1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Herrick

Mary Russell Mitford, "Old Poets. Robert Herrick — George Wither" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 142-51.



Nothing seems stranger in the critics of the last century than their ignorance of the charming lyrical poetry of the times of the early Stuarts and the Commonwealth. One should think that the songs of the great dramatists, whose genius they did acknowledge — Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ben Jonson — might have prepared them to recognize the kindred melodies of such versifiers as Marlowe, and Raleigh, and Withers, and Marvell. His Jacobite prejudices might have predisposed Dr. Johnson, in particular, to find some harmonious stanzas in the minstrels of the cavaliers, Lovelace and the Marquis of Montrose. But so complete is the silence in which the writers of that day pass over these glorious songsters, that it seems only charitable to suppose that these arbiters of taste had never met with their works. With the honorable exceptions of Thomas Warton and Bishop Percy, there is not a critic from Johnson downward who does not cite Waller as the first poet who smoothed our rugged tongue into harmonious verse. And the prejudice lingers still in places where one does not expect to find it. The parish clerk of Beaconsfield is by no means the only, although by far the most excusable authority who, standing bare-headed before his pyramidal tomb in the church-yard, assured me with the most honest conviction, that Waller was the earliest and finest versifier in the language.

Herrick is one of the many whose lyrics might be called into court to overturn this verdict. Originally bred to the bar, he took orders at a comparatively late period, and obtained a living in Devonshire, from which he fled during the strict rule of the Lord Protector, concealing himself under a lay habit in London, and returning to his parsonage with the return of the monarch, whose birth had formed the subject of one of his earliest pastorals.

More than any eminent writer of that day, Herrick's collection requires careful sifting; but there is so much fancy, so much delicacy, so much grace, that a good selection would well repay the publisher. Bits there are that are exquisite: as when in enumerating the cates composing "Oberon's Feast," in his "Fairyland," he includes, among a strange farrago of unimaginable dishes,

The broke heart of a nightingale
O'ercome in music.

Some of his pieces, too, contain curious illustrations of the customs, manners, and prejudices of our ancestors. I shall quote one or two from the division of the Hesperides, that he calls "charms and ceremonies," beginning with the motto:

DIVINATION BY A DAFFODIL.
When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head toward me,
Guess I may what I may be:
First, I shall decline my head,
Secondly, I shall he dead;
Lastly, safely buried.

The adorning the houses with evergreens seems then to have been as common as our own habit of decking them with flowers.

CEREMONIES FOR CANDLEMAS EVE.
Down with rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe,
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.

The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day
Or Easter's Eve appear.

Then youthful box, which now has grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honor Whitsuntide.

Green rushes then and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold,
New things succeed as former things grow old.

THE BELLMAN.
From noise of scare-fires rest ye free,
From murders Benedicite;
From all mischances that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night,
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The goblin from ye while ye sleep.
Past one o'clock, and almost two,
My masters all, good day to you!

The description of a steer in one of his "Bucolics" is graphic and life-like. The herdswoman is lamenting the loss of her favorite.

I have lost my lovely steer,
That to me was far more dear
Than these kine that I milk here;
Broad of forehead, large of eye,
Party-colored like a pie,
Smooth in each limb as a die;
Clear of hoof, and clear of horn,
Sharply pointed as a thorn;
With a neck by yoke unworn,
From the which hung down by strings,
Balls of cowslip, daisy rings
Interlaced by ribbonings.
Taultless every way for shape,
Not a straw could him escape,
Ever gamesome as an ape,
But yet harmless as a sheep.
Pardon, Lacon, if I weep.

But his real delight was among flowers and bees, and nymphs and cupids; and certainly these graceful subjects were never handled more gracefully.

THE CAPTIVE BEE.
As Julia once a slumbering lay,
It chanced a bee did fly that way,
After a dew or dew-like shower,
To tipple freely in a flower.
For some rich flower he took the lip
Of Julia and began to sip;
But when he felt he sucked from thence
Honey, and in the quintessence,
He drank so much he scarce could stir,
So Julia took the pilferer.
And thus surprised, as filchers use,
He thus began himself to excuse:
"Sweet lady-flower! I never brought
Hither the least one thieving thought;
But, taking those rose-lips of yours
For some fresh fragrant luscious flowers,
I thought I there might take a taste
Where so much syrup ran at waste.
Besides, know this, I never sting
The flower that gives me nourishing;
But with a kiss or thanks do pay
For honey that I bear away."
This said, he laid his little scrip
Of honey 'fore her ladyship;
And, told her, as some tears did fall,
That that he took, and that was all.
At which she smiled, and bade him go
And take his bag; but thus much know,
When next he came a pilfering so,
He should from her full lips derive
Honey enough to fill his hive.

THE BAG OF THE BEE.
About the sweet bag of a bee
Two cupids fell at odds;
And whose the pretty prize should be,
They vowed to ask the gods.

Which, Venus hearing, thither came,
And for their boldness stripped them;
And taking thence from each his flame,
With rods of myrtle whipped them.

Which done, to still their wanton cries
When quiet grown she'd seen them,
She kissed and wiped their dove-like eyes,
And gave the bag between them.

TO THE WILLOW-TREE.
Thou art to all lost love the best
The only true plant found,
Wherewith young men and maids, distrest
And left of love, are crowned.

When once the lover's rose is dead
Or laid aside forlorn,
Then willow garlands 'bout the head,
Bedewed with tears are worn.

When with neglect the lover's bane
Poor maids rewarded be
For their love lost; their only gain
Is but a wreath from thee.

