Robert Herrick, Hesperides and Noble Numbers (composed ca. 1630?-1648) (ed. prin., London, 1648)

Genre: mostly secular songs (Hesperides) and sacred songs (Noble Numbers) using a variety of neoclassical metaphors and poetic forms.

Form: See entries for individual assigned works.  Click here for a general note on "Herrickian" style.

Characters: "Herrick," who bears some resemblance to the parson who reluctantly filled his clerical post in Dean Prior, Devonshire, when he could not get away to carouse with Ben Jonson and the rest in London; his various (almost certainly fictitious) mistresses with singularly unusual names; Prudence Baldwin, "once my maid" (and he means that in a housekeeping sense!).

Individual Songs:  Basically, look for Jonsonian neoclassical uses of metaphor, Donne-like experiments in short verse meter and rhyme, and a purely Herrickian sense of erotic play. Some essential poems for those of you studying for the GREs--

Interpretive Issues and Research Sources:

  1.  With Herrick (1591-1674), we start exploring a group of poets who grew up on the later Renaissance poets trained by Tottel's Miscellany (1557), like Sidney, Spenser, Jonson, and Shakespeare.  So vigorously did Herrick seek the influence of Ben Jonson that he called himself one of the "sons of Ben," a literary patrimony made more poignant by his own father's sudden death (possibly by suicide) when Herrick was but one year old.  In addition to seeking links between Jonson's poetic style and Herrick's, you might also want to look into the classical literature they both loved and learned from.  From the Homeric hymns to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the erotic poetry of Catullus and Horace, Herrick borrowed and adapted freely, even exuberantly, to give the English a sort of neo-classical anthology of poem types and artistic strategies.  With Herrick, we also enter an era in which poets are strongly defined by their relationship with the royal court.  Herrick grew up in the last days of Elizabeth and the reign of James I (1603-1625).  He came of age during and probably wrote all of these poems under Charles I (1625-1649).  Herrick published the poems in 1648 when he was 57, the year of the last failed Royalist uprising against Cromwell's government, and the year Parliament ejected all surviving members who might object to the trial of the king for treason.  In the next year, Charles was beheaded.  Herrick lived on through the Puritan Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, which followed Charles' execution (1649-60), and died at the ripe old age of 88, during the Restoration of Charles II (1660-85).  Strangely, significantly (?), he published no more poetry during the last 26 years of his life.  See his characteristically gentle response to all this in "The bad season makes the poet sad."  What do you make of this, and how might this interpretive context affect your understanding of individual poems' significance?  Might the Parliamentary victory be related to the departure of his "muses," his prayer to his "saint" Ben Jonson, his remembrance of country rituals that are not subject to radical trends in national laws, and even his retreat into his own strange "time zone" somewhere between Classical Greece and Rome, and the London of his dreams?
  2. Comparisons with Marvell, Jonson, and Donne are obvious and useful preparation for analysis (or the exam).   Comparisons with Milton are a greater reach, and perhaps (therefore) more productive.  Herrick's Protestant "paganism" is a remarkable extension of the neoclassical spirit we've been tracking since Jonson (or really, since Surrey starts using blank verse translating Virgil's Aeneid).

    For a start, look at the sources for Milton's demons in Book I of Paradise Lost, and you'll see how he follows Dante in selectively appropriating the classical tradition.  Similarly, Herrick follows Jonson's dictum for poetic creation (re: stealing often and well) by picking and choosing his models for surprising appropriateness to the subject and times.

    For an attempt to describe one such long cultural cycle, I recommend Sypher's Four Stages of Renaissance Style.  To see a brief summary of Sypher's section on Donne as a Mannerist, for instance, click here.  Herrick's amazing art refuses to engage in Mannerist intellectual gyrations, and seems to leap a century ahead toward the balance and restraint of what Sypher calls the "Late Baroque."  However, he never indulges in the spectacular demonstrations of power that a Baroque author like Milton displays.  What accounts for Herrick's ability to resist the forces that drove Donne to such wild excesses, and those that drove Milton to attempt such enormous feats?

