Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Cavalier Lyrists > Hesperides
  Robert Herrick Herrick’s epigrams  

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

I. Cavalier Lyrists.

§ 6. Hesperides.


The twelve hundred short poems which go to form Hesperides may fitly be regarded as marking the supreme achievement of renascence song. Herrick is often spoken of as a cavalier lyrist; but it is well to remember that he is much more than this, and that his lyre called into being melodies for which the typical cavalier lyrists—Carew and Suckling—recked little or nothing, but which would have found attentive ears among the contemporaries of Marlowe, Breton and Shakespeare. It is true that he was no Petrarchian, and held in small esteem that union of chivalrous sentiment and Platonic idealism which went to the making of the great English sonnet sequences in the last decade of the sixteenth century; but, while he followed his master, Ben Jonson, in drawing his inspiration from the classical lyrists of Greece and Rome rather than from those of the Italian renascence, he, nevertheless, entered into that heritage of song which had come down from the homelier strains of the Elizabethan song-books and miscellanies, and was ever ready to attune his lyre to the music of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Campion. His fairy-poems closely resemble those queen Mab dreams—
       
the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy—
with which Mercutio attempts to cure the amorous fancies of Romeo, and his Mad Maid’s Song might very well have fallen from the lips of Ophelia. His Cherry Ripe is an echo of Campion’s matchless lyric, “There is a garden in her face,” and his Corinna’s going a-Maying reads like a re-creation and expansion of the following little-known song from Thomas Bateson’s First Set of English Madrigals (1604):
       
Sister, awake! close not your eyes!
The day her light discloses;
And the bright morning doth arise
Out of her bed of roses.
See, the clear sun, the world’s bright eye,
In at our window peeping:
Lo! how she blusheth to espy
Us idle wenches sleeping.
Therefore, awake! make haste, I say,
And let us without staying,
All in our gowns of green so gay
Into the park a-maying.
  13
  Again, we may trace in Hesperides the influence of Marlowe. The fame of Marlowe’s beautiful lyric, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, reached far into the seventeenth century, but, whereas already in the handling of this theme by “Ignoto” in The Nymph’s Reply and by Donne in The Bait we may detect the inrush of disillusionment, or the hardening of pastoral courtship into gallantry, Herrick’s rendering of Marlowe’s call to the greenwood in his lyric To Phyllis to love and live with him has all the virginal charm and unaffected joyance of the original.   14
  If Herrick enters into the spirit of the idyllic song of Elizabethan days, he has also an ear for that which was still more remote from the sophisticated tastes of cavalier lyrists—the folk-song of the cornfield or the chimney corner. His charms to make the bread rise, to bring in the witch, or to scare away from the stables “the hag that rides the mare,” read like the primitive charm-songs of old English poetry, while such lyrics as The May-pole is up and The Tinker’s Song have the verve and melody of the popular song.   15
  But, while there is in Herrick an unmistakable vein of romanticism and a kinship with the untutored melodists of folk-song, it must, at the same time, be remembered that he is one of the most classical of English lyrists. His classicism derives, through Ben Jonson, from the great masters of Latin lyric—Catullus and Horace—as well as from the maenad throng of Alexandrian singers whose songs of love and mirth and wine have been fathered upon the Teian poet, Anacreon. On one occasion, too, he gives us, in The Cruel Maid, a free rendering of one of the idylls of Theocritus. Translations, or imitations, of the so-called odes of Anacreon are, as we have seen, to be met with here and there in the later collections of Elizabethan madrigals and miscellany-lyrics; but Herrick, when, in the London taverns, he writes his Canticles to Bacchus, or, garlanded with flowers, exclaims—
       
