Robert Herrick Essay - Critical Essays


Robert Herrick is a poet of numerous modes and moods, whose poetic pleasure it appears to have been to present his readers with a world of abundance and variety. One need look no further than the opening poem in Hesperides, “The Argument of His Book,” to get a sense not only of the dimensions of this plenitude but also of the underlying concerns that give Herrick’s world its coherence, as well as of the style in which his poetic vision is mediated.

“The Argument of His Book”

Ostensibly, “The Argument of His Book” is a mere inventory, a poetic table of contents to the diverse “topics” treated in the hundreds of poems to follow, from the simple things of nature, “Brooks, Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers,” to the grand themes of divinity, heaven, and hell. In its construction, the poem bespeaks simplicity, with the various categories to be treated in Herrick’s ensuing poems neatly itemized in a series of seven rhymed, end-stopped couplets, each beginning with the unpretentious declaration “I say” or “I write.” The incantatory power that builds with the sonorous reiteration and skillful alternation of “I sing” and “I write” gives aural hints of an art that merely counterfeits artlessness and transforms a “simple” and potentially monotonous list into something like a litany, a ritualized—some have said liturgical—chant. As a result, the overtly commonplace and profane subjects, the things of nature, the country customs, the affairs of youth and the heart, acquire a heightened significance and a semblance of parity with the explicitly spiritual themes. The things of this world and those of the next, “The Argument of His Book” would suggest, do not entail essentially opposed visions of experience but, when apprehended with the heightening power of art, are revealed to be complementary constituents of one coherent universe. In “The Argument of His Book,” Herrick brings together the contrarieties of existence but does so to reveal their intrinsic harmony and point to their ultimate reconciliation.

What art heightens, it changes; and so “metamorphosis,” both as theme and as the image of art’s heightening power, is central to “The Argument of His Book” and remains so throughout Herrick’s verse. Thus, the “Blossoms” to which Herrick alludes in the opening lines of “The Argument of His Book” are of interest not only as flowers but also as emblems of a continuous process of mythopoeic creation and transformation, as parts of the story of “How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.” In this way, nature heightened by art becomes art. The liquids of nature, the “Dewes” and “Raines,” are fused and merged within the closure of one of Herrick’s couplets with liquids refined by art “piece by piece” into cosmetic artifacts: “Balme,” “Oyle,” “Spice,” and “Amber-Greece.” In the sensual delights “of Youth, of Love,” the poet finds the “access” to sing, not of sensuality or wantonness, but rather, in the phrase that has come to be synonymous with Herrick’s personal signature, “cleanly-Wantonnesse.”

What is “cleanly-Wantonnesse”? At once a figure of oxymoron, or paradox, and pleonasm, it is nothing less than the seminal conceit of Herrick’s verse. On one hand, it evokes a wantonness in all its pejorative senses of lasciviousness, unruliness, and extravagance rendered “cleanly,” chaste, and orderly; on the other hand, it suggests a “wantonnesse” in the less opprobrious sense of innocent playfulness that by its very definition must be “cleanly.” In the very “play” of the conceit, Herrick suggests the way in which nature unrefined and base can be redeemed and shown to be “cleanly” by the power of poetic language.

“Cleanly-Wantonnesse,” however, denotes not only nature heightened by art but also nature preserved by art from the destructive forces to which it is subject: time, decay, and dissolution. For all their sensuous appeal and connotations of fecundity, the “Dewes” and “Raines” that Herrick includes in his poetic repertoire are also conventional metonyms of transience and mourning and anticipate the presence in his verse of a strong elegiac impulse. Indeed, in Herrick’s poetic world, of which “The Argument of His Book” is an epitome, the metamorphosis of art and the mutability of nature are inseparably linked, the former arising from and responding to the latter, even as the stories of “How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White” are immediately preceded in the same couplet by the theme of “Times trans-shifting.” As natural phenomena, the sensual delights “of Youth, of Love” are as ephemeral as blossoms; yet the “cleanly-Wantonnesse” that Herrick envisions in these experiences is proof against mortality and, in the world of his verse, as enduring as the “Heaven” that Herrick hopes to have, “after all.”

