Robert Herrick by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Story type: Essay
A LITTLE over three hundred years ago England had given to her a poet of the very rarest lyrical quality, but she did not discover the fact for more than a hundred and fifty years afterward. The poet himself was aware of the fact at once, and stated it, perhaps not too modestly, in countless quatrains and couplets, which were not read, or, if read, were not much regarded at the moment. It has always been an incredulous world in this matter. So many poets have announced their arrival, and not arrived!
Robert Herrick was descended in a direct line from an ancient family in Lincolnshire, the Eyricks, a mentionable representative of which was John Eyrick of Leicester, the poet’s grandfather, admitted freeman in 1535, and afterward twice made mayor of the town. John Eyrick or Heyricke–he spelled his name recklessly–had five sons, the second of which sought a career in London, where he became a goldsmith, and in December, 1582, married Julian Stone, spinster, of Bedfordshire, a sister to Anne, Lady Soame, the wife of Sir Stephen Soame. One of the many children of this marriage was Robert Herrick.
It is the common misfortune of the poet’s biographers, though it was the poet’s own great good fortune, that the personal interviewer was an unknown quantity at the period when Herrick played his part on the stage of life. Of that performance, in its intimate aspects, we have only the slightest record.
Robert Herrick was born in Wood street, Cheapside, London, in 1591, and baptized at St. Vedast’s, Foster Lane, on August 24 of that year. He had several brothers and sisters, with whom we shall not concern ourselves. It would be idle to add the little we know about these persons to the little we know about Herrick himself. He is a sufficient problem without dragging in the rest of the family.
When the future lyrist was fifteen months old his father, Nicholas Herrick, made his will, and immediately fell out of an upper window. Whether or not this fall was an intended sequence to the will, the high almoner, Dr. Fletcher, Bishop of Bristol, promptly put in his claim to the estate, “all goods and chattels of suicides” becoming his by law. The circumstances were suspicious, though not conclusive, and the good bishop, after long litigation, consented to refer the case to arbitrators, who awarded him two hundred and twenty pounds, thus leaving the question at issue–whether or not Herrick’s death had been his own premeditated act–still wrapped in its original mystery. This singular law, which had the possible effect of inducing high almoners to encourage suicide among well-to-do persons of the lower and middle classes, was afterward rescinded.
Nicholas Herrick did not leave his household destitute, for his estate amounted to five thousand pounds, that is to say, twenty-five thousand pounds in to-day’s money; but there were many mouths to feed. The poet’s two uncles, Robert Herrick and William Herrick of Beaumanor, the latter subsequently knighted (1) for his usefulness as jeweller and money-lender to James I., were appointed guardians to the children.
(1) Dr. Grosart, in his interesting and valuable Memorial Introduction to Herrick’s poems, quotes this curious item from Win-wood’s Manorials of Affairs of State: “On Easter Tuesday , one Mr. William Herrick, a goldsmith in Cheapside, was Knighted for making a Hole in the great Diamond the King cloth wear. The party little expected the honour, but he did his work so well as won the King to an extraordinary liking of it.”
Young Robert appears to have attended school in Westminster until his fifteenth year, when he was apprenticed to Sir William, who had learned the gentle art of goldsmith from his nephew’s father. Though Robert’s indentures bound him for ten years, Sir William is supposed to have offered no remonstrance when he was asked, long before that term expired, to cancel the engagement and allow Robert to enter Cambridge, which he did as fellow-commoner at St. John’s College. At the end of two years he transferred himself to Trinity Hall, with a view to economy and the pursuit of the law–the two frequently go together. He received his degree of B. A. in 1617, and his M. A. in 1620, having relinquished the law for the arts.
During this time he was assumed to be in receipt of a quarterly allowance of ten pounds–a not illiberal provision, the pound being then five times its present value; but as the payments were eccentric, the master of arts was in recurrent distress. If this money came from his own share of his father’s estate, as seems likely, Herrick had cause for complaint; if otherwise, the pith is taken out of his grievance.
