Roughly thirty miles southwest of Exeter the A38 rips along the edge of the churchyard of Dean Prior, where Robert Herrick, with one period of interruption, was rector between 1630 and his death in 1674. The interruption began in or around January 1646, when the New Model Army marched along the predecessor of the A38 to relieve Plymouth. On their way they seem to have ejected Herrick from his relatively wealthy living, which had brought him £100 a year. Herrick fled to London, which he had always regarded as home, and in 1648 published his only book of poems, a double volume containing Hesperides and His Noble Numbers or Pious Pieces. The publication may have been a way of supplementing his drastically reduced income: if he presented copies to those praised within it he might expect a little something in return. After 1648 Herrick printed only one further poem. So Hesperides did amount to, as it said on the title page, The Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick, his life’s work, and Herrick’s pride in his achievement is marked by the fact that this is the first volume in England to refer to a collection of lyric poems as ‘works’.
In the heady historicist days of the 1980s Hesperides was seen as a defiant and despairing gesture of royalism. As Herrick urged his mistresses to gather rosebuds, and rejoiced in maypoles and hock-carts and harvest homes, it was argued, he was implicitly sticking up for the ornamented forms of worship and popular ritual that had been defended by Archbishop Laud in the 1630s and suppressed by Parliament in 1643. Lines like ‘the worse, and worst/Times, still succeed the former’ were taken as direct allusions to the darkening end of the 1640s. This view of Hesperides now seems both reductive and inaccurate. Many of Herrick’s best poems appear to have been written before 1630 either at Cambridge or in London. Hesperides may have been put together in a spirit as much of fragile hope as defiance or despair. It was sent to the press in late 1647. One of its latest datable poems was written in August that year, when Charles I was negotiating to make peace with Parliament and was reconstructing a household of musicians and courtiers at Hampton Court. Negotiations broke down, and in November the king fled. By then Hesperides – which might partly have been designed as a bid for favour within that renewed royal household – was in press. It remained as a monument to the rapid fluctuations of its times.
Herrick was the son of a wealthy London goldsmith. His father died after falling out of a window in 1592, when the child was only 15 months old. Herrick was brought up by his uncle, who took charge (more or less benignly) of his inheritance and set him up as an apprentice to his father’s trade. That career didn’t take, and once Herrick came of age and could spend his own money he went to the flashiest college in Cambridge, St John’s. He later moved to Trinity Hall, where he complained to his rich uncle that he had ‘runn somewhat deepe into my Tailours debt’. He studied law and acquired expensive friends, many of whom he retained throughout his life. In 1623, aged over thirty, he took holy orders. A period as a chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham followed, and then 16 years of what he seems to have found positively boring peace at Dean Prior in ‘this dull Devon-shire’ or ‘lothed Devonshire’ or ‘the loathed West’, until the New Model Army rapped on the door in 1646.
Despite Herrick’s reputation as a typical Cavalier poet, many of his poems were written well before the men with their wide hats and curly moustachios took to their horses and charged into battle for King Charles. Some of his writing reflects the interests of literary coteries and clubs in the London of the 1620s. Some of it evokes provincial intimacies rather than courtly self-display. Herrick laments the death of his spaniel Tracy, and bewails the loss of a finger. There are Devonian touches in poems written after 1630: several of his epigrams about dodgy low-life characters give them names found among families in the South Hams. But his reputation as a West Country poet can be overstated. The much anthologised ‘Cherrie-Ripe’ probably mimics the cries of urban rather than Devonian fruit-sellers (‘Cherrie-Ripe, Ripe, Ripe, I cry/Full and faire ones; come and buy’). His penchant for strawberries and cream was already evident in poems that can be securely dated to the 1620s. Nor was he a simple-minded Laudian royalist. Some of the people praised in Hesperides were loyal defenders of Charles I in the 1640s, and a cluster of poems celebrate the period when Henrietta Maria gathered royalist forces in Exeter in 1644. But other poems are edgy about Laud’s smelly and belly religious reforms, and Herrick seems to have had some sympathy with the more moderate forms of worship advocated by Bishop John Williams. Herrick could play with the language of Catholic worship, satirise Puritans who used long hair to hide ears that had been cropped as a punishment for their writings, and criticise kings who extorted money from their subjects. He was not simply drawn towards a comfortable via media in politics and religion but liked to mock extremes in ways that left him free to cultivate verse that sometimes drifted off into Anacreontic hedonism, sometimes perceived death’s shadow beneath the flower of beauty and sometimes just sang.