“The Amber Bead”

The images and issues introduced in “The Argument of His Book” recur in much of Herrick’s verse and are particularly conspicuous in the works for which he is best remembered. One thinks immediately, for example, of “The Amber Bead,” Herrick’s delicately terse four-stanza, four-line adaptation of one of Martial’s epigrams. Its very size a reflection of the theme it articulates, “The Amber Bead” affirms the victory of art over the corruptive processes of nature. By being “cleanly” encased within a bead of amber, a common fly acquires a permanence and significance in death that it could never have attained in life. In turn, the congealed amber becomes a medium of art that derives its function from the heightening it imparts to a thing of nature. Within the metamorphosis of the poem, the bead becomes a chamber, and, as if to accentuate the triumph of art over decay, the poet notes in the closing distich that though as “Urne,” as an emblem of death, the bead may be “little,” as “room,” a place more often associated with living things, it is “More rich than Cleopatra’s Tombe.”

The Julia poems

The dialectic encapsulated in “The Amber Bead” is explored in varying tonalities and degrees of resolution over a wide range of Herrick’s poems and is evident even in the many ostensibly frolicsome compliments that Herrick pays to his poetic mistresses, chief among whom is Julia. Most of these unfold as celebrations of some particular part or aspect of the lady’s person: “Julia’s Clothes,” “Julia’s Ribbon,” “Julia’s Breath,” “The Candor of Julia’s Teeth,” to name a few. All are exercises in synecdoche and in extolling the part they celebrate the personage the part adorns. Each, in turn, is a piece of hyperbole, investing the item in question with miraculous properties, the reader is led to believe, simply because the item is an extension of Julia. Heightened in the process, then, are Julia herself and all that belongs to her, and nature as well, which is at once surpassed and enriched by Julia’s very presence.

Were all these poems on Julia straightforward variations on this formula, they would not have engendered and sustained the interest they have. Instead, they are exercises in discovery, and by indirection and implication lead the reader to infer what is never explicitly stated. Consider, for example, the distich on Julia titled “Another upon her weeping.” At a glance the poem would appear to belabor the obvious and in none too artful a manner. Told merely that Julia “by the River sate; and sitting there,/ She wept, and made it deeper by a teare,” the reader wonders why it need be said twice in one line that Julia was sitting by the river and may ask why, if the consequence of Julia’s weeping is merely the addition of one tear to the river, the poem needed to be written at all. It is only when one considers the secondary sense of “deeper” that the experience of the poem and the game of the poet become clearer. The dropping of a tear has made the river not merely physically deeper but also metaphysically deeper, more significant. The poet does not know, or, at least, does not say how this change has been accomplished; it is a mystery, and mysteries, as supernatural phenomena, are not to be solved but contemplated as manifestations of a higher power. Hence the deliberation with which the poet twice mentions where Julia was sitting: By protracting the line, he prolongs the experience and calls attention to the nub of the mystery, that Julia’s mere presence enhances the value of the river. The poet has stated nothing of the kind; indeed, he could insist slyly that he was only describing a physical occurrence. Rather, it is Herrick’s art here, as elsewhere, to immerse his reader in the process of discovery and permit the reader to recognize firsthand the power of poetic art to transform the commonplace into something extraordinary and imperishable.

“Julia’s Petticoat”

Herrick’s success in implicating the reader in the experience and interpretation of a poem is very much in evidence in another work involving Julia, the longer and more prominent “Julia’s Petticoat.” An apt illustration of “cleanly-Wantonnesse,” the poem makes it clear that “cleanliness” and “wantonnesse” are in the eye of the beholder, both the poet who observes and describes the movements of Julia’s gown and the reader who observes the poet and participates vicariously in the poet’s experience.

From the very outset, however, it would appear that the experience in which the reader is invited to participate vicariously is itself vicarious and rather disingenuous. Unlike “Another upon her weeping,” this piece is explicitly addressed to Julia, and by exploiting the rhetorical figure of synecdoche, the poet can hide, as it were, behind Julia’s petticoat and pay her compliments without being so bold as to address them to the person herself. In this way, the interests of both parties are served: Julia can be flattered without blushing or having her modesty impugned, and the poet has license to fantasize as sensually as he pleases while feigning detachment.

The poem opens with the poet making an effort in good faith to keep his mind on “cleanly” things. Julia’s garment is not merely any common blue petticoat, but an “Azure,” therefore, heavenly blue, “Robe.” Lest anyone suspect that the poet is paying more attention to Julia herself than to the gown she is wearing, he describes the notion of the garment as “ayrie,” as if to suggest that it is animated either by its own power or by some force independent of Julia. However, the poet’s efforts to maintain a distinction between the movements of the petticoat and the movements of its wearer seem less and less successful, and the more “wanton,” the more playful and unruly the motions of the skirts, the more “wanton,” the more lasciviously suggestive grows the language of the poet. In the space of only two lines, the poet applies the words “erring,” “wandring,” and “transgression” to the undulations of the gown, all...

(The entire section is 4550 words.)