Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Cavalier Lyrists > Robert Herrick
  Influence of Jonson Hesperides  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

I. Cavalier Lyrists.

§ 5. Robert Herrick.

Robert Herrick, who belonged to an old Leicestershire family of Norse extraction, was the son of Nicholas Herrick, a London goldsmith, and was born in Goldsmiths’ row, Cheapside, on 24 August, 1591. His father’s sudden death, in 1592, led to his mother’s removal to the riverside village of Hampton in Middlesex; and here, under the shadow of the proud palace which Wolsey had built, and in which Elizabeth and James held their Christmas revels, the poet’s boyhood seems to have been spent. Nothing is known of his school years; but, in 1607, at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed for a term of ten years to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, jeweller to the king, whose business house was in Wood street, Cheapside. One or two of his poems, including the Horatian A Country Life: to his Brother, Mr. Tho. Herrick, date from these ’prentice years; and, very probably, it was the consciousness of poetic power which induced him, in 1613, to abandon the career of a goldsmith, and to enter St. John’s college, Cambridge, as a fellow-commoner. Here, or at Trinity hall, the next four years of his life were spent, and to this period belong the letters which he wrote to his guardian and uncle, Sir William. Their persistent “playne-songe” is mitte pecuniam; and, except by informing us that, during his last year at Cambridge, he was directing his mind to the legal profession, they throw very little light upon his career as a student.   8
  The ten years which elapse between his graduation at Cambridge, in 1617, and his military chaplaincy under the duke of Buckingham, in 1627, form a somewhat obscure period in Herrick’s life. They were probably spend chiefly in London, where, as “the music of a feast,” he foregathered with Ben Jonson and his disciples at “the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tun,” and wrote some of his most spirited songs and bacchanalian lyrics. He also numbered among his acquaintance the leading musicians of the court—William and Henry Lawes, Ramsay and Laniere—and wrote songs and pastoral eclogues which were set to music by them; and some of these were sung in the royal presence at Whitehall. There is no evidence that he ever received a court appointment, but he secured the patronage of influential courtiers—Endymion Porter, Mildmay Fane earl of Westmorland and Philip Herbert earl of Pembroke—and he confesses that he owed to them “the oil of maintenance.” In or before 1627, he took orders, and, having been appointed chaplain to the duke of Buckingham, accompanied him on his disastrous expedition to the isle of Rhé (1627). Two years later, he received from the king the living of Dean Prior, on the southern confines of Dartmoor, and exchanged the festivities of city taverns and the revels of Whitehall for the sober duties of a parish priest. This revolution in his career inspired one of the noblest and most sustained of his poems, His Farewell unto Poetry, in which he reluctantly vows to part company with his muse:
But unto me be only hoarse, since now
(Heaven and my soul bear record of my vow)
I my desires screw from thee, and direct
Them and my thoughts to that sublim’d respect
And conscience unto priesthood. ’T is not need,
The scarecrow unto mankind, that doth breed
Wiser conclusions in me, since I know
I ’ve more to bear my charge than way to go;
Or had I not, I’d stop the spreading itch
Of craving more, so in conceit be rich.
But ’t is the God of Nature who intends
And shapes my function for more glorious ends.
  Except for occasional visits to London—one of which took place in 1640—Herrick remained at Dean Prior until 1647, when, having refused to subscribe to the solemn league and covenant, he was ejected by the Long parliament. The tedium of “dull Devonshire” oppressed him at times, and then he broke out into bitter vituperation of the “loathed west,” and experienced an exile’s longing for London, “blest place of my nativity”; but, with an adaptability to circumstance which is characteristic of him, he seems to have found much that was congenial in his new surroundings, and took a peculiar pleasure in the mystic rites and ceremonial rejoicings of village life. The vow to part company with his muse was, fortunately, not kept, and he confesses that his country surroundings inspired some of his finest poems. It is natural to associate most of his courtly lyrics, and such verses as his Farewell to Sack, with the London period of his career; but we are probably right in connecting his songs
“of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers,”
together with the poems which tell of “may-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,” mainly with the Dean Prior years. Moreover, the title of his collection of poems—Hesperides—implies that the bulk of them were written in the west country. Herrick never married, and it is probable that the “many dainty mistresses”—stately Julia, smooth Anthea, sweet Electra, Corinna whom he calls to go a-maying and Perenna whom he asks to dress his tomb with cypresstwigs and tears—are but creatures of his imagination. The pictures which he gives us, in such poems as His Content in the Country and A Thanksgiving to God for his House, of his life at Dean Prior with his maid, Prudence Baldwin, are radiantly happy and full of idyllic charm; and, if he sometimes impaled offending parishioners with an epigram, or flung a Bible at their heads in church, he won their hearts with the beauty of his verses, some of which were recited at Dean Prior a century and a half after they were first written. A keen royalist, he followed the progress of the civil war in alternating moods of hope and misgiving. He celebrated the victories of Charles in the western campaigns of 1643–5, wrote a beautiful dirge on the death of lord Bernard Stuart, slain at the battle of Rowton heath in 1646, and still clung to hope when Charles came to reside, a virtual prisoner, at Hampton court, in 1647.
  Eager for fame, Herrick, nevertheless, was in no hurry to publish his verses. Many of these circulated in manuscript among his friends and patrons; and the first to appear in print was the fairy-poem, Oberon’s Diet, which, in an imperfect form, and under the title A Description of his [the king of Faery’s] Diet, was published in a little volume of fairy-poems in 1635. Five years later, three of his poems saw the light: two of these, “Among the myrtles as I walked,” and the lines on The Primrose—“Ask me why I send you here”—were fathered upon Carew, and appeared in the collected edition of Carew’s poems (1640), while the spirited verses, entitled The Apparition of his Mistress calling him to Elysium, appeared under the title His Mistris Shade in a volume, published in 1640, also including poems by Shakespeare, Jonson and Francis Beaumont. In the third edition of the famous sixteenth century miscellany Witts Recreations (1645) occur A Farewell to Sack and The Description of a Woman; while, in 1648, soon after his ejection from Dean Prior and return to London, he gave to the press the collection of verses, beautifully entitled Hesperides, included among which are not only his “unbaptised rhymes,” but, also, the sacred poems, or Noble Numbers.   11
  In the following year, Herrick joined with Dryden, Marvell and others in commemorating the untimely death of lord Hastings, but seems to have published no further poetry during the remaining years of his life. He probably spent most of the commonwealth period in London, where he had numerous friends and relations; but, shortly after the restoration, he went back to his living at Dean Prior, where he died in the autumn of 1674.   12

  Influence of Jonson Hesperides  

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