(From A Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh)
The son of a well-to-do London goldsmith, Robert Herrick (NOTE 34) took two degrees at Cambridge and formed his poetic style by study of the classic lyrists (NOTE 35) and contact with Ben Jonson, then in his prime, whom he called "Saint Ben" and the best of poets. After some experience of court and military life he took orders, at nearly as late an age as Donne, and was presented to the rectory of Dean Prior in Devonshire, of which he says:
More discontents I never had
Since I was born than here....
Yet justly too I must confess
I ne'er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the press
Then where I loath'd so much. (NOTE 36)
NOTE 34. See F. W. Moorman, Robert Herrick, a Biographical and Critical Study (1910); Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (Oxford, 1915, 1935); F. Delattre, Robert Herrick (Paris, 1912).
NOTE 35. See Pauline Aiken, The Influence of the Latin Elegists on English Lyric Poetry, 1600-1650, with Particular Reference to the Works of Robert Herrick (1932); G. G. Loane, "Herrick's Sources," N&Q, CLXXVIII (1940): 224-225.
NOTE 36. Discontents in Devon.
He was ejected from his living by the Puritan government in 1647, restored in 1662, and ultimately buried at Dean Prior at the age of eighty-three. There is little evidence that he affected his contemporaries in any degree. A single poem, King Oberon's Feast, was printed anonymously in a fairy miscellany in 1635, and three others in the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems. "The Several Poems written by Master Robert Herrick," entered on the Stationers' Register, April 29, 1640, remained unprinted (NOTE 37) till the appearance in 1648 of Herrick's only book, Hesperides: or the Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick Esq. (Note 38), and the fame of this now precious volume was a growth of the nineteenth century.
NOTE 37. Delattre, p. 98, suggests a reason for the suspension of publication.
Herrick is the delight and justification of the anthologist. Some twenty easilly selected lytircs have made him immortal; the rest are not so much inferior as repetitive of his themes. He is the poet of strawberries and cream, of fairly lore and rustic customs, of girls delineated like flowers and flowers mythologized into girls; as in To Carnations, a Song:
Stay while ye will, or go,
And leave no scent behind ye:
Yet trust me, I shall know
The place where I may find ye.
Within my Lucia's cheek
(whose livery ye wear)
Play ye at hide or seek,
I'm sure to find ye there.
Corinna's Going a-Maying is one of the most successful poems ever written in immortalizing a mood and depicting a contemporary scene, and its last stanza is unsurpassable in expression. These themes might cloy if Herrick were not a perfect craftsman and a brilliant ironist. Praising pagan love and pastoral beauty as he does, he seldom lets the reader forget that he is a gray-heade parson, who hates the country and abhors matrimony:
Before I went
Into the loathed West,
I co'd rehearse
A lyric verse,
And speak it with the best.
But Time (Ay me!)
Has laid, I see,
My Organ fast asleep,
And turn'd my voice
Into the noise
Of those that sit and weep;
or (To Perilla)
Age calls me hence, and my gray hairs bid come,
And haste away to my eternal home,
or more janutily,
A bachelor I will
Live as I have liv'd still,
And never take a wife
To crucify my life,
Love he that will; it best likes me
to have my neck from love's yoke free,
and (in To his Tomb-maker)
Go I must; when I am gone,
Writer but this upon my stone:
Chaste I liv'd, without a wife,
That's the story of my life.
Strewings need none: every flower
Is in this word, Bachelor;
and finally, in To All Young Men That Love,
I could wish you all, who love,
That ye could your thoughts remove
From your mistresses, and be
Wisely wanton (like to me).
By the time Herrick's volume was printed, with a dedication to Charles, prince of Wales, the author was nearly sixty years old and the Cavalier cause was lost. Even the earliest poems in the collection speak of the poet's age, and it is not likely that it contains much unrevised youthful work. When viewed as the mature and consistent reflection of a man's mind, these usually delicious poems do not warrant us in assigning Herrick a very high place among clerical types. His satirical epigrams include some of the most brutal of their kind. He was neither a romantic idealist nor a believer in the golden mean, and his definition of beauty is a true measure of the man:
Beauty no other thing is than a beam
Flash'd out between the Middle and Extreme,
that is, in the ironic middle ground between stoicism and enthusiasm.
But he had moments of lyric ecstasy in contemplating the flower-like beauties of earth or daydreaming of the supernatural; e.g., in The Hag:
The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride,
The Devil and she together:
Through think and through thin,
Now out and then in
Though ne'er sou foul be the weather.
And many times he achieves the calm perfection of Horace or Catullus, as in To Sappho:
Let us now take time and play,Love, and live here while we may;Drink rich wine, and make good cheer,While we have our being here:For once dead, and laid i' th' grave,No return from thence we have.