The Iliad of his financial woes at this juncture is told in a few chance-preserved letters written to his “most careful uncle,” as he calls that evidently thrifty person. In one of these monotonous and dreary epistles, which are signed “R. Hearick,” the writer says: “The essence of my writing is (as heretofore) to entreat you to paye for my use to Mr. Arthour Johnson, bookseller, in Paule’s Churchyarde, the ordinarie sume of tenn pounds, and that with as much sceleritie as you maye.” He also indulges in the natural wish that his college bills “had leaden wings and tortice feet.” This was in 1617. The young man’s patrimony, whatever it may have been, had dwindled, and he confesses to “many a throe and pinches of the purse.” For the moment, at least, his prospects were not flattering.
Robert Herrick’s means of livelihood, when in 1620 he quitted the university and went up to London, are conjectural. It is clear that he was not without some resources, since he did not starve to death on his wits before he discovered a patron in the Earl of Pembroke. In the court circle Herrick also unearthed humbler, but perhaps not less useful, allies in the persons of Edward Norgate, clerk of the signet, and Master John Crofts, cup-bearer to the king. Through the two New Year anthems, honored by the music of Henry Lawes, his Majesty’s organist at Westminster, it is more than possible that Herrick was brought to the personal notice of Charles and Henrietta Maria. All this was a promise of success, but not success itself. It has been thought probable that Herrick may have secured some minor office in the chapel at Whitehall. That would accord with his subsequent appointment (September, 1627,) as chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham’s unfortunate expedition of the Isle of Rhe.
Precisely when Herrick was invested with holy orders is not ascertainable. If one may draw an inference from his poems, the life he led meanwhile was not such as his “most careful uncle” would have warmly approved. The literary clubs and coffee-houses of the day were open to a free-lance like young Herrick, some of whose blithe measures, passing in manuscript from hand to hand, had brought him faintly to light as a poet. The Dog and the Triple Tun were not places devoted to worship, unless it were to the worship of “rare Ben Jonson,” at whose feet Herrick now sat, with the other blossoming young poets of the season. He was a faithful disciple to the end, and addressed many loving lyrics to the master, of which not the least graceful is His Prayer to Ben Jonson:
When I a verse shall make,
Know I have praid thee
For old religion’s sake,
Saint Ben, to aide me.
Make the way smooth for me,
When I, thy Herrick,
Honouring thee, on my knee
Offer my lyric.
Candles I’ll give to thee,
And a new altar;
And thou, Saint Ben, shalt be
Writ in my Psalter.
On September 30, 1629, Charles I., at the recommending of the Earl of Exeter, presented Herrick with the vicarage of Dean Prior, near Totnes, in Devonshire. Here he was destined to pass the next nineteen years of his life among surroundings not congenial. For Herrick to be a mile away from London stone was for Herrick to be in exile. Even with railway and telegraphic interruptions from the outside world, the dullness of a provincial English town of today is something formidable. The dullness of a sequestered English hamlet in the early part of the seventeenth century must have been appalling. One is dimly conscious of a belated throb of sympathy for Robert Herrick. Yet, however discontented or unhappy he may have been at first in that lonely vicarage, the world may congratulate itself on the circumstances that stranded him there, far from the distractions of the town, and with no other solace than his Muse, for there it was he wrote the greater number of the poems which were to make his fame. It is to this accidental banishment to Devon that we owe the cluster of exquisite pieces descriptive of obsolete rural manners and customs–the Christmas masks, the Twelfth-night mummeries, the morris-dances, and the May-day festivals.
The November following Herrick’s appointment to the benefice was marked by the death of his mother, who left him no heavier legacy than “a ringe of twenty shillings.” Perhaps this was an understood arrangement between them; but it is to be observed that, though Herrick was a spendthrift in epitaphs, he wasted no funeral lines on Julian Herrick. In the matter of verse he dealt generously with his family down to the latest nephew. One of his most charming and touching poems is entitled To His Dying Brother, Master William Herrick, a posthumous son. There appear to have been two brothers named William. The younger, who died early, is supposed to be referred to here.