This day I’ll drown all sorrow;
Who knows to live to-morrow?
is the most Anacreontic of all English poets. He draws inspiration from Catullus in his epithalamia, and probably wrote his elegy Upon the Death of his Sparrow in imitation of Catullus’s Luctus in morte passeris; moreover, some of his love-lyrics to Julia and Anthea are reminiscent of the famous songs to Lesbia: but he lacks the passion and poignancy of the Veronese lyrist, though he rivals him in the terse precision of his style.
  16
  Horace is the inspirer of some of Herrick’s most sustained lyrics; and, the more closely the Hesperides poems are studied, the more fully do they reveal their author’s indebtedness to the odes, epodes and epistles of the Augustan poet. Horace was his first love, and the verses entitled A Country Life: to his Brother, Mr. Tho. Herrick, the first draft of which belongs to his ’prentice years, are directly modelled, in thought and expression, upon the famous Beatus ille epode. There is not much of Horace in Herrick’s love-songs; but, in his more sententious poems, and in those verses in which he promises himself immortality of fame, Horatian echoes abound, while the spirited and highly imaginative poem, His Age, which he dedicated to his “peculiar friend” and old Cambridge acquaintance, John Weekes, is one of the most Horatian lyrics in English literature.   17
  But the classicism of Herrick extends far beyond the scope of direct indebtedness to individual Greek or Roman authors. The atmosphere of his verses may be that of the London tavern or the Devonshire village, but, often enough, we find, mingled with all this, the atmosphere of a remote Roman world, clinging tenaciously to its faith in faun-habited woods, its genii of field and flood, or its household Lares and Penates. More than once, too, we are made to feel that there was more of the Roman flamen than the Christian priest in Herrick, and, even in his Christian Militant, we discern more of Roman stoicism than of the sermon on the mount. Herrick, despite his Noble Numbers, is one of the most pagan of English poets, and he cannot refrain from introducing references to Roman priestcraft even where, as in his lines, To the reverend Shade of his religious Father, his mood is one of profound seriousness. And, whereas most of the English poets of the renascence age were content with borrowing ideas or imagery from the ancient world, jealously preserving, at the same time, their independence of mind and their status as Tudor or Stewart Englishmen, Herrick could be satisfied with nothing less than a full absorption in the festive life of Rome; he assumes the toga as his daily wear, and lays his offerings of grains of frankincense and garlic chives before the image of his “peculiar Lar” with a sincerity which is unmistakable.   18
  His allegiance to the ancient world is likewise manifest in his poetic art. The Spenserian tradition, with its Italian grace and slow-moving cadences, made no appeal to him; and, almost alone of the Caroline lyrists, he refused to bow the knee to the metaphysic wit and perverse ingenuity of Donne. In all that pertained to verse and diction, Herrick was the disciple of Jonson, and, through him, of the great lyrists of antiquity. The sanity of Jonson’s poetic taste, his love of precision, his fastidious regard for lucidity and ordonnance, are all found again in Herrick, combined with a delicate charm and spontaneity of utterance which the elder poet often lacked. Occasionally—as in his Panegyric to Sir Lewis Pemberton, which is obviously modelled on Jonson’s Penshurst, and in his rapturous Night-Piece to Julia, which recalls, in idea and verse-structure, the song of the patrico in the masque Gipsies Metamorphosed—we can trace direct borrowings from Jonson; but what is of far more importance is the all-pervading sense of discipleship in everything that pertains to the canons of poetic art.   19
  Most of Herrick’s lyrics, as we have just seen, have an accent of spontaneity in them, but there is abundant evidence that he was a careful and deliberate artist who practised with unfailing assiduity the labour of the file. The lines entitled His Request to Julia indicate very clearly how fastidious was his artistic consciousness:
       
Julia, if I chance to die
Ere I print my poetry,
I most humbly thee desire
To commit it to the fire.
Better ’t were my book were dead,
Than to live not perfected.
  20
  The existence in manuscript form of a few of his poems furnishes us with abundant evidence of the fact that, during the long winter evenings which he spent at Dean Prior, he was engaged in the careful revision of his verses. Early versions of A Country Life, His Age, A Nuptial Song on Sir Clipseby Crew, together with some of the fairy-poems, are preserved in the Ashmole, Harley, Egerton and Rawlinson MSS. and have been collated with the Hesperides text by Grosart and Pollard. The collation shows that, in some instances, whole stanzas have been deleted and harsh or obscure lines remodelled, that everything has been sacrificed to lucidity and precision, and to the perfect adjustment of the style to the theme. In his lighter lyrics, the language is simple and even homely; but, in his more sustained odes, and in verses like the following, it acquires imaginative power, and becomes rich in metaphor:
       
