Notes Toward Defining "Herrickian" Style
Herrick's poems differ from those of any other poet we have read so far, other than those of Jonson and Spenser, in that their author apparently supervised their printing in 1648. What does that mean for both poets' relationship with the prior culture in which aristocrats, and those who wished to emulate them, circulated their work in loose or bound manuscript leaves? Often such poems were anonymous, and they were nearly all without titles, causing later literary scholars to identify them by their first lines (e.g., Wyatt's "My galley charged with forgetfulness").
Something important to the development of "literature" as a cultural event is changing in this era. Remember where we started our survey, with professional poets singing oral-formulaic verse in Anglo-Saxon mead halls for an audience of warrior vassals and their lords, or Caedmon adapting those oral-formulaic composition methods to sing sacred lyrics the assembled monks at Whitby abbey. They sang of warfare and of the gods, or the Christian God if they had been converted, but even "He" was treated like a feudal lord, a builder of the world like a great hall and a mighty warrior. If their songs were written down, they were recorded by monks amid the sacred texts whose manuscript reproduction was their primary duty. The poems' authors often were unknown and the poems almost never were titled, receiving titles from literary scholars, starting in the late Renaissance or early modern period.
After the Norman French invaded and took over the government (1066), the professional singers at the royal court seem to have been replaced by literate courtier-poets like Chaucer, whose poetry might be a secondary "grace" they acquired in addition to their political, linguistic, or military skills. They might be their own scribes, circulating their manuscripts among a small circle of friends, and their topics had expanded to include erotic love, practical advice to other courtiers and even to kings, chivalric romances of the Arthurian world, fabliaux about the newly powerful urban bourgeoisie, and sacred tales of saints and miracles. The emergence of satire suggests that poets increasingly saw their works as something likely to become public by public reading-aloud, and to have some influence on public opinion about satire's topics (corrupt clergy, debauched students and bourgeois merchants and their apprentices, newly literate women and working-class men). For such satires to work, "lay literacy," the ability to read and sometimes write among those who were not members of the clergy, must have been increasing between about 1300 and 1450. We also know this by indirect evidence: more types of secular and sacred manuscripts were being produced and more people involved in the book-making trade were recorded in local records (scribes, book-binders, parchmentiers, limners who illustrated them). Professional, non-religious scribes could earn their living by copying books for a living. They produced enough books that their individual manucript "hands" could be forensically identified, like that of Chaucer's scribe, discovered by Linne Mooney in 2006 to be one Adam Pinkhurst of London. Even then, though, poems tended to circulate among like-minded friends and poems tended not to have more than provisional titles, as when Chaucer's "Retractions" names "the book of troilus" and "the tales of canterbury."
After William Caxton introduced printing to England (ca. 1475), books and the literature they contained became rapidly reproducible copies, commodities in the modern sense of a publicly traded, named product. The old aristocratic, courtly tradition of private poetry and manuscript circulation continued, but gradually printers, and later booksellers, were retailing to the increasingly literate general public a literature that was, itself, public, i.e., published or publicized under its own and its author's name. Literary works became "branded." Their content continued to reflect the courtly values of secular and sacred topics, but the new learning imported from Italy and France also emphasized the study of newly translated classical Roman and Greek works. Their secular philosophies and even pagan religious tales began to influence Christian poets, and the mythic vocabulary of the pagan gods became an in-group code for formally educated authors talking about the world and human emotions. This is where we find Robert Herrick, writing in the first half of the seventeenth-century as a parish priest in the Church of England, but also self-identifying as a "son of Ben [Jonson]," whose neoclassical learning caused him to put into play the pagan religious beliefs of Roman myth and the countryside's surviving Celtic/Druid religion. See the first poem in the Hesperides for his succinct summation of this curious mixture of topics. His poems are all titled and the titles are intended to shape our reading of the poems. He expects his poems to be read in print by a public audience, and he appears to believe that his printed works will outlive him, surviving to further ages to record his fame as one of the line of ancient poets in which Ben Jonson, his mentor, preceeds him. It should come as no surprise that Jonson published his own Collected Works in 1616, thirty-two years before his "son," Robert Herrick, published Hesperides and Noble Numbers (1648).
How would you recognize a Herrick poem by style and/or content? Pick some representative examples and work out what is "Herrickian" about them. In content, he is likely to use classical names for persons and things as a way of declaring his poetic kinship with Virgil, Horace, or Catullus. He also might use classical poetic motifs still known by their Latin or Greek names, like carpe diem (seize the day), elegy (lament), and hymn (praise-song). He does not write many sonnets, that upstart and constraining Italian genre, seemingly preferring the lyric freedom of his classical forebears. See "Delight in Disorder," for instance, a fourteen line poem in iambic tetrameter (4-foot iambic lines) all in rhyming couplets, almost as if he intended to flout the sonnet's conventional structure. His subjects might be Christian, but if so, they often are treated in ironic or startlingly personal ways, like his poem for the Feast of the Circumcision (of Jesus). In content, he pays serious attention to line length, sometimes producing regularized rhyming pentameter couplets ("Dreams"), but also producing stanzas that veer from hexameter (6 feet) to pentameter (5 feet) to tetrameter (4 feet) ("Corinna's Gone A-Maying"). His longest poems occur in tetrameter or pentameter couplets ("The Vine," "Hock Cart," and "His Farewell to Sack"), whereas the shorter poems tend to be tetrameter or even trimeter lines, sometimes in couplets and sometimes in stanzas ("To the Virgins..." and "Delight in Disorder"). He also likes terrza rima (3-line stanzas rhyming aaa, bbb, etc.--"Upon Julia's Clothes"--but never for sacred subjects like the meter's great example, Dante's Divina comedia). Do you see thematic repetition of attitudes and metaphors, and rhetorical and formal strategies? In those combinations of form and content hides the style of the poet, what he chooses to handle and how he handles it.