Although Hesperides contains Herrick’s ‘works’, it has a lot in common with the manuscript miscellanies of verse by various hands which were fashionable in the early decades of the 17th century. Indeed it offers so much of everything that it’s hard to see it as the product of a single person. One moment the poet’s dying of old age. Then he’s dying for love. Then he’s after Julia, then Perilla, then Perenna, then Corinna, then Electra, then Anthea, then Lucia, then Silvia, and then ‘I wish all maidens mine.’ A translation from Anacreon or his imitators, then a few poems to the king or to Julia or Prewdence Baldwin (his maid at Dean Prior), then a poem that splices sections of Martial together with Horace or a moral saw from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and then a randy epigram on a girl with bad teeth or a thief who pinches the napkins off your table – Herrick gives you the lot. ‘I’m like a rude,/And all confused multitude,’ he declares. Often the poems that appear to record autobiographical facts are actually a tease. An epitaph on Prew Baldwin was written while she was still alive. So many other poets wrote about losing fingers that it’s quite unlikely Herrick actually misplaced a digit. He rhymes the word ‘Herrick’ with the word ‘lyric’ more than once, as though to persuade his readers that his name didn’t denote his own life and predilections so much as everything included in the loose category of ‘lyric’, all its genres, all its moods, all its changeability.
This makes him sound slight and elusive. Certainly few English poets can be as light on their poetical feet as Herrick, who was dubbed ‘the Ariel of poets’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He refers to both music and his own verse as ‘enchantments’ as though he did indeed learn from Ariel’s blend of magic and song. But he was a far more sociable poet than the lonely Ariel. Many of his pieces – and again this is a feature of manuscript miscellanies, in which poems often answer other poems – draw energy from their relationship to other poems. Some are even best imagined as solo riffs played against a chorus of other poets, who are deliberately called to mind by allusion or parody. Ben Jonson’s collection ‘The Underwood’, posthumously printed in 1640, had gathered together Anacreontic poems and poems about growing old, petitions to the king, imitations of Horace, as well, perplexingly, as some elegies written by John Donne. This volume effectively invented Herrick’s Hesperides. For Jonson ‘the author’ is a big name and a creator of works, but also a fugitive lyric persona who can age, change and dissolve into a series of classical imitations or playful dialogues between nymphs and shepherds and kings and queens. That is the combination of incompatible qualities Herrick aspired to remix in Hesperides. The editors of this truly splendid new edition – the first of note for more than half a century, and one on which it would be extremely hard to improve – show how rapidly Herrick responded to Jonson’s poems. For ‘A Country Life: To His Brother’ Herrick drew on Jonson’s ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ from a manuscript source, since it predates the publication of that poem. ‘A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton’ echoes Jonson’s ‘Penshurst’, which had been printed only a few years before.
Herrick’s characteristic trick is to recall an earlier poem while he is singing a variation on it. When he does so he can be ostentatiously ‘cavalier’ in our loose sense of ‘defiantly free’, rather than in the historical sense of ‘a supporter of the king with long hair and a taste for fine horses and wenches’. He plays games with the notion that he is a poetical ‘son of Ben’ in ‘The Welcome to Sack’ when he declares ‘Call me the sonne of Beere, and then confine/Me to the Tap, the Tost, the Turfe.’ The joke is sealed by an allusion to Ben Jonson’s ‘Execration upon Vulcan’ of 1623, in which Jonson says of Vulcan, the god responsible for the fire which had destroyed a number of his poems in November of that year, ‘confine him to the brew-houses,/The glass-house, dye-vats and their furnaces.’ Cain and Connolly don’t note this echo, but it does help date this poem, and is a good indicator of how rambunctiously Herrick could transform his master. He implicitly compares himself to the fiery element that had wrecked some of Jonson’s prize works in a poem in which he turns the name Ben into Beer. He can also sometimes seem to strip Jonson naked, as he does in the short and crude epigram ‘Clothes do but cheat and Cousen us’:
Away with silks, away with Lawn,
Ile have no Sceans, or Curtains drawn:
Give me my Mistresse, as she is,
Drest in her nak’t simplicities:
For as as my Heart, ene so mine Eye
Is wone with flesh, not Drapery.
This is a deliberately brutal rewriting of the most popular Jonson poem in manuscript miscellanies of the period, the description of Venetia Digby in ‘The Picture of the Body’. Jonson’s poem begins by declaring that a painter has no need of representing the ‘velvets, silks, and lawn,/Embroideries, feathers, fringes, lace’ that obscure Venetia’s beautiful body. Then he coyly says that the painter had better clothe his subject in clouds or suns to convey her true radiance. Readers of 17th-century verse miscellanies would have heard the deliberate disharmony between Herrick’s poem and Jonson’s: like the good son of beer that he was, he gently takes the piss out of father Ben by singing a rollicking undertone to his Platonic music.