Alas! for me, that I have lost
E’en all almost;
Sunk is my sight, set is my sun,
And all the loom of life undone:
The staff, the elm, the prop, the sheltering wall
Whereon my vine did crawl,
Now, now blown down; needs must the old stock fall.  2 
The above quotation will also serve to illustrate Herrick’s wonderful command of metre. The first half of the seventeenth century was a time of great metric freedom, when poets wrought wonderful melodies through their skilful handling of iambic or trochaic lines of varying length, and through the deft interlacing of their rimes. And, in all this, Herrick is himself a master-spirit. He has left us whole poems—for example, His Departure Hence—in which the verses consist of a single accent, and others in which a verse of four accents is followed by one of two accents; while, in such poems as His Ode for Ben Jonson, or To Primroses filled with Morning Dew, his craftsmanship in the structure of his rhythms, the use of enjambment and the spacing of his rimes calls for the highest praise:
       
Why do ye weep, sweet babes? can tears
Speak grief in you,
Who were but born
Just as the modest morn
Teem’d her refreshing dew?
Alas! you have not known that shower
That mars a flower,
Nor felt the unkind
Breath of a blasting wind;
Nor are ye worn with years,
Or warp’d as we,
Who think it strange to see
Such pretty flowers, like to orphans young,
To speak by tears before ye have a tongue. 3 
His finest metrical effects are achieved in his iambic and trochaic measures; but, in his more popular songs, he makes skilful use of trisyllabic feet, employing both the dactyl and the anapaest. In a few of his poems, he employs the heroic couplet, and a comparison of his early poems in this measure with those of a later period will show that he shared in the movement of the age towards the Augustan measures of Dryden and Pope.
  21
  Herrick’s lyric range is very great, and extends from the simple folk-song to the Horatian ode or the Catullian epithalamy. In addition, he has left us epistles addressed to friends and patrons, a large number of epigrams and epitaphs and several pastoral eclogues in amoebean verse, of which the most beautiful is that in which Lycidas Herrick reproaches Endymion Porter for seeking the gilded pleasures of the court and forsaking the Florabell, dainty Amarillis and handsome-handed Drosomell of the hills and dales. Descriptive verse was not altogether to his liking, but his fairy-poems and such verses as those to The Hock-Cart, called forth by the contemplation of the festive ceremonial of the country-side, are full of charm and animation. A lover of birds and flowers, and of all the amenities of country life, Herrick can scarcely be called a great nature poet. He rarely attempts to paint a well-ordered landscape, with foreground and background, but prefers to concentrate his thoughts upon some one object in the picture to the exclusion of everything else. His most ambitious attempt at landscape painting is seen in the poem entitled A Country Life, addressed to Endymion Porter; in its representation of a day in rural England from cockcrow and sunrise to the evening revelry about the maypole or amid the nut-brown mirth of a Twelfth Night feast, it challenges comparison with L’Allegro. But Herrick’s command over nature is surest where he can blend descriptions of country scenery and paintings of still life with the outpourings of lyric emotion; or where, as in the verses To Primroses filled with Morning Dew or To Daffodils, he can turn from the contemplation of the beauty of flowers to reflection on the transience of mortal life.   22
  His poetic genius is best displayed in such lyrics as Corinna’s going a-Maying or To Phyllis to love and live with him. In these poems, a dreamy love-sentiment—which was more to Herrick than intense passion—is introduced to give tone and warmth to the idyllic portrayal of nature and country life, after the manner of the finest lyrics of Spenser’s Shepheards Calender. In the one poem, all is movement and animation, in the other, a halcyon calm broods over the scene; and, in both, the artistic handling is perfect.   23
  The range of his lyric emotion in his love-songs is considerable. At times, he offends by his gross sensuousness, but, more often, his tone is that of dreamy reverie or, in those love-songs which seem to have been inspired by his associations with the court, that of refined and graceful gallantry. He far surpasses Carew and the other cavalier lyrists in the delicate homage which he renders to those noble ladies who gathered around Henrietta Maria at Whitehall, and is even happier in the pastoral wooing of Mistress Elizabeth Wheeler, the Amarillis of Hesperides, who belonged not to the court but the city. In The Night-Piece to Julia, and in the famous song To Anthea—“Bid me to live”—his lyric emotion becomes intense and spiritualised; the fire of love touches his heart, and he rises to the level of Catullus or Burns:
       
Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me;
And hast command of every part,
To live and die for thee.
  24

Note 2An Ode to Endymion Porter upon his Brother’s Death. [ back ]
Note 3To Primroses filled with Morning Dew [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Robert Herrick Herrick’s epigrams  
 
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