Robert Herrick Analysis

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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The vast majority of the poetic works of Robert Herrick (HEHR-ihk) are included among the approximately fourteen hundred pieces contained in Hesperides, Herrick’s only known published book of verse. There are about forty poems from contemporary manuscripts and poetic miscellanies that have at various times been attributed to Herrick, but their authorship is not certain and has been the subject of much editorial speculation.

Herrick is known exclusively for his poems. All that survives of his writing apart from his poetry are some fifteen letters he wrote when he was a student at Cambridge University (1613-1620) and a few pieces of official correspondence. The only other piece of writing with which he has been linked is a manuscript of poems and prose of topical interest, part of which has been said to be in his handwriting; his role in its authorship and compilation, however, is not yet firmly established.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In the more than three and a half centuries during which Robert Herrick’s poems have circulated, his reputation has fluctuated widely. The earliest reference to him places him as a young poet in the company of the much esteemed Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. One of his editors, J. Max Patrick, argued in The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick (2d ed., 1968) that there is evidence to believe that Herrick was sufficiently well regarded in certain circles to warrant a relatively copious first printing of his collected works in 1648. What does not seem in doubt, however, is the oblivion into which his poems appear to have fallen within fifty years of their publication. References to Herrick are scant in the eighteenth century, and it was only in 1796 that an inquiry about him in a literary magazine began to stimulate the interest that would lead to his poetic exhumation. In 1810, an edition of about three hundred of his poems restored Herrick to public attention, providing a preview of the public response that his work would generate throughout much of the nineteenth century. Herrick came to be read and extolled for his numerous delicate and euphonious lyrics, while his satiric and “gross” epigrams proved offensive to Victorian sensibilities and went largely unpublished.

Modern critics have attempted to assess Herrick’s achievements in a more balanced and integrated way; if they have generally been less rhapsodic over the “prettiness” and “sweetness” of his lyrics than the Victorians, they have also paid closer attention to the technical virtuosity and poetic acumen at work in the numerous forms and modes that Hesperides exhibits. In the modern “rediscovery” of the excellences of seventeenth century poetry, Herrick has fared well, ranking with John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton, as among the most widely read poets of the period; his “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” and “Delight in Disorder” are among the most often anthologized seventeenth century poems. At the same time, comparisons with his prominent poetic contemporaries—although occasionally invidious—have not only confirmed Herrick’s stature but also helped to define the nature of his poetic achievement and appeal. To be sure, Herrick’s poems do not have the dramatic intensity and immediacy of Donne’s, and his one published volume may appear to lack the polyphonic self-scrutiny and structural rigor at work in Herbert’s The Temple (1633). Still, from the concerns and images that recur throughout the Hesperides, there emerges a sense of a unifying poetic sensibility molding and transforming the disparate materials of the real world to reflect a coherent aesthetic vision. This vision is of sufficient strength and lucidity to suggest precisely what T. S. Eliot once claimed that Herrick’s verse lacked: the “continuous, conscious purpose” characteristic of all major poets. Moreover, in his intermingling of ostensibly sensuous and erotic poetic experiences with religious, elegiac verse and political poems on the English Civil War, Herrick is increasingly coming to be seen not as a poetic trifler of exquisite sensibilities and superficial concerns but as a man very much of his war-torn, “troublesome” times. His “book” forms a significant poetic testament to a critical period in the evolution of English society and poetic art.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Coiro, Ann Baynes. Robert Herrick’s “Hesperides” and the Epigram Book Tradition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Argues for the structural integrity of Hesperides, insisting that the collection of poems be read as a whole. After exploring the cultural, political, and generic implications of the title of the book, Coiro provides a history of the epigram tradition and concludes with chapters on the epigrams of praise, mocking, and advice. Copious notes provide a rich bibliography to Herrick’s criticism.

Guibbory, Achsah. Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton: Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Offers new and original readings of Herrick, George Herbert, Thomas Browne, and John Donne in an examination of the relationship between literature and religious conflict in seventeenth century England.

Hammons, Pamela. “Robert Herrick’s Gift Trouble: Male Subjects ’Trans-shifting’ into Objects.” Criticism 47, no. 1 (Winter, 2005): 31-65. Discusses how Herrick’s portrayal of gift giving involves the male persona of the poem becoming absorbed into the item being given.

Landrum, David. “Robert Herrick and the Ambiguities of Gender.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49, no. 2 (Summer, 2007): 181-208. Landrum argues that Herrick’s attitude toward women varied from the predominant view that women were subordinate to men and was instead revisionist.

Marcus, Leah S. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Marcus devotes a chapter to Herrick’s Hesperides, which she discusses in terms of their relationship to the revelry and holiday moods associated with the monarchy. Marcus regards Herrick as the Cavalier poet-priest and finds in Hesperides, particularly in “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” the sexual energy associated with her thesis.

_______. Robert Herrick. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. Updated in the light of later scholarship. A comprehensive critical study of Herrick’s work. Includes bibliographic references and index.

Prestwich, Natalie K. “Ghostly Metaphysicality: A Manuscript Variant of Robert Herrick’s ’The Apparation.’” Notes and Queries 52, no. 2 (June, 2005): 232-234. This discussion of metaphysicality in Herrick’s poetry revolves around a manuscript variant of “The Apparation.”

Pugh, Syrithe. Herrick, Fanshawe and the Politics of Intertextuality: Classical Literature and Seventeenth Century Royalism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2010. Examines Royalistic polemics and classical allusion in the poetry of Herrick and Sir Richard Fanshawe.

Rollin, Roger B., and J. Max Patrick, eds. “Trust to Good Verses”: Herrick Tercentenary Essays. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978. Contains an introductory essay concerning trends in Herrick’s criticism as well as essays on the love poetry, on visual and musical themes, on the political poetry, and on the evolution of Herrick’s literary reputation. A welcome feature is the inclusion of a selected, thoroughly annotated bibliography of Herrick’s criticism.