Hesperides and Noble
Numbers (composed ca. 1630?-1648)
Genre: mostly secular songs (Hesperides) and
sacred songs (Noble Numbers) using a variety of neoclassical metaphors and poetic
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--
- "Delight in Disorder" which defines his aesthetic of "wild civility"
and "The Lily in a Crystal" which continues to develop this interest in veiled
- "The Vine" and "His Farewell to Sack" which are excellent examples
of his whimsy and Catullan freedom of expression, and "The Vine" plays
daringly with the
seventh Homeric Hymn "to Dionysus";
- "Corinna's Going A-Maying" and "To the Virgins, to Make Much of
Time," which capture the carpe diem spirit of the Carolinian era and the onset
of the Civil War;
- "The Bad Season Makes the Poet Sad," which takes a Horatian view ("Ode to
Macenas") of the king's overthrow (also see Marvell's "Horatian Ode to
- "To His Conscience," one of the "Noble Numbers" that takes a
markedly different approach to the Last Judgment from that offered by Doctor Donne; and
"To His Savior."
- "Another Grace for a Child" shows Herrick's sentimental side,
where he becomes a fan of typical images of innocence, in a poem whose sole
distinguishing feature to warrant its sudden inclusion in the Norton 7th
edition is the word "paddocks" (glossed "frogs").
What poetic effect is achieved by its use, and can you explain why the
Norton editors substituted this poem for "The New Year's Gift," below?
- "The New Year's Gift," which celebrates the "Feast of the
Circumcision" (hey, a Jewish carpenter's son has to have a bris!) in an exchange that
will surprise you, was taken out of the Norton 7th after having served to
represent Herrick's Christian poems for decades in previous editions.
Take a look. So why was there suddenly not enough room in the new
expanded Norton 7th for this "little . . part"?
Interpretive Issues and Research Sources:
- 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?
- 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).
- How do these poets, including Milton, reconcile their immense indebtedness to classical
poets, pagans all, with their professed adherence to Protestant Christian teachings?
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.
- Do times repeat, and do human cultures have identifiable, cyclical stages through which
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?
- In singing his songs of "times trans-shifting," Herrick claims to be
romantically involved with "mistresses" named
Perilla, and Corinna,
Who were they? What would it mean to "love them"? Where does
this poet's mind really "live"?
- 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?
- 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.
- Could you use these two poets' careers to understand the divisions which wracked the country in the period of
the Civil Wars and the Protectorate?
- Note especially the story about Herbert's entrusting his poems in
manuscript to a friend, but not attempting to have them published during
his lifetime, as Herrick did his works. Does the "friend" persona
in Herbert's poems in any way prepare us for the crucial function played
by Nicholas Farrar, head of the worshipers at Little Gidding (and yes,
that's the place T.S. Eliot had in mind when writing the poem of that
- 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"?
- 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"
- What do you suppose would be the "inverse" of Herrick's doctrine of "wild
civility" as he expresses it in the poems "Delight in Disorder" and
"The Lily in a Crystal"?
- When, in English literary history, will you see the non-male, non-classically-trained,
non-aristocratic poets become the norm and control the growth of the canon?
- 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"?
- For the Luminarium page containing containing more of Herrick's work, click here.
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