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Robert Herrick

Updated on March 28, 2011

Herrick was baptized in London on August 24, 1591. His father was a goldsmith who died during Robert's infancy. Apprenticed for a time to a prosperous uncle who was also a goldsmith and was later knighted, Herrick left his trade in 1613 to enter Cambridge University. After receiving his B.A. in 1617 and M.A. in 1620, he returned to London to study law.

During the next few years, Herrick frequented the Inns of Court less assiduously than he did the taverns, where London literary and intellectual life flourished. It was at this time that he met Jonson; later, in tribute to Jonson, he commemorated the "lyric feasts, Made at the Sun, The Dog, the Triple Tun" His acquaintances in these circles also included the courtier Endymion Porter, the composers William and Henry Lawes, and King James I's favorite, the Duke of Buckingham. Herrick's lack of enthusiasm for a legal career is indicated by the fact that he had entered the clergy by 1627, in which year he served a,s chaplain to Buckingham during the latter's unsuccessful military expedition against France. In 1629, Herrick was granted the parish of Dean Prior in Devonshire. Herrick, who never married, spent the next 18 years in Devonshire as a country parson. During that time he wrote the poems that were to give him a prominent place in English literature.

In 1647, after the Puritan triumph, Herrick, an Anglican and Royalist, was expelled from his living. He returned to London to oversee the publication of Hesperides (1648), his only volume of poetry. It was not an instant popular success, perhaps because it seemed excessively idyllic and old-fashioned to an age torn by political turmoil and civil war. However, the song Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May was an exception, gaining immediate fame. In 1662, two years after the Restoration, Herrick's vicarage was returned to him, and he remained there until his death. He was buried at Dean Prior on October 15 1674.

Works of Robert Herrick

The lyrics that make up Hesperides are marked by a simplicity that is in part deceptive. As Herrick himself says in the work's poetic preface, "The Argument of his Book," they are concerned with the simple celebration of country life and customs, with love and the beauty of women, with nature and the pleasures of wine. However, they are also works of great sophistication, utilizing a number of literary traditions. As a follower of Jonson, Herrick was a classicist.

His models, in addition to Jonson, were primarily the Latin lyricists Horace, Catullus, and Tibullus. He shares with them a concern for formal perfection and polish, as he indicates in His Request to Julia: "Better 'twere my book were dead, Than to live not perfected"

However, other elements combine with sophisticated classicism in Herrick's poetry to fonn his own unique style. The immediacy and vividness of his sensuous imagery bestow on his work a quality almost Elizabethan in its rich flavor. At the same time, such poems as Delight in Disorder and Corinna's Going A-Maying have a subtlety and complexity suggestive of the Metaphysical style. But the most distinctive feature of Herrick's art is his primitive, quasi-mythic sense of the great cycle of the seasonal year the death and rebirth of nature and man's participation in it. This sense, alternately jubilant and elegiac, underlies most of the lyrics in Hesperides, including the poems on the nominally Christian holidays that mark the passage of the year, the verses on the feasts of May Day and Harvest Home, the great carpe diem ("seize the day") appeal to Corinna, and such laments on the death of earthly beauty as To Daffodils, To Meadows, and To Blossoms. It underlies also, though more indirectly, the verses addressed to the poet's scores of imaginary mistresses; Julia, Anthea, and the rest.

Herrick's mythic sense and his derivation from the Latin lyricists give a curiously pagan cast to his work. It is characteristic of his capacity for synthesizing disparate attitudes-a capacity he shares with other poets of his age-that his neopaganism coexists placidly with the simple, devout, and sincere Christianity expressed in his Noble Numbers, a group of poems published as the final part of Hesperides. Such a poem as To Death has none of the complexity of George Herbert Or Richard Crashaw, but it organizes attitude, image, and emotion with rare sensitivity.

Metrically, as in so many other respects, Herrick is in the debt of Jonson. Generally eschewing the longer line of the earlier Elizabethans, he favors the shorter, crisper movement of trimeter, tetrameter, or ballad measure. Similarly, his favorite stanzaic forms tend toward a brevity that approximately matches the conciseness of expression for which he strives. Although Herrick is not as original and inventive as Herbert in the fashioning of stanzaic patterns, he is in his own wayan experimenter (see An Ode for Him, to Jonson, and To Keep a True Lent).

In poetic technique, as in poetic sensibility and choice of subject matter, Herrick was impelled to work on a miniature scale, as if his early training as a goldsmith had left its mark on his temperament. However, his delicate and lapidary art possesses a suggestiveness and a lyric authenticity that many poets of wider scope failed to achieve. Swinburne called him "the first in rank and station of English songwriters," and the tribute seems deserved.


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