Among the English pastoral poets, Herrick takes an undisputed precedence, and as a lyrist generally he is scarcely excelled, except by Shelley. No other writer of the seventeenth century approached him in abundance of song, in sustained exercise of the purely musical and intuitive gifts of poetry. Shakspeare, Milton, and perhaps Fletcher, surpassed him in the passion and elevated harmony of their best lyrical pieces, as they easily excelled him in the wider range of their genius and the breadth of their accomplishment. But while these men exercised their art in all its branches, Herrick confined himself very narrowly to one or two, and the unflagging freshness of his inspiration, flowing through a long life in so straitened a channel, enabled him to amass such a wealth of purely lyrical poetry as no other Englishman has produced. His level of performance was very high; he seems to have preserved all that he wrote, and the result is that we possess more than twelve hundred of his little poems, in at least one out of every three of which we may find something charming or characteristic. Of all the Cavalier lyrists Herrick is the only one that followed the bent of his genius undisturbed, and lived a genuine artist's life. Consequently, while we have to lament, in the case of Lovelace or Suckling, a constant waste of energy, and unthrifty drain of poetic power, in Herrick all is wisely husbanded, and we feel satisfied that we possess the best that he could produce. His life was an ideal one so far as quiet and retirement went; to fourteen years of seclusion at Cambridge there succeeded twenty years of unbroken Arcadian repose in a Devonshire vicarage, and it was not till the desire to rhyme had left him that the poet was brought rudely face to face with the clamour and vexation of political feud. Thus he was preserved from that public riot and constant disturbance of the commonwealth which did its best to drown the voice of every poet from Carew to Dryden, which drove Crashaw away to madness and death, which made harsh the liquid melodies Milton, which belied the promise of Davenant and broke the heart of Cowley. From all this disturbance and discord Herrick was fortunately free, and we may look in vain through his pastoral elegies and jets of amorous verse to discover a trace of the frantic times he lived in.
The one book which Herrick has bequeathed to us is filled with short poems, thrown together without any attempt at arrangement either of subject or time of composition. They range between odes and epithalamia of five or six pages, and epigrams of a single couplet. In preparing the Hesperides for the press it would seem as though the English poet took for his model the works of the Latin epigrammatist Martial. There is however, a deeper resemblance between the two writers than is to be found in the mere outward arrangement of their works. The successive editors of Herrick have noted what they conceive to be his likeness to Catullus, but this is hardly critical. The prominent qualities of Herrick's verse are not passion so much as sensuous reverie, not fire so much as light, not the music of the lyre so much as of the flute and fiddle. In all these respects he is far enough from resembling Catullus, but very near to Martial, who, moreover, alone among the Latin poets has that minute picturesqueness of detail and delight in the accessories of life which we admire in Herrick. Moreover, it must be frankly admitted, that in his tendency to obscene and unsavoury jest, and, in his radical indelicacy of fancy the English poet follows, happily at a great distance, the foulest of the ancients. But Herrick was not indebted solely to Martial or to Catullus; his imagination was steeped in antique literature, and whether he was a Greek scholar or no, he contrived to assimilate into his work more of the temper of Theocritus and of the lyrists of the Anthology than any English writer of the century. The atmosphere is Greek, though we find little that shows direct study; perhaps, with the tact of a poet, he extracted the odour and flavour of ancient verse without understanding it very well, just as Petrarch, dreaming above the MS. of Homer that he could not read, divined the place that Greek was destined to take in the revival of culture.
