27. (Robert Herrick)

All of his women, imaginary or real, with their deliciously deliquescent clothes and delicately disordered laces, with their nipples and heated flesh, and their nymphish divinity and nymphish humanity, and all amounting to what? Occasions for cutting a caper and turning a verse? For songs (the von Trope family)? For scrimshaw designs on desires and departures, and tidy homages to the fleshly graces, alongside casually dispersed reflections on aging and worldly wealth? And all of this to what end? Should anyone be surprised that Herrick is the consummate seventeenth-century anthology poet, with no collected poems in print, no nicely-edited, affordable edition of Hesperides to stand in the shadow of The Temple? 

Herrick is held to five or six in W.H. Auden’s Book of Light Verse, but there must have been a strain on the editor’s self-discipline; Herrick’s poetry would seem to exemplify what Auden believed light verse at its best to be: mundane but not trivial; slender but not insubstantial; lissome but not loose. Light, but light refracted by crystal hardness; taut and taught. It is demonstratively, self-consciously made, and demonstrative about the materials of its making: the classical tradition. “A careful perusal of all of Herrick’s poems, ” writes Anthony Hecht, “can leave little doubt that his Julias, Electras, Corinnas, and other amorous and well-endowed ladies were the daughters of the classical conventions, the creations of his Greek and Roman predecessors, so much admired by Ben Jonson, to whose learning and poetic skill Herrick was devoted, and of whom he counted himself, in unambiguous terms, a disciple.” And, in the old Sphere History: “The close connection, though, between many of Herrick’s poems and specific classical themes and genres ought to warn against placing too much emphasis on the biographical element,” such that a seemingly biographically pertinent poem like ‘His Return to London,’ “is simply written in the classical tradition of the praise of Rome, the terminology being so impeccably classical that Herrick refers to himself as a ‘free-born Roman.'” “Simply” exposes the lie of the claim; but something there nonetheless.

Hecht writes in response to those who feel that there is some reason Herrick might have had to be ashamed, in the era of puritanical and less-than-puritanical suspicions against pleasure, for writing about Julia’s nipples or the Via Lactea of her breasts, as if these were symptoms of Herrick’s corruption as an Anglican minister; for Hecht, we need not feel he would or ought to have felt ashamed. The Sphere History writes against biography, differently from Hecht, but similarly in that it cautions us against taking the poems as evidence for speaking out on the life of the man. Both defenses, and Hecht’s quite explicitly, given its surroundings in a chapter on public and private art in his On the Laws of the Poetic Art, would serve as reminders that Herrick’s art needs to be understood as public, in so far as even its most defiantly private and erotic relishings are couched in a public tradition of classical learning–one that, and here the critical moves since Hecht has written would be made, offers a poet resources to affirm and indulge in pleasures prescribed by certain wings of the Church and Civic polity, even while making the case, by their control, measure, and erudition, that those pleasures are, far from self-indulgent demotic frenzies of desire, themselves dependent upon traditions of discipline and restraint. Herrick’s verse resounds in the civic arena, on behalf of a civilization where sex and sensuality are afforded not only space, but respect–where they are given license, by proper standards, by an acknowledged body of conventions (themselves conventions of the body) so as to avoid becoming licentious. Herrick’s light verse, like all light verse in Auden’s standards, is no less captive to the gravity of the era than denser verses would have been.

In Auden’s starry-eyes, light verse requires a special relationship between public and poet, in which the poet could speak as a person to person, with a shared background of values, knowledge, and culture. This seems sentimental to an extreme, similar to the myth about that least light of poets, Dante: that his world possessed a unified doctrine of Catholicism as codified by the intense intellectual rigors of the Aquinas and the scholastics. Eric Griffiths, in the top-notch introduction to his anthology, Dante in English, worries that picture to a point where we’d be remiss to accept it as a map to the past.

Whether or not Herrick had a large public of like-civilized readers would not ensure he wrote the poetry; three close friends reading might have been enough. Perhaps what Auden finds and admires in the poets who excel in writing light verse is the conjured illusion of a sustaining civilization, so that the poems ask that we attend to a context that need not ever have been, anymore than Julia or Corinna need ever have been. Herrick’s poems invent the air that they breathe, and let us breathe it too. It is not an emblem of the res publica, but a part of the thing, hollowed out within; not escapism but respite, with a temporary suspension of the laws; a free-zone.

This much seems plausible enough, and at this point I was stuck in how to proceed. My first thought was to continue thus:

The tension of the language–the pressure on the words that sets them apart and that makes the poetry work as poetry–lies in part in the uncertainty of how much they do let in, how much we can read into them the commerce of worldly woes, religious convictions, the violence of political ruptures…Or not “read into,” but how much we can feel that they are freighted by these things.

The point is not what current critics might want it to be: that to read historical circumstances into the poetry would be to show the poetry matters more. Instead, the point would be, historical contexts aside, that Herrick’s poetry frequently reminds us that the mythical world that they would suggest surrounds them, is uneasy, precarious, like all pastoral landscapes; knowing some history might help with Herrick, but knowing history is not necessary to feeling that the world that the poems imagine to be surrounding them is keeping another world at bay.

