Robert Herrick Analysis

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Robert Herrick Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 4,550 words.)