1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Herrick

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:139-40.



One of the most exquisite of our early lyrical poets was ROBERT HERRICK, born in Cheapside, London, in 1591. He studied at Cambridge, and having entered into holy orders, was presented by Charles I., in 1629, to the vicarage of Dean Prior in Devonshire. After about twenty years' residence in this rural parish, Herrick was ejected from his living by the storms of the civil war, which, as Jeremy Taylor says, "dashed the vessel of the church and state all in pieces." Whatever regret the poet may have felt on being turned adrift on the world, he could have experienced little on parting with his parishioners, for he describes them in much the same way as Crabbe portrayed the natives of Suffolk, among whom he was cast in early life, as a "wild amphibious race," rude "almost as salvages," and "churlish as the seas." Herrick gives us a glimpse of his own character—

Born I was to meet with age,
And to walk life's pilgrimage:
Much, I know, of time is spent;
Tell I can't what's resident.
Howsoever, cares adieu!
I'll have nought to say to you;
But I'll spend my coming hours
Drinking wine and crown'd with flowers.

This light and genial temperament would enable the poet to ride out the storm in composure. About the time that he lost his vicarage, Herrick appears to have published his works. His Noble Numbers, or Pious Pieces, are dated 1647; his Hesperides, or the "Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esquire," in 1648. The clerical prefix to his name seems now to have been abandoned by the poet, and there are certainly many pieces in his second volume which would not become one ministering at the altar, or belonging to the sacred profession. Herrick lived in Westminster, and was supported or assisted by the wealthy royalists. He associated with the jovial spirits of the age. He "quaffed the mighty bowl" with Ben Jonson, but could not, he tells us, "thrive in frenzy," like rare Ben, who seems to have excelled all his fellow-compotators in sallies of wild wit and high imaginations. The recollection of these "brave translunary scenes" of the poets inspired the muse of Herrick in the following strain:—

Ah Ben!
Say how or when
Shall we, thy guests,
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the Triple Tun;
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad?
And yet each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.

My Ben!
Or come again,
Or send to us
Thy wit's great overplus,
But teach us yet
Wisely to husband it;
Lest we that talent spend;
And having once brought to an end
That precious stock, the store
Of such a wit, the world should have no more.

After the Restoration, Herrick was replaced in his Devonshire vicarage. How he was received by the "rude salvages" of Dean Prior, or how he felt on quitting the gaieties of the metropolis, to resume his clerical duties and seclusion, is not recorded. He was now about severity years of age, and was probably tired of canary sack and tavern jollities. He had an undoubted taste for the pleasures of a country life, if we may judge from his works, and the fondness with which he dwells on old English festivals and rural customs. Though his rhymes were sometimes wild, he says his life was chaste, and he repented of his errors:—

For these my unbaptised rhymes
Writ in my wild unhallowed times,
For every sentence, clause and word
That's not inlaid with O Lord!
Forgive me, God, and blot each line
Out of my book that is not thine;
But if, 'mongst all thou findest one
Worthy thy benediction,
That one of all the rest shall be
The glory of my work and me.

The poet should better have evinced the sincerity and depth of his contrition, by blotting out the unbaptised rhymes himself, or not reprinting them; but the vanity of the author probably triumphed over the penitence of the Christian. Gaiety was the natural element of Herrick. His muse was a goddess fair and free, that did not move happily in serious numbers. The time of the poet's death has not been ascertained, but he must have arrived at a ripe old age.

The poetical works of Herrick lay neglected for many years after his death. They are now again in esteem, especially his shorter lyrics, some of which have been set to music, and are sung and quoted by all lovers of song. His verses, Cherry Ripe, and Gather the Rose-buds while ye may (though the sentiment and many of the expressions of the latter are taken from Spenser), possess a delicious mixture of playful fancy and natural feeling. Those To Blossoms, To Daffodils, and To Primroses, have a tinge of pathos that wins its way to the heart. They abound, like all Herrick's poems, in lively imagery and conceits; but the pensive moral feeling predominates, and we feel that the poet's smiles might as well be tears. Shakspeare and Jonson had scattered such delicate fancies and snatches of lyrical melody among their plays and masques — Milton's Comus and the Arcades had also been published — Carew and Suckling were before him — Herrick was, therefore, not without models of the highest excellence in this species of composition. There is, however, in his songs and anacreontics, an unforced gaiety and natural tenderness, that show he wrote chiefly from the impulses of his own cheerful and happy nature. The select beauty and picturesqueness of Herrick's language, when he is in his happiest vein, is worthy of his fine conceptions; and his versification is harmony itself. His verses bound and flow like some exquisite lively melody, that echoes nature, by wood and dell, and presents new beauties at every turn and winding. The strain is short, and sometimes fantastic; but the notes long linger in the mind, and take their place for ever in the memory. One or two words, such as "gather the rose-buds," call up a summer landscape, with youth, beauty, flowers, and music. This is, and ever must be, true poetry.