1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Herrick

Barron Field, Review of Select Poems from the Hesperides ed. Nott; Quarterly Review 4 (August 1810) 165-72.



These new books are all old, and are intended to flatter that appetite for reprints, which is one of the symptoms of the bibliomania now so prevalent. Those who cannot afford to purchase, or to pick up, as the phrase is, the original publications of our old poets, which are scarcer and dearer than any one but a collector would believe, must be content with the selections or entire reprints of them, which are daily issuing from the press, and of which the volumes, whose titles we have just transcribed, are fair specimens. The collector of the present day does not object to reprints, any more than the possessor of the Pigot diamond objected to have glass models taker of his jewel; nor do they at all tend, as the Rev. Mr. Dibdin insinuates, to cure the bibliomania, any more than a sight of those models lessened the public desire to possess the original. No; your modern collector will even lend a literary curiosity for republication, as Voltaire says, "avec une clemence, qui sera louee dans tous les journaux et dans tous les siecles." The copy is of the same value as the original, only to those who can relish the beauties of an author without the assistance of the ugliness of his types; while the collector, who is a very different person from the reader, of books, glories the more in his curious original, since the fame of its existence is thus the more widely diffused.

The reign of Elizabeth, and not that of Anne, was without doubt the Augustan age of English poetry. "If we seriously and impartially examine," says Mr. Headley, "the cluster of poetical names that were concentred in the space of ninety-one years, from the accession of Elizabeth to the restoration of Charles II. and compare them with those who have respectively flourished from that time to this, a period of an hundred and thirty-eight years, we shall find the phalanx of older classics but little affected by a comparison with the more modern muster-roll. And here a natural question seems to arise; how happens it that the great parts of poetry should be so soon filled up and manifest a degree of excellence in some respects unequalled by our later writers? We constantly find," he continues, "a period in the annals of every country, at which its people begin to be sensible of the shame and ignominy of ignorance: this no sooner becomes perceived than it is deeply felt: the mind, stimulated by a forcible impulse, catches the alarm, and hastens at once to renounce its slavery; in the struggle and collision that ensues, the genius of the people frequently takes astonishing strides towards perfection. We may yet further observe, that the military spirit of Eliza's reign, being put upon the stretch far beyond its usual tone by the perilous and alarming situation of the kingdom, served to excite a general inclination for action, that invigorated attempts of every kind, whether literary or political. The temper of the times was happily and singularly disposed for the reception and cultivation of the classics, which then more immediately began to operate with salutary effects. The manly spirit of expiring chivalry lent a romantic grace to the prevailing taste, which, associating with the fantastic incongruities of Italian imagery, required nothing but the chastity and good sense of ancient learning to add a weight and value to composition, which were hitherto unknown." Kett's Headley, vol. i. pp. x-xiii.

Whatever may be thought of the elegance of these remarks, there is much truth in them. Certain it is, that the poetry of the age in question, possesses a raciness and strength, which was ill exchanged in the succeeding reign for mellowness and dilution. The vigour of the Muse in her youth was more enchanting than the graces of her maturity. "This was some time a mystery, but now the time has given it proof." It was denied or forgotten in the days of Pope, and is even now but partially acknowledged. The names of Shakespeare and Spenser indeed are pronounced with a profounder awe than those of Dryden and Pope; but while Halifax, Duke, and Yalden are well known, and present familiar ideas to the mind, Carew, Herrick, and Lovelace are nothing but sounds; yet the former were mere rhymesters, and the latter true poets. This injury is greatly to be attributed to what Mr. Headley calls "the late very incomplete and careless publication of the English Poets, commonly called Johnson's Edition, in which so few of our older classics appear."

It would never be discovered from it, nor indeed from any edition of the British Poets, that the age of Elizabeth was the most poetical age of this poetical nation; and it would not be sufficiently manifest who "the wits of either Charles's days were." The fact is, that our early writers, actually possessing many conceits, have gained credit for nothing else; and under this imputation all their feeling and fancy have lain buried for centuries. The public are therefore almost as much indebted to the revivers of neglected poetry, as to the authors of it; and the labours of Cooper, Percy, Ritson, Ellis, &c. are gratefully estimated by every admirer of true genius.

