1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Herrick

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:24-26.



This poet — a bird with tropical plumage, and norland sweetness of song — was born in Cheapside, London, in 1591. His father was an eminent goldsmith. Herrick was sent to Cambridge; and having entered into holy orders, and being patronised by the Earl of Exeter, he was, in 1629, presented by Charles I. to the vicarage of Dean Prior, in Devonshire. Here he resided for twenty years, till ejected by the civil war. He seems all this time to have felt little relish either for his profession or parishioners. In the former, the cast of his poems shews that he must have been "detained before the Lord;" and the latter he describes as a "wild, amphibious race," rude almost as "salvages," and "churlish as the seas." When he quitted his charge, he became an author at the mature age of fifty-six — publishing first, in 1647, his Noble Numbers; or, Pious Pieces; and next, in 1648, his Hesperides; or, Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. — his ministerial prefix being now laid aside. Some of these poems were sufficiently unclerical — being wild and licentious in cast — although he himself alleges that his life was, sexually at least, blameless. Till the Restoration he lived in Westminster, supported by the rich among the Royalists, and keeping company with the popular dramatists and poets. It would seem that he had been in the habit of visiting London previously, while still acting as a clergyman, and had become a boon companion of Ben Jonson. Hence his well-known lines

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.

With the Restoration, fortune began again to smile on our poet. He was replaced in his old charge, and seems to have spent the rest of his life quietly in the country, enjoying the fresh air and the old English sports — "repenting at leisure moments," as Shakspeare has it, of the early pruriencies of his muse; or, as the same immortal bard says of Falstaff, "patching up his old body" for a better place. The date of his death is not exactly ascertained; but he seems to have got considerably to the shady side of seventy years of age.

Herrick's poetry was for a long time little known, till worthy Nathan Drake, in his Literary Hours, performed to him, as to some others, the part of a friendly resurrectionist. He may be called the English Anacreon, and resembles the Greek poet, not only in graceful, lively, and voluptuous elegance and richness, but also in that deeper sentiment which often underlies the lighter surface of his verse. It is a great mistake to suppose that Anacreon was a mere contented sensualist and shallow songster of love and wine. Some of his odes shew that, if he yielded to the destiny of being a Cicada, singing amidst the vines of Bacchus, it was despair — the despair produced by a degraded age and a bad religion — which reduced him to the necessity. He was by nature an eagle; but he was an eagle in a sky where there was no sun. The cry of a noble being, placed in the most untoward circumstances, is here and there heard in his verses, and reminds you of the voice of one of the transmuted victims of Circe, or of Ariel from that cloven pine, where he "howl'd away twelve winters." Herrick might be by constitution a voluptuary, — and he has unquestionably degraded his genius in not a few of his rhymes, — but in him, as well as in Anacreon, Horace, and Burns, there lay a better and a higher nature, which the critics have ignored, because it has not found a frequent or full utterance in his poetry. In proof that our author possessed profound sentiment, mingling and sometimes half-lost in the loose, luxuriant leafage of his imagery, we need only refer our readers to his "Blossoms" and his "Daffodils." Besides gaiety and gracefulness, his verse is exceedingly musical — his lines not only move but dance.