These musical metaphors are not fanciful. Herrick wrote beautifully about music: ‘Melt, melt my paines,/With thy soft straines’; ‘sink down into a silv’rie straine;/And make me smooth as Balme, and Oile againe.’ He also wrote beautifully for music: a significant number of his lyrics were genuinely lyrics, set to be sung by (and sometimes it seems written in collaboration with) Henry and William Lawes. These poems often have a perfectly unambiguous clarity of theme and language as though they are a single musical line designed to stand out from its setting. Herrick’s lyrical simplicity and directness of expression had an enormous influence on Edmund Waller and later English lyric poets, and is very easy to underrate. It’s analogous to the way his more readerly and allusive poems often work in consort with the poems to which they allude, by counterpoint or by playing variations around them.
But his purity of line is also his main limitation. No one who wrote so many different kinds of poem could fairly be called monotonous, but Herrick does tend to be deliberately monotonal. Saying just one thing with perfect clarity is often his aim. When he’s not doing a Ben Jonson singalong or artfully playing against Martial or Horace or Ovid, his directness can be almost impoverishing. His expressions of what he considers bare truths can be brutally direct (‘Maids’ nays are nothing’; ‘Notwithstanding Love will win/Or else force a passage in’). And when he sounds least like Jonson and most like Herrick he can press on his readers an excess of strong primary flavours. He gives you strawberries, curds, cream, breasts, thighs, all. This can sometimes have the lipid overkill of a monster cream tea:
Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them;
And if more: Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, her’s Strawberries.
This is him at his worst. But he can also take single elements and blend them with extraordinary delicacy: he loves lilies beneath crystal, flesh hidden under a veil, or the blend of colours in Julia’s ‘Cheeks like Creame Enclarited’. Herrick’s sensuous clarity is often slightly clarety, or indeed beery, and the moments when his vision becomes a little blurred at the edges, when claret and cream blend, are the ones to cherish. He says more than once that he was ‘mop-eyed’, or short-sighted, and that’s one of his few autobiographical confessions which rings true. In Herrick’s poems tiny well-wrought objects viewed close-up appear in full HD, like the ‘golden Flie one shew’d to me/Clos’d in a box of Yvorie’, or the earring made of a cherry stone carved with a beautiful woman’s face on one side and a death’s head on the other that he describes in one of his manuscript poems. His edibly close inspections of female flesh are matched elsewhere by longer distance views of women which are blurred by a gauzy haze, beauties ‘halfe-betray’d by Tiffanies’ (tiffanies are transparent muslins, or lawn) or ‘Lawnie filmes’, or which appear like ‘Lillies shrin’d in Christall’. These moments can be uncomfortably reminiscent of the visual style of Playboy in the 1970s: the Vaseline on the lens can seem genteelly obstructive of what is declared to be the real point. But that blurred vision can also be magnificent. Since Herrick was also a great neologiser (he gives us ‘lautitious’, ‘repululation’, ‘circumspangle’, ‘tardidation’, ‘discruciate’, ‘progermination’, ‘circumgyration’ and ‘superlast’), he can on occasion veil the flesh of a girl with a big throbbing Latinate word, as when he urges ‘Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me/Behold that circummortall purity’, or, most famously, in ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’:
When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave Vibration each way free;
Oh how that glittering taketh me!
It’s tempting to see this as just a poem by a short-sighted dodgy vicar. But it’s much more than that. Herrick can make a sensual blur ethereal. ‘Vibration’ could by the mid-17th century be used of musical resonance, and could also refer to interstellar influences. ‘Liquefaction’ could be used of the melting of a soul in passion. This poem doesn’t just express relish at the quivering of cloth over a shapely thigh, but gives physical excitement and blurred vision a spiritual resonance.
Herrick is portrayed in profile at the front of Hesperides as plump, moustachioed, with a fine set of curls and an even finer Roman nose. He seems to have been particularly fond of his nose, not just because Ovid, one of his masters and models, was called Naso, ‘the nose’ (Herrick says of Ovid that he would ‘think/The world had all one Nose’), but also because his nose seems to have compensated for the deficiencies of his eyes: ‘Hands, and Thighs, and legs, are all/Richly Aromaticall,’ he declares. When Julia unlaces herself, ‘The passive Aire such odour then assum’d,/As when to Jove Great Juno goes perfum’d.’ Even his kinswoman Bridget’s blush can smell ‘as Blossomes of the Almond tree’. His repeated odorous metaphors for flesh – cherries, strawberries, cream, cheese – seek to take vision inside your palate and make you taste what you can’t quite see.