Herrick was a Pagan and s hedonist, and it was natural that his mind should revert with extreme longing to the primitive civilisation of Europe. He dreamed himself to be a priest in some past age of Sicily or Tuscany, earnestly partaking in the ceremonial of a god that could be wreathed with flowers or invoked in a libation of wine, and he was quietly contented with the physical fulness of life around him, without caring to define with much antiquarian exactitude what the age was or what the worship. So little had he of the pedant in his constitution, that he brought these genial rites in fancy to the doors of his Devonian vicarage, and raised the thymus underneath his clerical roof, while the roses reigned around, and his puritan locks were shining with galbanum and storax. There were quintals at Dean-Prior, wakes and wassailings, and Herrick gaily assimilated to his antique dream these pleasant pastoral survivals, ribbanding the may-pole as though it were the cone-tipped rod of Dionysus, and pouring over the clumsy morris-dances of his parishioners the ideal grace of some Dorian round of nymphs and shepherds. His classic fancy is brighter, and his sensuous vision more amply sustained than in the poems of those of his contemporaries who affected the same sentimental paganism. Even Ben Jonson, when he was most Latin, was but a burly Londoner masquerading in a toga; but Herrick, if not born a Greek, as Keats was, might yet claim to be the compatriot of those Italian lyrists of the early renaissance, who completely divested themselves of all trace of Christendom. In saying this, no harsh judgment is passed upon Herrick's performance of those duties, ceremonial or poetical, which his position as a clerk of the English Church demanded from him. He preached sermons or wrote Noble Numbers with zeal and sincerity, but these were not the product of the native spirit of the man. He was an exile from Arcadia all his days, walking through our sober modern life without revolt or passion, but always conscious that he had seen more glorious sights, and walked through a land much more eminent for luxury and beauty. In Herrick the sense of bodily loveliness was perilously acute, but his good sense and artistic tact sufficed to restrain it within bounds; and, thus confined, it simply served to redeem his verse from the tasteless errors of his contemporaries, and to interpenetrate it with melody and colour.
What Herrick did not learn from the ancients, he gathered at the feet of Ben Jonson. He was the greatest and the most reverential in the group of youths of genius who formed the school and boasted of being the "sons" of the great tragic master. But in temper and bent of mind few writers could naturally have less in common than Jonson and Herrick, and it is therefore not surprising that we find but one section of the older poet's work exercising an influence over the younger. How wide and versatile was the genius of Ben Jonson is but little known to those who study him only as a dramatist. His masques, and the beautiful collection called The Forest, display him to us as one of the most graceful and original of lyrists; and it was at this point that Herrick fell under his inspiration. It has been conjectured that Herrick first became acquainted with the author of The Alchemist on the memorable occasion of the first performance of that comedy in 1610, when the young man was in his nineteenth year. It was in that same year that Jonson, published Oberon, the Fairy Prince, a masque peopled by the gay assemblage of fays and elves, which Herrick afterwards adopted as his own peculiar property, and full of classical allusions and strains of light versification in the spine of the Hesperides. It is here, and in the other masques and songs of Jonson, that we must look for the immediate inspiration of much that Herrick afterwards adorned, intensified, and made his own.
There is not a sunnier book in the world than the Hesperides. To open it is to enter a rich garden on a summer afternoon, and to smell the perfume of a wealth of flowers and warm herbs and ripening fruits. The poet sings, in short flights of song, of all that makes life gay and luxurious, of the freshness of a dewy field, of the fecundity and heat of harvest, of the odour and quietude of an autumn orchard. All the innocent pastimes of the people find a laureate in him, his Muse disdains no circumstance of rural holiday, and is more than ready to accompany him to country wakes and races, to the riot of the hay-field and the may-pole, to the village bridal and to the crowning of the hock-cart. She presides with him at the mixing of a wedding-cake or of a spicy wassail-bowl, and lends her presence to the celebration of the humblest rites of rural superstition. Herrick has summed up the subject of his book very neatly in its opening lines — which also form the prelude so our present selection. But his verse is not all so objective as he pretends; to the observation of nature and the praise of enjoyment in others he adds copious reflection on the construction of his own mind and body, and discusses his experiences with a charming candour. No more garrulous egotist is to