The story of Herrick’s existence at Dean Prior is as vague and bare of detail as the rest of the narrative. His parochial duties must have been irksome to him, and it is to be imagined that he wore his cassock lightly. As a preparation for ecclesiastical life he forswore sack and poetry; but presently he was with the Muse again, and his farewell to sack was in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Herrick had probably accepted the vicarship as he would have accepted a lieutenancy in a troop of horse–with an eye to present emolument and future promotion. The promotion never came, and the emolument was nearly as scant as that of Goldsmith’s parson, who considered himself “passing rich with forty pounds a year”–a height of optimism beyond the reach of Herrick, with his expensive town wants and habits. But fifty pounds–the salary of his benefice–and possible perquisites in the way of marriage and burial fees would enable him to live for the time being. It was better than a possible nothing a year in London.
Herrick’s religious convictions were assuredly not deeper than those of the average layman. Various writers have taken a different view of the subject; but it is inconceivable that a clergyman with a fitting sense of his function could have written certain of the poems which Herrick afterward gave to the world–those astonishing epigrams upon his rustic enemies, and those habitual bridal compliments which, among his personal friends, must have added a terror to matrimony. Had he written only in that vein, the posterity which he so often invoked with pathetic confidence would not have greatly troubled itself about him.
It cannot positively be asserted that all the verses in question relate to the period of his incumbency, for none of his verse is dated, with the exception of the Dialogue betwixt Horace and Lydia. The date of some of the compositions may be arrived at by induction. The religious pieces grouped under the title of Noble Numbers distinctly associate themselves with Dean Prior, and have little other interest. Very few of them are “born of the royal blood.” They lack the inspiration and magic of his secular poetry, and are frequently so fantastical and grotesque as to stir a suspicion touching the absolute soundness of Herrick’s mind at all times. The lines in which the Supreme Being is assured that he may read Herrick’s poems without taking any tincture from their sinfulness might have been written in a retreat for the unbalanced. “For unconscious impiety,” remarks Mr. Edmund Gosse, (1) “this rivals the famous passage in which Robert Montgomery exhorted God to ‘pause and think.’” Elsewhere, in an apostrophe to “Heaven,” Herrick says:
Let mercy be
So kind to set me free,
And I will straight
Come in, or force the gate.
In any event, the poet did not purpose to be left out!
(1) In Seventeenth-Century Studies. and the general
absence of arrangement in the “Hesperides,” Dr. Grosart
advances the theory that the printers exercised arbitrary
authority on these points. Dr. Grosart assumes that Herrick
kept the epigrams and personal tributes in manuscript books
separate from the rest of the work, which would have made a
too slender volume by itself, and on the plea of this
slender-ness was induced to trust the two collections to the
publisher, “whereupon he or some un-skilled subordinate
proceeded to intermix these additions with the others. That
the poet him-self had nothing to do with the arrangement or
disarrangement lies on the surface.” This is an amiable
supposition, but merely a supposition.
Relative to the inclusion of unworthy pieces, Herrick personally placed the “copy” in the hands of John Williams and Francis Eglesfield, and if he were over-persuaded to allow them to print unfit verses, and to observe no method whatever in the contents of the book, the discredit is none the less his. It is charitable to believe that Herrick’s coarseness was not the coarseness of the man, but of the time, and that he followed the fashion malgre lui. With regard to the fairy poems, they certainly should have been given in sequence; but if there are careless printers, there are also authors who are careless in the arrangement of their manuscript, a kind of task, moreover, in which Herrick was wholly unpractised, and might easily have made mistakes. The “Hesperides” was his sole publication.
Herrick was now thirty-eight years of age. Of his personal appearance at this time we have no description. The portrait of him prefixed to the original edition of his works belongs to a much later moment. Whether or not the bovine features in Marshall’s engraving are a libel on the poet, it is to be regretted that oblivion has not laid its erasing finger on that singularly unpleasant counterfeit presentment. It is interesting to note that this same Marshall engraved the head of Milton for the first collection of his miscellaneous poems–the precious 1645 volume containing Il Penseroso, Lycidas, Comus, etc. The plate gave great offense to the serious-minded young Milton, not only because it represented him as an elderly person, but because of certain minute figures of peasant lads and lassies who are very indistinctly seen dancing frivolously under the trees in the background. Herrick had more reason to protest. The aggressive face bestowed upon him by the artist lends a tone of veracity to the tradition that the vicar occasionally hurled the manuscript of his sermon at the heads of his drowsy parishioners, accompanying the missive with pregnant remarks. He has the aspect of one meditating assault and battery.