But I had strayed from the words; this is an argument I would like to make, but not quite the argument that I could make. There were, of course, some moments, when something like this is true… The Sphere History, implicitly maligned by the earlier choice of quotation, is excellent on one of those most anthologized pieces, the gambit, “The Argument of His Book”:

I Sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers:

Of April, May, of June, and July-Flowers.

I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,

Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.

I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse

By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.

I sing of Dewes, of Raines, and piece by piece

Of Balme, of Oyle, of Space, and Amber-Greece.

I sing of Times trans-shifting; and I write

How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.

I write of Groves, of Twilights, and I sing

The Court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King.

I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)

Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

The Sphere critic: ‘I write of Hell’–is this an admission of guilt? Is Herrick saying that to write of all this is to write of Hell? Or is he, perhaps, being ironical at the expense of the Puritans to whom his ‘cleanly-Wantonnesse’ would indeed be proof of extreme sinfulness? Although the second alternative is plausible enough, a third interpretation is possible. Hell and Heaven may be metaphors for parting and meeting of friends or lovers, since this is how Herrick himself defines parting…If this is so, then Herrick confesses freely that he sings of Heaven in its religious sense.”  Hell is not ambiguous, but it a complex word, where the complexity lies not only in the conventions of what it commonly meant, but also in what we might believe Herbert on that occasion to have meant by it; the idiolect interfering with the dialect, where the idiolect might be speaking the tongue of the imagined Hesperides, the geography of the book’s imagination.

Then my dissatisfaction increased the more I read and re-read the poems…this one instance that fit so well was, not an anomaly, hard to find in abundance and I started to find instead that the idea that Herrick’s poems summoned a context always threatening to give way led down the dreary, well-trodden path to noticing all of the times he mentions death, aging and loss in the poems. It seemed a deadening end, as objections mounted: yes, Herrick indulges in this world of mythic nymphs and sensuality, but how is that not just the court myth of Cavaliers, in modified form? yes, Herrick’s poetry registers that it is fragile, but how is this not itself just another inheritance of the Classical literature?

Back then to the first questions: what does it amount to, reading poem after poem on nymph and time and nipple and breast? Or another way of saying it: does the poetry, as a collection, constitute a discovery that could not be known from reading the poems in anthologies alone? (It obviously makes a difference–but not all differences are discoveries).

Pleasure, appropriately for Herrick, led my way. Possessed of a 1960s Norton edition of Herrick’s collected poems, I found myself reading successive poems, the succession itself being a great part of the delight produced; not the order of the succession, but the fact of it, and that it continues, on and on, with variations upon themes, and unexpected diversions to new ones. And the pleasure in each not that of a well-wrought urn, but of a fast-fondled bead; fast because fleeting, and yet firmly, roundedly felt.

Herrick is master of the epigram, and even the longer poems frequently bear the epigrammatic stamp (they would be epigrams, if they could). It is a form well-suited to the poet whose poems, Cavalierly, instantiate a mythic civilization, a fantasy land: in its brevity, it acknowledges that the fantasy can only be sustained for a brief moment of space; in its compact density of wit, it lends credence to the fantasy, a solid relic, a shard from a larger experience or event.

But really, it’s the march of epigrams and the epigrammatic that makes the difference, because the epigram, claiming, by their care and delicacy, a stake to the keep-stake status, to be held onto through time, is also, more than any other form or genre or mode (whatever it is exactly), a reminder of the ephemeral,  and this not by virtue of its fragility (they are so memorable and compact as to be less fragile; more preservable), but by virtue of being implicitly a statement that “this alone could be retained”–that “this was salvaged of an occasion much greater, but no way else recoverable.” So Hesperides comes to resemble a diary, except that diaries, even when edited and revised for posthumous publication, are not intended to show off their own making, and their finish, as Herrick’s poems do.

And this perhaps because a diary or a journal can take, as Herrick’s poems cannot take, the world they record for granted; diary entries need to be lapidary because the world’s stony abutment on the author is often assumed and the occasion for writing in the first place. But in Herrick’s travelers journal to the land of Hesperides, there is no rugged and unyielding world occasioning the entries; there is the softness and pliancy of nymphs, liquefying in the mind unless they could be cast in the proper material, and there are glances at much aside from nymphs, at vanity, at aging, at ambition–but almost always, it seems, glanced at from the civil sedan, with a chaise-longue longueur for the life of refinement and decanters of wine.

Maybe it is better to read Herrick’s concerns about death as unignorable fears that he could not sustain the fantasy for long enough, that the hollow he had made in the res publica couldn’t hold. There’s genuine sorrow in the recognition:

I have lost, and lately, these

Many dainty Mistresses:

Stately Julia, prime of all;

Sapho next, a principall:

Smooth Anthea, for a skin

White, and Heaven-like Chrystalline:

Sweet Electra, and the choice

Mryha, for the Lute, and Voice.

Next, Corrina, for her wit,

And the graceful use of it:

With Perilla: All are gone;

Onely Herrick’s left alone,

For to number sorrow by

Their departures hence, and die.


One summer, at Balbec…









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