, Two Gentle Men: The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick (1959). There is perceptive criticism of the poetry in Roger B. Rollin, Robert Herrick (1966). The cultural background and debt to Jonson are considered in Kathryn Anderson McEuen, Classical Influence upon the Tribe of Ben (1939). For the general literary milieu see Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1946; 2d ed. 1962). Rose Macaulay's novel The Shadow Flies (1932) gives an imaginary but delightful treatment of Herrick. He is also treated fictionally in Emily Easton, Youth Immortal: A Life of Robert Herrick (1934).
Aiken, Pauline, The influence of the Latin elegists on English lyric poetry, 1600-1650, with particular reference to the works of Robert Herrick, New York, Phaeton Press, 1970.
Budd, Louis J., Robert Herrick, New York, Twayne 1971.
Coiro, Ann Baynes, Robert Herrick's Hesperides and the epigram book tradition, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Deming, Robert H., Ceremony and art. Robert Herrick's poetry, The Hague, Paris, Mouton, 1974.
Deneef, A. Leigh, "This poetick liturgie": Robert Herrick's ceremonial mode, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1974.
Ferrari, Ferruccio, L'influenza classica nell'Inghilterra del Seicento e la poesia di Robert Herrick, Messina; Firenze: G. D'Anna, 1979.
Ferrari, Ferruccio, La poesia religiosa inglese del Seicento, Messina; Firenze: G. D'Anna, 1975.
Hageman, Elizabeth, Robert Herrick: a reference guide, Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1983.
Holloway, Robin, The consolation of music: for unaccompanied mixed voices, op. 38, no. 1, on poems by Herrick and Strode, London; New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1979.
Horlacher, Friedrich W., Die Romane Robert Herricks: Empirie u. Fiktion, Frankfurt am Main; Las Vegas: Lang, 1978.
Ishii, Shåonosuke, The poetry of Robert Herrick, Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1974.
Johnston, Jack, Diverse voices of Herrick: songs for medium voice and piano, Geneseo, N.Y.: Leyerle Publications, 1986.
Macaulay, Rose, Dame, The shadow flies, St. Clair Shores, Mich., Scholarly Press, 1971.
Macaulay, Rose, Dame, They were defeated, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
MacLeod, Malcolm Lorimer, A concordance to the poems of Robert Herrick, New York, Haskell House Publishers, 1971; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978 c1936.
Musgrove, S. (Sydney), The universe of Robert Herrick, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1975; Norwood Editions, 1978 c1869.
Rollin, Roger B., Robert Herrick, New York, Twayne Publishers 1966; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.
Scott, George Walton, Robert Herrick, 1591-1674, London, Sidgwick & Jackson 1974; New York, St. Martin's Press 1974. □
A. S. Hargreaves