To offset the picture there is much indirect testimony to the amiability of the man, aside from the evidence furnished by his own writings. He exhibits a fine trait in the poem on the Bishop of Lincoln’s imprisonment–a poem full of deference and tenderness for a person who had evidently injured the writer, probably by opposing him in some affair of church preferment. Anthony Wood says that Herrick “became much beloved by the gentry in these parts for his florid and witty (wise) discourses.” It appears that he was fond of animals, and had a pet spaniel called Tracy, which did not get away without a couplet attached to him:
Now thou art dead, no eye shall ever see
For shape and service spaniell like to thee.
Among the exile’s chance acquaintances was a sparrow, whose elegy he also sings, comparing the bird to Lesbia’s sparrow, much to the latter’s disadvantage. All of Herrick’s geese were swans. On the authority of Dorothy King, the daughter of a woman who served Herrick’s successor at Dean Prior in 1674, we are told that the poet kept a pig, which he had taught to drink out of a tankard–a kind of instruction he was admirably qualified to impart. Dorothy was in her ninety-ninth year when she communicated this fact to Mr. Barron Field, the author of the paper on Herrick published in the “Quarterly Review” for August, 1810, and in the Boston edition (1) of the “Hesperides” attributed to Southey.
(1) The Biographical Notice prefacing this volume of The British Poets is a remarkable production, grammatically and chronologi-cally. On page 7 the writer speaks of Herrick as living “in habits of intimacy” with Ben Jonson in 1648. If that was the case, Her-rick must have taken up his quarters in Westminster Abbey, for Jonson had been dead eleven years.
What else do we know of the vicar? A very favorite theme with Herrick was Herrick. Scattered through his book are no fewer than twenty-five pieces entitled On Himself, not to mention numberless autobiographical hints under other captions. They are merely hints, throwing casual side-lights on his likes and dislikes, and illuminating his vanity. A whimsical personage without any very definite outlines might be evolved from these fragments. I picture him as a sort of Samuel Pepys, with perhaps less quaintness, and the poetical temperament added. Like the prince of gossips, too, he somehow gets at your affections. In one place Herrick laments the threatened failure of his eyesight (quite in what would have been Pepys’s manner had Pepys written verse), and in another place he tells us of the loss of a finger. The quatrain treating of this latter catastrophe is as fantastic as some of Dr. Donne’s concetti:
One of the five straight branches of my hand
Is lopt already, and the rest but stand
Expecting when to fall, which soon will be:
First dies the leafe, the bough next, next the tree.
With all his great show of candor Herrick really reveals as little of himself as ever poet did. One thing, however, is manifest–he understood and loved music. None but a lover could have said:
The mellow touch of musick most doth wound
The soule when it doth rather sigh than sound.
Or this to Julia:
So smooth, so sweet, so silvery is thy voice,
As could they hear, the damn’d would make no noise,
But listen to thee walking in thy chamber
Melting melodious words to lutes of amber.
. . . Then let me lye
Entranc’d, and lost confusedly;
And by thy musick stricken mute,
Die, and be turn’d into a lute.
Herrick never married. His modest Devonshire establishment was managed by a maidservant named Prudence Baldwin. “Fate likes fine names,” says Lowell. That of Herrick’s maid-of-all-work was certainly a happy meeting of gentle vowels and consonants, and has had the good fortune to be embalmed in the amber of what may be called a joyous little threnody:
In this little urne is laid
Prewdence Baldwin, once my maid;
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
Herrick addressed a number of poems to her before her death, which seems to have deeply touched him in his loneliness. We shall not allow a pleasing illusion to be disturbed by the flippancy of an old writer who says that “Prue was but indifferently qualified to be a tenth muse.” She was a faithful handmaid, and had the merit of causing Herrick in this octave to strike a note of sincerity not usual with him:
These summer birds did with thy master stay
The times of warmth, but then they flew away,
Leaving their poet, being now grown old,
Expos’d to all the coming winter’s cold.
But thou, kind Prew, didst with my fates abide
As well the winter’s as the summer’s tide:
For which thy love, live with thy master here
Not two, but all the seasons of the year.
