ROBERT HERRICK, whom we have no hesitation in characterizing as the sweetest of songwriters in an age which produced Waller, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace, was the son of a Goldsmith in Cheapside, and educated for the Church. By the patronage of the Earl of Exeter, he was presented with a Vicarage in Devonshire, from which he was ejected by the Parliamentary Commissioners, during the Civil War. He then assumed the habit of a Layman, and published, in 1648, his Poems, which are contained in a very scarce octavo volume, under the title of "Hesperides: or, the Works, both Humane and Divine, of Robert Herrick, Esq." The "Divine" Poems, which are separately paged, are entitled, "Noble Numbers, or his Pious Pieces," and bear date in the previous year. In these, says Wood, copying in part from the title-page, "he sings the birth of Christ, and sighs for his Saviour's sufferings on the cross. These two books made him much admired in the time they were published, and especially by the generous and boon loyalists, who commiserated his sufferings."
Phillips, the nephew of Milton, in his "Theatrum Poetarum," allows Herrick to have shewn occasionally "a pretty flowery and pastoral gale of fancy," &c., but supposes him not to have been "particularly influenced by any nymph or goddess, except his maid Pru." However this may have been, he seems to have been greatly attached to this humble companion of his retirement; of whom we find frequent and affectionate mention made in his "Works," as the following extracts will sufficiently evince.
The first is entitled, "Upon Prudence Baldwin her Sicknesse."
Prue, my dearest maid, is sick,
Almost to be lunatic:
Aesculapius! come and bring
Means for her recovering;
And a gallant Cock shall be
Offer'd up by her to thee.
In his account of his "Grange, or Private Wealth," he says:
A maid (my Prew) by good luck sent,
That little Fates me gave or lent.
He has, also, a little piece addressed to his "Kind Prew," and, lastly, the following Epitaph:
In this little urn is laid
Prewdence Baldwin (once my maid);
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple Violet.
The Poems of Herrick are, unfortunately, but little known, although a very elegant reprint was published at Edinburgh a few years ago. But they have not been admitted into any collection, not even into the overgrown and ill-selected mass edited by Chalmers, although, in his "Biographical Dictionary," he has justly characterized our Poet as one who "certainly, in vigour of fancy, feeling, and ease of versification, is entitled to a superior rank among the bards of his period." It must be admitted, that he is unequal, and that some few of his compositions are a disgrace to the volume in which they are found; but the dross bears no proportion to the ore, and the latter is of the purest description.
The following beautiful song has few equals in our language.
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,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
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 for ever tarry.
The gaiety and sprightliness of the next specimen are eminently characteristic.
I could never love indeed;
Never see mine own heart bleed;
Never crucify my life,
Or for widow, maid, or wife.
I could never seek to please
One or many mistresses;
Never like their lips to swear
Oil of roses still smelt there.
I could never break my sleep,
Fold mine arms, sob, sigh, or weep;
Never beg, or humbly woo,
With oaths and lies, as others do.
I could never walk alone,
Put a shirt of sackcloth on;
Never keep a fast, or pray
For good luck in love, that day.
But have hitherto liv'd free
As the air that circles me;
And kept credit with my heart,
Neither broke in whole or part.
In a Poem entitled "The Faerie Temple," an exuberantly fanciful satire on the Rites of the Romish Church, he thus playfully recounts the fairy saints:
Saint Tit, Saint Nit, Saint Is, Saint Itis,
Who 'gainst Mab's State plac't here right is,
Saint Will o' th' Wispe (of no great bigness),
But alias call'd here Fatuus ignis.
Saint Frip, Saint Trip, Saint Fill, Saint Fillie.
Neither those other saintships will I
Here goe about for to recite,
Their number almost infinite;
Which, one by one, here set down are,
In this most curious calendar.
Common consent seems to have nominated Herrick the Laureat of the Fairies and it must be acknowledged, that the quaint beauty of his verses well merited for their author the distinction. Herrick evidently took delight in fairy-sounding monosyllabic names. Those which occur in his epigrams furnish no inconsiderable list, as we find in them the following formidable muster-roll.