1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Herrick

Robert Aris Willmott, in Lives of Sacred Poets (1834) 192-95.



ROBERT HERRICK was born in London, towards the close of 1591, and about the year 1615 he was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge, which he left, after a residence of three years, for Trinity Hall, with the intention of preparing himself for the law, and at the same time reducing his expenses, which were borne by his uncle, Sir William Herrick, who was goldsmith to James the First. Having relinquished the study of the law and applied himself to Divinity, on the elevation of Dr. Barnaby Potter to the See of Carlisle, he obtained the living of Dean Prior in Devonshire, through the interest of the Earl of Exeter. Here, according to Wood, "he exercised his Muse as well in poetry as other learning, and became much beloved by the gentry in those parts for his florid and witty discourse." But this statement is contradicted by Herrick himself, in the address to "Dean-Bourn, a rude river in Devonshire," in which he describes the people to be "churlish as the seas," and almost as rude "as rudest savages." In 1647 or 45, he was ejected from his preferment by the Parliament, and be declared that he was "ravisht in spirit to be recalled from a long and irksome banishment" to the "blest place of his nativity." Having assumed the habit of a layman, he resided in St. Anne's, Westminster, where he was principally supported by the Royalists. At the Restoration he recovered his living. The period of his death has not been ascertained.

Herrick is usually admired as the gay writer of a beautiful Anacreontic Song, and one or two poems of a more plaintive character. The Noble Numbers, contain some touching strains of religious devotion. In an early number of the Quarterly Review, there was an account of a visit to Dean Prior, and of the writer's endeavours to discover some memorials of the poet. His researches were unsuccessful, but he met with an old woman in the parish who repeated with great exactness and propriety five of the Noble Numbers, which she called her prayers, and was accustomed to recite to herself at night when unable to sleep. Among them was the following exquisite "Litany to the Holy Spirit:"—

In the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress,
And when I my sins confess,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When I lie within my bed,
Sick at heart, and sick in head,
And with doubts discomforted,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the house doth sigh and weep,
And the world is drown'd in sleep,
Yet mine eyes the watch do keep,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the passing bell doth toll,
And the Furies in a shoal,
Come to fright a parting soul,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the tapers now burn blue,
And the comforters are few,
And that number more than true;
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the priest his last hath pray'd,
And I nod to what is said,
Because my speech is now decay'd,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the Tempter me pursu'th,
With the sins of all my youth,
And half damns me with untruth,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me,

When the flames and hellish cries,
Fright mine ears, and fright mine eyes,
And all terrors me surprise,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

When the judgment is reveal'd,
And that open'd which was seal'd,
When to Thee I have appeal'd,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.

The Thanksgiving for his House is too long to be extracted, but one stanza may be quoted, to show its peculiar merits:—

Low is my porch, as is my fate,
Both void of state;
And yet the threshold of my door
Is worne by the poor.

The Dirge of Jephtha is also beautiful; the classical reader will notice the Graecism in these lines:—

Thou wonder of all maids li'st here,
Of daughters all, the dearest dear;
The eye of virgins, nay the Queen
Of this smooth green,
And all sweet meads from whence we get
The primrose and the violet.

If to these poems we add the Christmas Carol, the Star-Song, and the White Island, or Place of the Blest, I think it will he granted that Herrick's most lasting fame is derived from his sacred compositions. The sentiments of some of his songs have unfortunately disposed us to regard him as the reverse of a religious poet; but he has told us, that although his rhymes were wild, "his life was chaste;" and impurity, we may believe, could never linger long in a mind that could give utterance to thoughts of so much feeling. Let us hope that when, in his touching words (to God in his sickness), he made his home in darkness and sorrow, the mercy of Him in whom he trusted, did indeed renew him, even although "a withered flower."