Thus much have I done for thy memory, Mistress Prew!
In spite of Herrick’s disparagement of Deanbourn, which he calls “a rude river,” and his characterization of Devon folk as “a people currish, churlish as the seas,” the fullest and pleasantest days of his life were probably spent at Dean Prior. He was not unmindful meanwhile of the gathering political storm that was to shake England to its foundations. How anxiously, in his solitude, he watched the course of events, is attested by many of his poems. This solitude was not without its compensation. “I confess,” he says,
I ne’er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the presse
Than where I loath’d so much.
A man is never wholly unhappy when he is writing verses. Herrick was firmly convinced that each new lyric was a stone added to the pillar of his fame, and perhaps his sense of relief was tinged with indefinable regret when he found himself suddenly deprived of his benefice. The integrity of some of his royalistic poems is doubtful; but he was not given the benefit of the doubt by the Long Parliament, which ejected the panegyrist of young Prince Charles from the vicarage of Dean Prior, and installed in his place the venerable John Syms, a gentleman with pronounced Cromwellian views.
Herrick metaphorically snapped his fingers at the Puritans, discarded his clerical habiliments, and hastened to London to pick up such as were left of the gay-colored threads of his old experience there. Once more he would drink sack at the Triple Tun, once more he would breathe the air breathed by such poets and wits as Cotton, Denham, Shirley, Selden, and the rest. “Yes, by Saint Anne! and ginger shall be hot I’ the mouth too.” In the gladness of getting back “from the dull confines of the drooping west,” he writes a glowing apostrophe to London–that “stony stepmother to poets.” He claims to be a free-born Roman, and is proud to find himself a citizen again. According to his earlier biographers, Herrick had much ado not to starve in that same longed-for London, and fell into great misery; but Dr. Grosart disputes this, arguing, with justness, that Herrick’s family, which was wealthy and influential, would not have allowed him to come to abject want. With his royalistic tendencies he may not have breathed quite freely in the atmosphere of the Commonwealth, and no doubt many tribulations fell to his lot, but among them was not poverty.
The poet was now engaged in preparing his works for the press, and a few weeks following his return to London they were issued in a single volume with the title “Hesperides; or, The Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq.”
The time was not ready for him. A new era had dawned–the era of the commonplace. The interval was come when Shakespeare himself was to lie in a kind of twilight. Herrick was in spirit an Elizabethan, and had strayed by chance into an artificial and prosaic age–a sylvan singing creature alighting on an alien planet. “He was too natural,” says Mr. Palgrave in his Chrysomela, “too purely poetical; he had not the learned polish, the political allusion, the tone of the city, the didactic turn, which were then and onward demanded from poetry.” Yet it is strange that a public which had a relish for Edmund Waller should neglect a poet who was fifty times finer than Waller in his own specialty. What poet then, or in the half-century that followed the Restoration, could have written Corinna’s Going a-Maying, or approached in kind the ineffable grace and perfection to be found in a score of Herrick’s lyrics?
The “Hesperides” was received with chilling indifference. None of Herrick’s great contemporaries has left a consecrating word concerning it. The book was not reprinted during the author’s lifetime, and for more than a century after his death Herrick was virtually unread. In 1796 the “Gentleman’s Magazine” copied a few of the poems, and two years later Dr. Nathan Drake published in his “Literary Hours” three critical papers on the poet, with specimens of his writings. Dr. Johnson omitted him from the “Lives of the Poets,” though space was found for half a score of poetasters whose names are to be found nowhere else. In 1810 Dr. Nott, a physician of Bristol, issued a small volume of selections. It was not until 1823 that Herrick was reprinted in full. It remained for the taste of our own day to multiply editions of him.
In order to set the seal to Herrick’s fame, it is now only needful that some wiseacre should attribute the authorship of the poems to some man who could not possibly have written a line of them. The opportunity presents attractions that ought to be irresistible. Excepting a handful of Herrick’s college letters there is no scrap of his manuscript extant; the men who drank and jested with the poet at the Dog or the Triple Tun make no reference to him; (1) and in the wide parenthesis formed by his birth and death we find as little tangible incident as is discoverable in the briefer span of Shakespeare’s fifty-two years. Here is material for profundity and ciphers!