As one of the most striking examples of the unjustly neglected early poets, we would instance the author of the first of the volumes before us, Robert Herrick; and to the list of renovators and perpetuators of departed genius, amply deserves to be added his present editor. Herrick, a more exquisite poet than Carew, whom Mr. Headley ranks above Waller, had nearly buried for ever all his feeling and fancy beneath the conceit, the pruriency, and the obscenity, with which his volume (of more than fourteen hundred poems) abounds, when a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1796 first informed the public, that in the scarce volume, called Robert Herrick's Hesperides, which had been flippantly passed over by Phillips in his Theatrum Poetarum, and by Grainger after him, there was much true poetry; and Mr. Ellis, in the second edition of his "Specimens," raked four beautiful pearls from the dunghill: Dr. Drake, in the third volume of his "Literary Hours," noticed the poet's beauties more at large, collected his biography, and furnished an essay on his genius and writings, with a recommendation that a hundred of his poems should "be chosen by the hand of taste," and formed "into an elegant little volume." It appears, however, from the "advertisement" prefixed to the present selection, that Dr. Nott had formed the design before Dr. Drake had pointed it out as a desideratum; and indeed the latter's prescriptions, as to its execution, are as little attended to by the former, as the practice of one physician is generally followed by another.

"When I first had in idea," he says, "the republication of these poems, it was my design to preface them with a short sketch of the author's history; and I had long since collected my scanty materials for the purpose from every known source; but, just as I was about to mould them into the form of a life, the last edition of Dr. Nathaniel Drake's ingenious and amusing work, Literary Hours, fell into my hands, in which I found that he had anticipated me; every circumstance I had obtained this gentleman was already in possession of; and he had so elegantly inwove [n] them with those three numbers of his book, which he allots to Herrick, that for me to embody them again, thus recently, in a biographical shape, must have been considered as nothing short of plagiarism.

"I differ in opinion from him, when he asserts that out of the fourteen hundred poems, of which Herrick's works consist, one hundred only could be selected by the hand of taste. I have presented the public with nearly three times that number, and I trust the offering will not be thought intrusive." pp. iii, iv.

We are as partial to Herrick as Dr. Nott can be, and have studied him perhaps with equal care; and really we cannot but think that he would have shown more kindness to the poet, if he had taken Dr. Drake's advice, and confined his Selections within the hundred. Herrick has not a century of pieces in his best style; and the editor, in order to make up the two hundred and eighty-four, with which "he has presented the public," has been obliged to preserve much of that pedantry and conceit, which failed to preserve the poet. He has indeed removed his pruriency and obscenity; he has destroyed the dragon which prevented the fruit of the Hesperides from being gathered; but, after all, what reader of taste will venture through a volume, in which he stands the chance of picking up such foppery as this?

THE BRACELET OF PEARL. To SYLVIA.
I brake the bracelet 'gainst my will;
And wretched I did see
Thee discomposed then, and still
Art discontent with me.

One gem was lost; and I will get
A richer pearl for thee
Than ever, dearest Sylvia, yet
Was drunk to Anthony:

Or, for revenge, I'll tell thee what
Thou for the breach shalt do;
First crack the strings, and after that
Cleave thou my heart in two. — p. 178.

But Dr. Nott does not seem to discriminate between conceit and feeling, since he recommends the following poem "to the taste and skill of the musical composer."

TO THE WATER NYMPHS, Drinking at a fountain.
Reach with your whiter hands to me
Some crystal of the spring;
And I about the cup shall see
Fresh lilies flourishing:

Or else, sweet nymphs, do you but this;
To th' glass your lips incline
And I shall see by that one kiss
The water turn'd to wine. — p. 140.

This is almost as bad as Scriblerus:

She drinks! she drinks! behold the matchless dame!
To her 'tis water, but to us 'tis flame:
Thus fire is water, water fire, by turns,
And the same stream at once both cools and burns.

It appears to us that Herrick trifled in this way solely in compliment to the taste of the age; and that whenever he wrote to please himself, he wrote from the heart to the heart. His "Nightpiece," his "Corinna going a-Maying," his "Gather ye rose-buds when ye may," and his "Mad Maid's Song," are not greater proofs of his taste and feeling than of his genius. We would willingly quote one of these poems, as a specimen of his powers; but Dr. Nott has not only exposed many of the poet's deformities, but concealed several of his beauties; and our pages will be usefully, as well as agreeably, employed in remedying the last of these evils. In the event of a second edition, we would recommend the editor, if he cannot part with all Herrick's conceits, at least to correct them still further by the insertion of such real poetry as is to be found in his "When he would have his verses read," "No bashfulness in begging," "Upon his departure hence," "His wish to privacy," "His Alms," "His Winding-sheet," and the following little poem:—

UPON A CHILD. An Epitaph.
But born, and, like a short delight,
I glided by my parents' sight:
That done, the harder fates denied
My longer stay, and so I died.

If, pitying my sad parent's tears,
You'll spill a tear or two with their's,
And with some flow'rs my grave bestrew,
Love and they'll thank you for't. Adieu!

The next two poems, which will conclude our supplement to Dr. Nott's Herrick, are from his "Noble Numbers, or Pious Pieces," "the inferiority of which," says the Doctor, "is generally allowed, even by his warmest admirers." This is true; but surely "His Thanksgiving to God for his House," and the following, which are "noble numbers" indeed, should not have been overlooked by the editor.

