What is actually known and documented of Robert Herrick’s life forms a rather skeletal outline and can be readily summarized. Christened in London on August 24, 1591, Herrick appears to have been the seventh child of Nicholas and Julian Herrick. Nicholas, a goldsmith, fell to his death from an upper story of his house on Goldsmith’s Row on November 9, 1592, just two days after he had recorded his will. Obvious questions were raised concerning the possibility that Herrick’s father had committed suicide, and they appear never to have been resolved. The nature of Herrick’s boyhood education is not known, but in 1607, he was apprenticed for ten years to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, a wealthy goldsmith and merchant. The venture, however, was aborted, when, in 1613, at the relatively old age of twenty-two, Herrick was enrolled with his uncle’s consent in St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was during his years at Cambridge that Herrick wrote a series of letters to his uncle, all of which are variations on the timeless theme rehearsed by innumerable students: Send more money. Herrick received his A.B. degree in 1617, his A.M. in 1620, and in 1623, he was ordained an Anglican priest, serving in 1625 as chaplain in the duke of Buckingham’s abortive military expedition to the Isle of Rhe. In 1630, Herrick left London and its cultural life to assume the vicarage of Dean Prior in rustic Devon, a position he held until 1647, when, because of his loyalties to the king and the Church of England, he was expelled, an event that was the catalyst for his return to London and the publication of his works in the following year. Nothing else is known of him until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when he successfully petitioned the Crown to be reinstated as vicar of Dean Prior, where, with no evidence of strife, he resided until his death in 1674 at the age of eighty-two.
That the documentary detail of Herrick’s life is so easily reducible to a thumbnail sketch has made the task of relating Herrick’s biography to his writings a difficult one. Indeed, early commentators tended, understandably, to approach Herrick’s poems as if they were authorized and unexpurgated autobiography, attempting to fill in the gaps in what was known of his life from the evidence of his works. Such a modus operandi runs the obvious risk of confusing the poetic persona that Herrick creates in his verse with the person whom the persona masks, ultimately doing little to elucidate either the works or his life. Here is one example of this kind of mythobiography: In his poetry, Herrick projects himself as a discriminating analyst of feminine charms addressing a great number of meditations on beauty to personages such as Corinna, Perilla, Julia, and Dianeme. This projection, however, does not in itself suggest that Herrick necessarily led the life of a libertine during his years in London or that indeed Corinna, Perilla, Julia, and Dianeme ever existed. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that Herrick wrote such poems to while away the idle moments he supposedly endured after leaving the high life of London for the rustic seclusion of Dean Prior.
Still, invalid as it may be to take Herrick’s poetry as the true mirror of his life, one can see, even from the sketchy biographical information available, how he wove the richly textured tapestry of his verse from the diverse strands of his background. His poems bespeak the deep immersion in the classics that he would have experienced at Cambridge, along with a full acquaintance...
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with the poetic conventions current in the poetic circles of London in the 1620’s. At the same time, his verses are steeped both in the biblical learning that any moderately educated person at the time would have imbibed and in the tenets of Anglican doctrine with which an Anglican cleric—especially one eager to demonstrate his steadfast affiliation with the Church of England—would have been conversant.
More important, Herrick draws upon the various elements of his life to create a complex and engaging poetic persona. The Herrick one meets in the poems is a character who bestrides different and potentially opposed worlds, seeking to reconcile them in the alembic of his verse. Classicist and divine, he pretends to be not merely the priest of both Apollo and the Christian God but also their poetic priest who aspires to serve the interests of both with one poetic vision and one poetic vocabulary—“Part Pagan,” as he puts it in “The Fairie Temple: Or, Oberons Chappell,” and “part Papisticall.” Poetic priest of Bacchus and Eros as well, Herrick celebrates sensual experience for its physical value and for its intimations of a higher truth. Portraying himself as a votary of urban delights, Herrick asserts his contempt for the unrefined elements of country life but labors to articulate the ways in which country customs—like urban refinements—have their part to play in his poetic universe.
Above all, Herrick’s poetic persona would have his readers believe that his life is embodied in his volume of verses, that his “book” is all that he has been and all that he hopes, in the face of encroaching mortality, “Times trans-shifting,” to be. In that fictive sense, his works are, indeed, “autobiography.” In fact, though the literary record of the turbulent mid-seventeenth century is far from closed, there is no more eloquent testimony to the degree to which Herrick appears to have made his “book” his “Pillar” than the total literary silence into which he seems to have fallen after the publication of his verse, and in which the final twenty-five years of his life are enveloped. Vexing as this silence has been to critics and biographers trying to learn more about the man, it has had the effect of underscoring the point of one of Herrick’s epigrams: “Seldome comes Glorie till a man be dead.”