(1) With the single exception of the writer of some
verses in the Musarum Deliciae (1656) who mentions
That old sack
Young Herrick took to entertain
The Muses in a sprightly vein.
Herrick’s second sojourn in London covered the period between 1648 and 1662, curing which interim he fades from sight, excepting for the instant when he is publishing his book. If he engaged in further literary work there are no evidences of it beyond one contribution to the “Lacrymae Musarum” in 1649.
He seems to have had lodgings, for a while at least, in St. Anne’s, Westminster. With the court in exile and the grim Roundheads seated in the seats of the mighty, it was no longer the merry London of his early manhood. Time and war had thinned the ranks of friends; in the old haunts the old familiar faces were wanting. Ben Jonson was dead, Waller banished, and many another comrade “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” As Herrick walked through crowded Cheapside or along the dingy river-bank in those years, his thought must have turned more than once to the little vicarage in Devonshire, and lingered tenderly.
On the accession of Charles II. a favorable change of wind wafted Herrick back to his former moorings at Dean Prior, the obnoxious Syms having been turned adrift. This occurred on August 24, 1662, the seventy-first anniversary of the poet’s baptism. Of Herrick’s movements after that, tradition does not furnish even the shadow of an outline. The only notable event concerning him is recorded twelve years later in the parish register: “Robert Herrick, vicker, was buried ye 15th day October, 1674.” He was eighty-three years old. The location of his grave is unknown. In 1857 a monument to his memory was erected in Dean Church. And this is all.
THE details that have come down to us touching Herrick’s private life are as meagre as if he had been a Marlowe or a Shakespeare. But were they as ample as could be desired they would still be unimportant compared with the single fact that in 1648 he gave to the world his “Hesperides.” The environments of the man were accidental and transitory. The significant part of him we have, and that is enduring so long as wit, fancy, and melodious numbers hold a charm for mankind.
A fine thing incomparably said instantly becomes familiar, and has henceforth a sort of dateless excellence. Though it may have been said three hundred years ago, it is as modern as yesterday; though it may have been said yesterday, it has the trick of seeming to have been always in our keeping. This quality of remoteness and nearness belongs, in a striking degree, to Herrick’s poems. They are as novel to-day as they were on the lips of a choice few of his contemporaries, who, in reading them in their freshness, must surely have been aware here and there of the ageless grace of old idyllic poets dead and gone.
Herrick was the bearer of no heavy message to the world, and such message as he had he was apparently in no hurry to deliver. On this point he somewhere says:
Let others to the printing presse run fast;
Since after death comes glory, I ‘ll not haste.
He had need of his patience, for he was long detained on the road by many of those obstacles that waylay poets on their journeys to the printer.
Herrick was nearly sixty years old when he published the “Hesperides.” It was, I repeat, no heavy message, and the bearer was left an unconscionable time to cool his heels in the antechamber. Though his pieces had been set to music by such composers as Lawes, Ramsay, and Laniers, and his court poems had naturally won favor with the Cavalier party, Herrick cut but a small figure at the side of several of his rhyming contemporaries who are now forgotten. It sometimes happens that the light love-song, reaching few or no ears at its first singing, outlasts the seemingly more prosperous ode which, dealing with some passing phase of thought, social or political, gains the instant applause of the multitude. In most cases the timely ode is somehow apt to fade with the circumstance that inspired it, and becomes the yesterday’s editorial of literature. Oblivion likes especially to get hold of occasional poems. That makes it hard for feeble poets laureate.