Cain and Connolly’s edition is remarkable. Its biographical introduction gives a sage and complex view of Herrick’s relation to the crises of the 1640s in church and state. The editors also provide invaluable transcriptions of the relatively few poems Herrick circulated in manuscript, and show how he revised those poems for publication. This is the result of heroic labour in the archives, and particularly in the tangled wasteland that is the manuscript miscellanies of the early 17th century. They identify his (royalist) printer for the first time. Their transcriptions of musical settings of his poems by contemporary composers mean that, while Herrick sings-along-a Ben Jonson, readers of this edition who have a lute to hand can sing-along-a Lawes. The notes to the poems are often in themselves an education. When Herrick mentions a festival or a historical event the editors usually don’t just explain what it was but quote a historical source in order to bring it to life. Readers who work their way through both volumes will come away understanding what a 17th-century harvest home was like, and how exactly tithes worked, as well as grasping the social and political nuances of Herrick’s addresses to named individuals. They will also learn an immense amount about the manuscript circulation of poetry in this period. The Cain and Connolly edition is bound to become the best guide to Herrick’s verse. It deserves also to be regarded as one of the best sources of information about earlier 17th-century poetry.
What even such a fine edition can’t quite eradicate, however, are the problems of taste that Herrick repeatedly raises. The religious poems gathered in the Noble Numbers volume appended to Hesperides are just not very good. This is largely Ben Jonson’s fault. When Jonson did God he tended to drop into a short-lined plain style that never quite rises to the impersonality of a fine hymn but also seems to resist any complexity of religious feeling. Herrick followed him, and it was a bad idea. Herrick also wrote too many religious epigrams which are not quite sharp enough to provoke thought and not quite soulful enough to make you believe he believes what he’s saying (‘Hell is the place where whipping-cheer abounds,/But no one Jailor there to wash the wounds’ – yeah, right). These on the whole are late poems (many of them slavishly adapt thoughts and phrases from John Gregory’s Notes and Observations upon Some Passages of Scripture, which wasn’t published until 1646) and may have been written in haste to give the Noble Numbers a similar bulk to Hesperides. But even the earlier religious verse doesn’t represent spiritual conflict in ways that would encourage aficionados of Herbert or Donne to move on to Herrick. He never quite rises to the great purple inflated Counter-Reformation bad taste of Crashaw either – though he almost gets there in a poem on the Feast of the Circumcision in which he asks his Saviour ‘That little prettie bleeding part/Of foreskin send to me.’
As an erotic poet Herrick does not have the violence or crudity people are willing to tolerate and even admire in Rochester, and he does not have the watch-me-while-I-run-rings-around-this-chick knowingness of Donne. Herrick was often criticised by Victorian readers as tasteless, but most readers today will find him too tasteful, in several senses. Bursting joy’s grape against your palate fine is an act of voluntary sensuous delight; reading too much Herrick can feel like having strawberries pushed so close to your nose that they start dissolving into a sticky mass. His sexuality, on the other hand, seems too carefully strapped down, and that makes it more discomforting than exciting. You feel that if he let himself go he might do something interestingly awful, but that he retains such control over his appetites and the revelation of them that he seems often to be sharing with his readers secrets not quite dirty enough to be fascinating.
But that’s to judge him by criteria that are completely alien to his work. When he calls his poems ‘my Enchantments’, to be read ‘When Laurell spirts i’ the fire’, he means it. He was a maker of beautiful things that evoke the pleasure that comes from transience. And very few English poets have done that better than Herrick. To enjoy Hesperides you have to decide to be enchanted and allow yourself to be seduced, as in this delicious poem ‘To Musick, to becalme a sweet-sick-youth’:
Charms, that call down the moon from out her sphere,
On this sick youth work your enchantments here:
Bind up his senses with your numbers, so,
As to entrance his paine, or cure his woe.
Fall gently, gently, and a while him keep
Lost in the civill Wildernesse of sleep:
That done, then let him, dispossest of paine,
Like to a slumbring Bride, awake againe.
What makes this poem more than simply beautiful is the unsettling suggestion at its end that losing the pain of sickness in the ‘Wildernesse of sleep’ is akin to sleeping off the pain a bride feels when she loses her virginity. There is a price to ravishment, and that disturbing ripple in the apparently limpid surface of this lyric makes it the very quintessence of Herrick.