HIS 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 in 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,
'Cause my speech is now decay'd,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When (God knows) I'm toss'd about
Either with despair or doubt,
Yet before the glass be out,
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 surprize,
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!

Is it not surprising that a clergyman, as Herrick once was, and the author of an effusion like this, should be guilty of the ribaldry, with which what he calls the "human" part of his book is clogged? And this is the easy way in which he gets over it.

HIS LAST REQUEST TO JULIA.
I have been wanton, and too bold, I fear,
To chafe o'ermuch the virgin's cheek, or ear:
Beg for my pardon, Julia; he doth win
Grace with the gods, who's sorry for his sin. — p. 226.

This is Mr. Thomas Little's motto, "lusisse pudet;" and is but a sorry excuse for publishing indecent poems.

Even from these extracts it will appear that Herrick possessed a vigour of fancy, a warmth of feeling, a soundness of sense, and an ease of versification, sufficient to rank him very high in the scale of English minor poets; and we are quite convinced that, when the list of these is made out in future, his name will not be forgotten. Dr. Nott's Selection, except that "it should to the barber's," is well edited; and his "occasional remarks," in the shape of notes, display both reading and taste.

At pp. 9 and 91, Dr. Nott seems anxious to trace the origin of the conceit, of "looking babies in a mistress's eyes." It is as old as poetry itself; and besides the instances of it which he produces, we could quote him one from Massinger, two from Randolph, and one from John Evelyn, the author of Sylva. The Portugueze have it too: in that language, the same word signifies a pupil of the eye and a child; and Camoens makes much of the accident: but Lord Strangford is woefully out when he tells us, even after he has upon another occasion quoted an instance of the conceit in question from Donne, that the allusion of Camoens "has been fancifully pursued by one of the most original of our modern poets, Little."

Dr. Nott has but few anecdotes of Herrick, and those few, instead of being concentrated into one narrative, are loosely scattered through the volume. We believe that we can yet add a little to the very scanty stock of information, which the poet's biographers appear to possess respecting him.

Being in Devonshire during the last summer, we took an opportunity of visiting Dean Prior, for the purpose of making some inquiries concerning Herrick, who, from the circumstance of having been vicar of that parish (where he is still talked of as a poet, a wit, and a hater of the county,) for twenty years, might be supposed to have left some unrecorded memorials of his existence behind him.

We found many persons in the village who could repeat some of his lines, and none who were not acquainted with his "Farewell to Dean Bourn."

Dean Bourn farewell; I never look to see
Dean, or thy warty incivility,

which, they said, he uttered as he crossed the brook, upon being ejected by Cromwell from the vicarage, to which he had been presented by Charles I. "But," they added, with an air of innocent triumph, "he did see it again;" as was the fact, after the Restoration. And, indeed, although he calls Devonshire "dull," yet as he admits, at the same time, that "he never invented such ennobled numbers for the press, as in that loathed spot," the good people of Dean Prior have not much reason to be dissatisfied.

The person, however, who knows more of Herrick than all the rest of the neighbourhood, we found to be a poor woman in the ninety-ninth year of her age, named Dorothy King. She repeated to us, with great exactness, five of his "Noble Numbers," among which was the beautiful Litany quoted above. These she had learned from her mother, who was apprenticed to Herrick's successor in the vicarage. She called them her prayers, which, she said, she was in the habit of putting up in bed, whenever she could not sleep: and she therefore began the Litany at the second stanza,

When I lie within my bed, &c.

Another of her midnight orisons was the poem beginning

Every night thou dost me fright,
And keep mine eyes from sleeping, &c.

She had no idea that these poems had ever been printed, and could not have read them if she had seen them. She is in possession of few traditions as to the person, manners, and habits of life of the poet; but in return, she has a whole budget of anecdotes respecting his ghost; and these she details with a careless but serene gravity, which one would not willingly discompose by any hints at a remote possibility of their not being exactly true. Herrick, she says, was a bachelor, and kept a maid-servant, as his poems, indeed discover; but she adds, what they do not discover, that he also kept a pet-pig, which he taught to drink out of a tankard. And this important circumstance, together with a tradition that he one day threw his sermon at the congregation, with a curse for their inattention, forms almost the sum total of what we could collect of the poet's life. After his death, indeed, he furnished more ample materials for biography, and we could fill a volume with the fearful achievements of his wandering spirit;

But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

Our readers will be apt to think, we suspect, that there is little valuable in our gleanings: yet these traditionary tales of two centuries old, serve to shew the respect in which a literary man is held even by the vulgar and uneducated.