Mr. Henry James once characterized Alphonse Daudet as “a great little novelist.” Robert Herrick is a great little poet. The brevity of his poems, for he wrote nothing de longue haleine, would place him among the minor singers; his workmanship places him among the masters. The Herricks were not a family of goldsmiths and lapidaries for nothing. The accurate touch of the artificer in jewels and costly metals was one of the gifts transmitted to Robert Herrick. Much of his work is as exquisite and precise as the chasing on a dagger-hilt by Cellini; the line has nearly always that vine-like fluency which seems impromptu, and is never the result of anything but austere labor. The critic who, borrowing Milton’s words, described these carefully wrought poems as “wood-notes wild” showed a singular lapse of penetration. They are full of subtle simplicity. Here we come across a stanza as severely cut as an antique cameo–the stanza, for instance, in which the poet speaks of his lady-love’s “winter face”–and there a couplet that breaks into unfading daffodils and violets. The art, though invisible, is always there. His amatory songs and catches are such poetry as Orlando would have liked to hang on the boughs in the forest of Arden. None of the work is hastily done, not even that portion of it we could wish had not been done at all. Be the motive grave or gay, it is given that faultlessness of form which distinguishes everything in literature that has survived its own period. There is no such thing as “form” alone; it is only the close-grained material that takes the highest finish. The structure of Herrick’s verse, like that of Blake, is simple to the verge of innocence. Such rhythmic intricacies as those of Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne he never dreamed of. But his manner has this perfection: it fits his matter as the cup of the acorn fits its meat.
Of passion, in the deeper sense, Herrick has little or none. Here are no “tears from the depth of some divine despair,” no probings into the tragic heart of man, no insight that goes much farther than the pathos of a cowslip on a maiden’s grave. The tendrils of his verse reach up to the light, and love the warmer side of the garden wall. But the reader who does not detect the seriousness under the lightness misreads Herrick. Nearly all true poets have been wholesome and joyous singers. A pessimistic poet, like the poisonous ivy, is one of nature’s sarcasms. In his own bright pastoral way Herrick must always remain unexcelled. His limitations are certainly narrow, but they leave him in the sunshine. Neither in his thought nor in his utterance is there any complexity; both are as pellucid as a woodland pond, content to duplicate the osiers and ferns, and, by chance, the face of a girl straying near its crystal. His is no troubled stream in which large trout are caught. He must be accepted on his own terms.
The greatest poets have, with rare exceptions, been the most indebted to their predecessors or to their contemporaries. It has wittily been remarked that only mediocrity is ever wholly original. Impressionability is one of the conditions of the creative faculty: the sensitive mind is the only mind that invents. What the poet reads, sees, and feels, goes into his blood, and becomes an ingredient of his originality. The color of his thought instinctively blends itself with the color of its affinities. A writer’s style, if it have distinction, is the outcome of a hundred styles.
Though a generous borrower of the ancients, Herrick appears to have been exceptionally free from the influence of contemporary minds. Here and there in his work are traces of his beloved Ben Jonson, or fleeting impressions of Fletcher, and in one instance a direct infringement on Suckling; but the sum of Herrick’s obligations of this sort is inconsiderable.
This indifference to other writers of his time, this insularity, was doubtless his loss. The more exalted imagination of Vaughan or Marvell or Herbert might have taught him a deeper note than he sounded in his purely devotional poems. Milton, of course, moved in a sphere apart. Shakespeare, whose personality still haunted the clubs and taverns which Herrick frequented on his first going up to London, failed to lay any appreciable spell upon him. That great name, moreover, is a jewel which finds no setting in Herrick’s rhyme. His general reticence relative to brother poets is extremely curious when we reflect on his penchant for addressing four-line epics to this or that individual. They were, in the main, obscure individuals, whose identity is scarcely worth establishing. His London life, at two different periods, brought him into contact with many of the celebrities of the day; but his verse has helped to confer immortality on very few of them. That his verse had the secret of conferring immortality was one of his unshaken convictions. Shakespeare had not a finer confidence when he wrote,
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
than has Herrick whenever he speaks of his own poetry, and he is not by any means backward in speaking of it. It was the breath of his nostrils. Without his Muse those nineteen years in that dull, secluded Devonshire village would have been unendurable.
His poetry has the value and the defect of that seclusion. In spite, however, of his contracted horizon there is great variety in Herrick’s themes. Their scope cannot be stated so happily as he has stated it:
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.
Never was there so pretty a table of contents! When you open his book the breath of the English rural year fans your cheek; the pages seem to exhale wildwood and meadow smells, as if sprigs of tansy and lavender had been shut up in the volume and forgotten. One has a sense of hawthorn hedges and wide-spreading oaks, of open lead-set lattices half hidden with honeysuckle; and distant voices of the haymakers, returning home in the rosy afterglow, fall dreamily on one’s ear, as sounds should fall when fancy listens. There is no English poet so thoroughly English as Herrick. He painted the country life of his own time as no other has painted it at any time.