  3. In singing his songs of "times trans-shifting," Herrick claims to be romantically involved with "mistresses" named Sappho, Perilla, and Corinna, among others.  Who were they?  What would  it mean to "love them"?  Where does this poet's mind really "live"?
  4. Herrick's lyrics experiment with verse form in daring ways when compared with the narrow scope within which the sonnet writers worked.  He also thought about the world and human experience with an extraordinarily broad mind, able to think both as a "pagan Roman" and as an Anglican clergyman.  See his poem, "The Argument of His Book" for an overview of the topics he claimed as his poetic "golden world" (Sidney, Defense of Poesy).  As such, he is among the most striking representatives of the world view we cultivate as students of the liberal arts.  Curiously, after the publication of his collected works in 1648, he appears never to have published again, though he lived for another twenty-eight years.   Compare his life span and publishing history with those of other poets we are reading to get a sense of who might have known whom, and who could have read whose works in print (vs. manuscript circulation).  Why does Herrick publish these poems during his lifetime?  Could it have to do with national events?  Could it be the influence of his poetic mentor, Ben Jonson?       
  5. Herrick might be paired with Herbert as a young man whose poetic talents were somewhat at odds with his career at a country parsonage.  Both men continued to write despite their social isolation, which might otherwise have stifled their creativity, but they directed their writing in radically different ways.
  6. Herrick might be considered a "minor poet" by critics interested in making such lists.  He participated in the revival of the "carpe diem" (seize the day) theme in two famous poems ("Corinna's Gone A-Maying" and "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"), but his poetic influence on either the form or content of later poets was relatively slight.  His neoclassical style alludes constantly to the Greek and Roman classic-era poets who are his distant models, and to his contemporary "Master," Ben Jonson, who promoted neoclassicism as the most profound way to achieve a correct and lasting poetic style. Neoclassicism is, by definition, nostalgic and accepts limits. The past poets loom large in the neoclassicist's mind as he tries to follow their models without becoming indistinguishable from them. Some writers seem nearly stifled by this pressure to perform, but Herrick characteristically treats the situation with humor, mocking the great debt he owes to his classical and contemporary teachers. See, for instance, "His Prayer to Ben Jonson" (1652). He also can make the old poetry new by transferring its Greek and Roman attitudes and values to the English landscape  (e.g., "The Hock-Cart, or Harvest Home"). Though indulging in the English national habit of considering London the "new Rome," and treating pagan Roman customs or values as eligible for transplantation to the northern Christianized islands of the old Empire, he does not think much of the corollary, explored by Dryden, that England is a nation destined to rule the next Empire. Look for poems in which he sets out the poet's task, as he sees it, in the countryside of this "new Rome," establishing aesthetic rules, judging the passage of time and beauty, and only occasionally commenting upon major political events from afar. "The Bad Season Makes the Poet Sad" captures the limits to Herrick's willingness to acknowledge the political chaos going on around him--look especially at his last line's translation of Horace's ode to his patron, Maecenas (1653). Is Herrick any more than what he represents himself to be, a poet on the margins of society, an ironic commentator upon events his art cannot participate in directly with the real-world engagement of Shakespeare's dramatic tragedies, Jonson's satiric comedies, or the lyrics of Mary Sidney Herbert, Lady Mary Wroth, or John Donne? Or are there poetic "places" outside the poets' immediate times where equally important cultural work is being done while thousands cheer the more central "players"?
  7. Herrick's aesthetic of a "wild civility" might be called an elitist aesthetic since it presupposes that the lady, poem, or other "work of art" will begin with a capacity to achieve the height of neoclassical decorum, control of appearances (the long-run effect of the courtier's emulation of correct models in Hoby/Castiglione).  The problem with this arises when one attempts to participate in its tradition "from outside" (non-male?, non-classically-trained?) or "from below" (non-aristocratic).
  8. The Norton introduction (by Barbara Lewalski and Robert Adams) mentions RH's hanging out with Ben Jonson at the Apollo Room. A wonderful anecdote survives from the period in the writings of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and in the diary of an early C19 writer named Hobhouse. Jonson and a translator (how louche!) named Joshua Sylvester engaged in a typical coffee-house poetic competition, trading couplets to out-do each other. Sylvester led with "I, Joshua Sylvester / Lay with your sister," to which Jonson replied "I, Ben Jonson / Lay with your wife." Sylvester, an outraged fool, protested "why that's not rhyme," and Jonson replied, "No, but it's true." Does this help you to interpret Herrick's antic poetic sensibility, especially about his "mistresses"?
  9. For the Luminarium page containing containing more of Herrick's work, click here.

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