Our book today is the 1968 Norton printing of J. Max Patrick’s 1963 edition of the complete poetry of Robert Herrick, if that isn’t too derivational for you. Patrick’s volume is a no-nonsense scholarly affair, the kind of thing that features very few concessions to the educated layman who has always been Norton’s key audience. The notes are extensive but often recondite, although they wouldn’t have seen themselves as such back fifty years ago. Herrick was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics in the very best way somebody can be: he loved them, he absorbed them through his very reading pores, and he breathed their air when he was singing his songs and composing his verse. Some critics have complained that his verses smell of the lamp, that he’s at times merely showing off his pithy allusivity. I disagree: it’s not the quotation-hunting fug of the study that fills his verses but instead the quiet joy of the reading-chair, the side-table crowded with much-read and much-beloved volumes, the marvellous feeling that classical world gives of being an actual place, a retreat into sanity from the chaotic modern world.
Herrick certainly knew his fair share of that chaos, although he devoted quite a bit of energy to avoiding it. He was born in London in 1591 to a prosperous goldsmith and banker who the following year died in a fall from one of his house’s high windows. Suicide was suspected, and if it had been proven, the family would have lost everything. Herrick’s mother – a thoroughly remarkable woman named Julian Stone – called in every favor she could think of and fought to prove accidental death … and eventually she succeeded. The result was that young Robert could be apprenticed to his uncle, another prosperous goldsmith, and sent to Cambridge, where he got a B.A. in 1617 and an M.A. in 1620. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1623 and was the Vicar of Dean Prior in Devon by 1630.
So by age 38 he had a comfortable living (and a small inheritance from his mother when she died), no wife, no children, and no very pressing demands on his time – which was all good news, since he was an incurable reader and writer in the best English clerical tradition. He filled his days, his months, his years with Ovid and Juvenal and Virgil, and it’s perhaps no surprise that by 1640 he was in the Stationer’s Register as a writer of poems.
In a normal world, Herrick might have expected to go on like that, serenely serving his flock and filling his evenings with writing in his study. But when Cromwell and Parliament took up arms against King Charles I in 1642, the world stopped being normal. Like most people, Herrick kept his head down and hoped the turmoil wouldn’t touch him. But if you believe in your bones that the king is the king and your country is taken over by men who believe otherwise, turmoil will find you – and it found Herrick. He was expelled from his vicarage in 1647.
For twelve long years, he was adrift. It happened to countless other men in the England of his time, and it arguably hit hardest the ones just like Herrick – the ones who for whatever reason found it next to impossible to shift with the times. Those twelve years have resisted detailed historical inquiry – probably his relatives supported him for part of it (despite his long apprenticeship to his uncle years before, it’s permissible to believe he was never a very good goldsmith, and those contacts need to be scrupulously upkept anyway, not allowed to wither while you write sermons in Devon). It’s possible he tried to be optimistic about the unwanted changes in his life, possible he sought a small re-invention of himself. 1648 was the year his big work, the Hesperides, was published, but we have very little historical indication of what that meant to him.
It should mean more to us today than it does. The Hesperides and the Noble Numbers contain a great many wonderful things. Patrick lays both works out alongside various other verses of various lengths, works that were almost certainly written by Herrick, and the resulting volume is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a definitive collection of his work. Here we get our poet using all the voices at his command – never a great array, but all fully inhabited. He can quip:
I’ll write, because I’ll give
You Critics means to live;
For should I not supply
The Cause, th’ effect would die.
And he’s not afraid to echo the great authors who provided so many happy hours in his study, as in this salutation to his book as it journeys out into the world:
While thou didst keep thy Candor undefil’d,
Deerely I lov’d thee; as my first-borne child:
But when I saw thee wantonly to roame
From house to house, and never stay at home;
I brake my bonds of Love, and bad thee goe,
Regardless whether well thou sped’st, or no.
On with thy fortunes, then, what e’er they be;
If good I’le smile, if bad I’le sigh for Thee.
Or when he offers a pretty – and familiar – little note on a child who’s died:
Here she lies, a pretty bud,
Lately made of flesh and blood:
Who, as soone, fell fast asleep,
As her little eyes did peep.
Give her strewings; but not stir
The earth, that lightly covers her.
The Restoration of course changed his stunned and rootless life back into something resembling its old shape: in 1660 he was returned to his vicarage, and there he lived in resumed peace and presumed happiness until 1674 when death took him at a ripe old age (and, we can hope, quickly and quietly, in his study, after a particularly good night of reading). He had to wait a while for critical reception to warm to his work, but there have been some wonderful recent books about him – most especially Floris Delattre’s Robert Herrick from 1912 and S. Musgrove’s The Universe of Robert Herrick from 1950 – but as always with poets, he epitomizes himself as well as anybody, including during one of his thrice-yearly melodramatic renunciations of his art:
Ile sing no more, nor will I longer write
Of that sweet Lady, or that gallant Knight:
Ile sing no more of Frosts, Snowes, Dews and Showers;
No more of Groves, Meades, Springs, and wreaths of Flowers:
Ile write no more, nor will I tell or sing
Of Cupid, and his wittie coozning:
Ile sing no more of death, or shall the grave
No more my Dirges, and my Trentalls have.
He kept right on singing about all of those things, naturally – probably right up to the end. Poets have very little choice about that, after all.