“As thou deserv’st, be proud; then gladly let/ The Muse give thee the Delphick Coronet.” This brief epigram, one of hundreds Robert Herrick included in his collection of twelve hundred poems, best describes the pride with which he presented his Hesperides and the recognition he received after years of neglect. His subtitle indicates the inclusion in one volume of his Hesperides and his Noble Numbers, a group of ecclesiastical poems, prayers, hymns, and apothegms dated 1647. This collection, together with fifteen or so poems discovered by nineteenth century scholars and about twice the number recovered later in manuscript, constitute the literary remains of one of the finest lyricists in the English language.
The arrangement of the poems in Hesperides (the title is a conceit based on the legend of nymphs who guarded with a fierce serpent the golden apples of the goddess Hera) is whimsical. Most of the lyrics were composed in Devonshire, where Herrick was vicar of Dean Prior from 1629 until the Puritan victories caused his removal from his parish in 1647. Restored to his living in 1662, he lived until his death in the West Country, which had inspired his pagan-spirited, rustic verse.
The great Herrick scholar L. C. Martin discovered a chronology, from the collation of many manuscripts, which indicates the four general periods in which these poems were composed, carefully rewritten, and then painstakingly published. From the time of his apprenticeship to his goldsmith uncle at least one poem remains, “A Country Life,” which may have been one of the reasons why the youthful poet was allowed to terminate his service and go to Cambridge. Though Herrick’s activities during his university period are remembered chiefly for the letters he wrote asking his uncle for money, he also composed a variety of commendatory poems and memory verses. One, the longest poem he wrote, is addressed to a fellow student who was ordained in 1623.
The second period, and perhaps the most important, was from 1617 to 1627, when he became the favorite of the “sons” of Ben Jonson. Herrick’s famous poem, “His Fare-well to Sack,” epitomizes these formative years of good talk, wide reading, witty writing, and good fellowship. In this poem, too, are the names of the poets who most influenced him—Anacreon, Horace, and by implication Catullus and Theocritus. The well-known “The Argument of His Book” echoes the pastoral strain in the poet’s declaration of his literary interests:
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 AccesseBy these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.I sing of...
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