Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Herrick is primarily a poet of celebration. The opening poem of Hesperides is a catalog of the myriad pleasures of nature, society, and folklore that inspire his poetry, and not the least among these is love: “I write of youth, of love, and have accesse/ By these, to sing of cleanly-wantonnesse.” “Delight in Disorder” is a poem celebrating cleanly wantonness. Its theme cannot be more accurately and concisely stated than this.

In the poems of John Donne, another cleric of the seventeenth century, one is sure of the wantonness, but not entirely convinced of the cleanliness. In George Herbert’s love poems, all addressed to God, one is sure of their intense cleanliness, but something of the wantonness is (appropriately) lacking. Herrick manages to bring these two somewhat contradictory qualities into perfect union.

It is interesting to remember that Herrick was the son of a goldsmith and was himself apprenticed to a goldsmith for several years. It is likely that some of this training carried over into his poems, for they have all the perfection, balance, and delicacy produced by exquisite craftsmanship. They are well-wrought ornaments, fit for the dragon-guarded tree in the garden of the Hesperides. This makes them difficult to dissect and analyze in books of literary criticism. Virgil Heltzel used to tell his classes of the professor who wrestled for years with the problem of how to teach Herrick. His solution was this: to read the poem as intelligently and musically as he could, to wait a moment for the experience to be appreciated, and then to remark, “Gentlemen, a gem!”