It is to be remarked that the majority of English poets regarded as national have sought their chief inspiration in almost every land and period excepting their own. Shakespeare went to Italy, Denmark, Greece, Egypt, and to many a hitherto unfooted region of the imagination, for plot and character. It was not Whitehall Garden, but the Garden of Eden and the celestial spaces, that lured Milton. It is the Ode on a Grecian Urn, The Eve of St. Agnes, and the noble fragment of Hyperion that have given Keats his spacious niche in the gallery of England’s poets. Shelley’s two masterpieces, Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci, belong respectively to Greece and Italy. Browning’s The Ring and the Book is Italian; Tennyson wandered to the land of myth for the Idylls of the King, and Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum–a narrative poem second in dignity to none produced in the nineteenth century–is a Persian story. But Herrick’s “golden apples” sprang from the soil in his own day, and reddened in the mist and sunshine of his native island.
Even the fairy poems, which must be classed by themselves, are not wanting in local flavor. Herrick’s fairy world is an immeasurable distance from that of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Puck and Titania are of finer breath than Herrick’s little folk, who may be said to have Devonshire manners and to live in a miniature England of their own. Like the magician who summons them from nowhere, they are fond of color and perfume and substantial feasts, and indulge in heavy draughts–from the cups of morning-glories. In the tiny sphere they inhabit everything is marvelously adapted to their requirement; nothing is out of proportion or out of perspective. The elves are a strictly religious people in their winsome way, “part pagan, part papistical;” they have their pardons and indulgences, their psalters and chapels, and
An apple’s-core is hung up dried,
With rattling kernels, which is rung
To call to Morn and Even-song;
and very conveniently,
Hard by, I’ th’ shell of half a nut,
The Holy-water there is put.
It is all delightfully naive and fanciful, this elfin-world, where the impossible does not strike one as incongruous, and the England of 1648 seems never very far away.
It is only among the apparently unpremeditated lyrical flights of the Elizabethan dramatists that one meets with anything like the lilt and liquid flow of Herrick’s songs. While in no degree Shakespearian echoes, there are epithalamia and dirges of his that might properly have fallen from the lips of Posthumus in “Cymbeline.” This delicate epicede would have fitted Imogen:
Here a solemne fast we keepe
While all beauty lyes asleepe;
Husht be all things; no noyse here
But the toning of a teare,
Or a sigh of such as bring
Cowslips for her covering.
Many of the pieces are purely dramatic in essence; the Mad Maid’s Song, for example. The lyrist may speak in character, like the dramatist. A poet’s lyrics may be, as most of Browning’s are, just so many dramatis personae. “Enter a Song singing” is the stage-direction in a seventeenth-century play whose name escapes me. The sentiment dramatized in a lyric is not necessarily a personal expression. In one of his couplets Herrick neatly denies that his more mercurial utterances are intended presentations of himself:
To his Book’s end this last line he’d have placed–
Jocund his Muse was, but his Life was chaste.
In point of fact he was a whole group of imaginary lovers in one. Silvia, Anthea, Electra, Perilla, Perenna, and the rest of those lively ladies ending in a, were doubtless, for the most part, but airy phantoms dancing–as they should not have danced–through the brain of a sentimental old bachelor who happened to be a vicar of the Church of England. Even with his overplus of heart it would have been quite impossible for him to have had enough to go round had there been so numerous actual demands upon it.
Thus much may be conceded to Herrick’s verse: at its best it has wings that carry it nearly as close to heaven’s gate as any of Shakespeare’s lark-like interludes. The brevity of the poems and their uniform smoothness sometimes produce the effect of monotony. The crowded richness of the line advises a desultory reading. But one must go back to them again and again. They bewitch the memory, having once caught it, and insist on saying themselves over and over. Among the poets of England the author of the “Hesperides” remains, and is likely to remain, unique. As Shakespeare stands alone in his vast domain, so Herrick stands alone in his scanty plot of ground.
“Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content.”