And underneath thy cooling shade,
When weary of the light,
The love-spent youth and love-sick maid
Come to weep out the night.

THE FUNERAL RITES OF THE ROSE.
The rose was sick, and smiling died;
And being to be sanctified,
About the bed there sighing stood
The sweet and flowery sisterhood.
Some hung the head, while some did bring,
To wash her, water from the spring;
Some laid her forth, while others wept,
But all a solemn fast there kept.
The holy sisters some among
The sacred dirge and trental snug;
But ah! what sweets smelt everywhere
As heaven had spent all perfumes there!
At last, when prayers for the dead
And rites were all accomplished,
They, weeping, spread a lawny loom,
And closed her up, as in a tomb.

SONG.
Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying;
And this same flower that smiles to-day,
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
The nearer he's to setting.

The age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But, being spent, the worse and worse
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

TO MEADOWS.
Ye have been fresh and green,
Ye have been filled with flowers;
And ye the walks have been,
Where maids have spent their hours.

Ye have beheld where they
With wicker arks did come;
To kiss and bear away
The richer cowslips home.

You've heard them sweetly sing,
And seen them in a round;
Each virgin, like the spring,
With honeysuckles crowned.

But now we see none here,
Whose silvery feet did tread;
And, with disheveled hair,
Adorned this smoother mead.

Like unthrifts having spent
Your stock, and needy grown;
You're left here to lament,
Your poor estates alone.

TO DAFFODILS.
Fair daffodils, we weep to see,
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early rising sun,
Has not attained its noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run,
But to the even song,
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you or any thing.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer's rain,
Or, as the pearls of morning dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

THE NIGHT-PIECE. — TO JULIA.
Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee,
The shooting stars attend thee;
And the elves also,
Whose little eyes glow
Like the sparks of fire, befriend thee.

No will-o'-th'-wisp mislight thee;
Nor snake, nor slow-worm bite thee;
But on, on thy way,
Not making a stay,
Since ghost there is none to affright thee.

Let not the dark thee cumber,
What though the moon doth slumber?
The stars of the night,
Will lend thee their light,
Like tapers clear without number.

TO BLOSSOMS.
Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past
But you may stay yet here awhile,
To blush and gently smile,
And go at last.

What were ye born to be
An hour or half 's delight,
And so to bid good-night?
'Twas pity Nature brought ye forth,
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne'er so brave;
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you, awhile they glide
Into the grave.

The want in these graceful and delicate lyrics is thew and sinew. And yet they are what they pretend to be — airy petals of the cherry-blossom, hinting of fruit, bees fluttering and musical, giving token of honey.

The Muse fares ill in civil contentions. As Herrick fled before the Roundheads, so was George Wither oppressed by the Cavaliers. The following noble praise of poetry was written in a prison; in a prison the poor poet passed many of his latter years, and it is still a question whether he actually died in confinement, or perished of want and misery after his release.

But, alas! my muse is slow;
For thy pace she flags too low.
But though for her sake I'm curst,
Though my best hopes I have lost,
And knew she would make my trouble,
Ten times more than ten times double;
I would love and keep her too
Spite of all the world could do.
For though banished from my flocks,
And confined within these rocks,
Here I waste away the light,
And consume the sullen night;
She doth for my comfort stay,
And keeps many cares away.
Though I miss the flowery fields,
And those sweets the spring-tide yields;
Though I may not see those groves,
Where the shepherds chant their loves,
And the lasses more excel
Than the sweet-voiced Philomel;
Though of all those pleasures past
Nothing now remains at last,
But remembrance, poor relief
That more makes than mends my grief;
She's my mind's companion still
Maugre Envy's evil will:
Whence she should be driven too,
Wer't in mortal's power to do.
She doth tell me where to borrow
Comfort in the midst of sorrow;
Makes the desolatest place
In her presence be a grace;
And the blackest discontents
Be her fairest ornaments.
In my former days of bliss
Her divine skill taught me this,
That from every thing I saw
I could some invention draw;
And raise Pleasure to her height
Through the meanest object's sight:
By the murmur of a spring,
Or the least bough's rustling;
By a daisy, whose leaves spread
Shut when Titan goes to bed;
On a shady bush or tree
She could more infuse in me
Than all Nature's beauties can
In some other wiser man.
By her help I also now
Make this churlish place allow
Some things, that may sweeten gladness
In the very gall of sadness:
The dull loneness, the black shade
That these banging vaults have made,
The strange music of the waves
Beating on these hollow caves,
This black den, which rocks emboss
Overgrown with eldest moss;
The rude portals that give light
More to terror than delight;
This my chamber of neglect
Walled about with disrespect;
From all these, and this dull air
A fit object for despair,
She hath brought me by her might
To draw comfort and delight.

Therefore, thou best earthly bliss,
I will cherish thee for this
Poetry, thou sweet'st content
That e'er Heaven to mortals lent;
Though they as a trifle leave thee
Whose dull thoughts can not conceive thee;
Though thou be to them a scorn
That for naught but earth are born;
Let my life no longer be
Than I am in love with thee
Though our wise ones call it madness,
Let me never taste of gladness
If I love not thy maddest fits
Above all their greatest wits!
And though some, too seeming holy,
Do account thy raptures folly,
Thou dost teach me to contemn
What makes knaves and fools of them!

"The praises of poetry have been often sung in ancient and modern times; strange powers have been ascribed to it of influence over animate and inanimate auditors; its force over fascinated crowds has been acknowledged; but before Wither no one had celebrated its power at home; the wealth and the strength which this divine gift confers upon its possessor." This fine criticism, worthy of the poetry which it celebrates, is by Charles Lamb.