be found in literature; he prattles away, with child-like simplicity, about his hopes of pleasure and his fears of death, his loves and his companions, even about his food and the various creature comforts of his vicarage. He tells us that he is anxious for fame, and, again, that he is confident of securing it. He gives us a list of his domestic pets, and we see them pass before us, his goose, his lamb, his spaniel, his cat, his learned pig. We sit with him beside the fire so quietly that we see the brisk mouse come out to feed herself with crumbs, till "Prewdence Baldwin" or "the green-eyed kitling comes." It is this happy realism and personal frankness which, in conjunction with that Doric fancy of which we have already spoken, combine to give the poetry of Herrick such an intimate charm, at once strange and familiar, like that of the more dramatic passages in Theocritus. There is no strain on the feelings, no rage or fervour, all is quiet, picturesque and penetrating, and the poet is so circumstantial in describing his Arcadia, that it seems to us while we listen to him, that we have lived there all our lives. The deceptive air of reality which clothes the landscapes of Herrick should, by analogy, make his biographers careful in accepting too exactly all that he says about himself. Little can be gained by analysing his various loves, or by attempting so disentangle Silvia from Perilia, or Corinna from Anthea. These nymphs were probably mere artist's studies, for which some primrose-gatherer or milk-maid of Dean-Prior sat quite unconsciously. Only in the description of Julia we may detect more individuality and personal presence, and the poems which are dedicated to her probably date from the years preceding the poet's acceptance of holy orders. We must not forget that before he left Cambridge he was thirty-eight years of age, the first fever of the blood was allayed, and without doubt the warmest verses of the Hesperides, his "wild unbaptised rhymes," were the production of his youth.
The sacred poetry of Herrick is weak, as might be expected, from a theological point of view, and attains success rather in spite of the author's aim than through it. He is very genuine in his devotion, as far as it goes, but his pagan temperament leaves him rather callous, and we have none of the spiritual elevation of Vaughan, none of the conscience-searching and holy aspiration of Herbert. Herrick sings lustily in church, but he sings to the old heathen tunes, and, even at his prayers, his spirit is mundane and not filled with heavenly things. He succeeds best where he permits himself to adorn a celestial theme with the picturesque detail of his secular poems; he is happy if he be allowed to crown the infant Saviour with daffadils or pin a rose into His stomacher. His longer odes and elegies owe their interest to no divine fervour, but to the bright and fantastic touches, to the introduction of flowers and odours, and to the luxury and pomp of ceremonial. Herrick must ever be regarded as an alien in the choir of divine singers, which the seventeenth century produced; he has something of their technical character, but in spirit he is divided from them by a barrier that neither a genuine piety nor a desire to edify could over-step. His best religious pieces are The Litany, The Dirge of Jephthah's Daughter (both of them given in our selection), and The Dirge of Dorcas, a poem containing some grotesque passages, but many of extraordinary lyric felicity.
We have no means of discovering, or even of conjecturing, by what steps Herrick arrived at the mastery over the technical part of poetry which we discover in the Hesperides. It was characteristic of the fashion of the day to invent verse-forms of great intricacy and difficulty, the beauty of which was of less import to the writer than the oddity. Donne had set the example of these fantastic eccentricities, and the wanton way in which they were employed soon drove men of taste to the rigid use of the heroic couplet; only. Herrick, however, avoided this capital offence against artistic harmony. His measures are many of them his own, and show great ingenuity, but they are all, or almost all, justified by their inherent beauty. He attempted a great variety of experiments, mainly with a view to intensifying and sustaining the pleasurable recurrence of rhyme; some of these are scarcely successful, because the language is not pliant enough for such tours-de-force, but the experiments themselves are not contrary to the principles of versification. The lyrics of Herrick are very luscious and liquid in their flow of language; he is not a passionate writer, and we always miss, even in his best work, that mounting and piercing melody which goes straight to the heart, and which Burns and Shelley give us, each in his own way. In his verse-music, as in everything else, Herrick is excessively mundane, too easily satisfied with the sincere and exquisite expression of a common thought to care about the uncommon; and hence it is that with all his wonderful art and skill he is never named among the few English poets of the first class, but always as pre-eminent among those of the second class.