Corinna's Going A-Maying

by Robert Herrick

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Themes and Meanings

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“Corinna’s Going A-Maying” draws extensively from elements of pastoral and carpe diem poetry. Both types of poetry tend to be dramatic, spoken by a lover to his beloved. Pastoral literature envisages an ideal world of nature far removed from the transitory one of human experience, a world of youthful lovers. In the evergreen pastoral world, golden lads and girls do not “As chimney-sweepers come to dust,” as a song in William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (c. 1609-1610) says. Christopher Marlowe’s“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” describes such a happy world, one which Sir Walter Raleigh later debunks in “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”

Carpe diem poetry was developed by Horace in pre-Christian Rome. Carpe diem is Latin for “seize the day,” and poetry that advanced this theme became extremely popular in the strife-torn England of the seventeenth century. Carpe diem poetry always expresses the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Time is fleeting, life is short, and beyond this life lies only the darkness of eternity. Since there is no afterlife in this philosophy of hedonism, the pleasures of earthly existence become all important. It is doubtful that Robert Herrick, an Anglican priest, literally subscribed to the tenets of hedonism. It makes more sense to regard this poem and his “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” as literary exercises or, at most, as political statements against the restraints of Puritanism. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is perhaps the best-known example in English of the carpe diem theme. The poem is brief, and the language is simple, unlike the elaborate “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” “Corinna’s Going A-Maying” is similar to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in its strong dramatic element, especially its rhetorical strategies that shift from flattery to fear.

Collectively, pastoral poems, such as Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and carpe diem poetry represent “the poetry of seduction.” This poetry is always dramatic, spoken by the male lover, who is seeking to persuade his sweetheart to submit to him. Its main interest is the character of the speaker and the ingenuity of his argument. The lady’s response is never made known, except in Raleigh’s exceptional “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” “Corinna’s Going A-Maying” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” are among the finest examples in English of the poetry of seduction.

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