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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Robert Herrick (1591–1674)

THE “EXQUISITE” Robert Herrick was born in Cheapside, London, in August 1591; the son of Nicholas Herrick, a goldsmith, who died in 1592. Little knowledge of Robert’s life exists except through his poems. He went to Cambridge in 1614, and took his degree in 1620. From this date until 1629, when, having become a clergyman, he was given by Charles I. the living of Dean Prior, Devonshire, there is no record of his life. During this interval, or earlier, while he was apprenticed to his uncle, a goldsmith, he became familiar with London city life, and made the acquaintance of Ben Jonson, whom in his verse he constantly lauds. One ode seems to show Herrick as belonging to the circle of wits who met to drink sack and spiced wine at the Mermaid or the Triple Tun. It is addressed to Ben Jonson, and begins:—

  • “Ah, Ben!
  • Say, how or when
  • Shall we, thy guests,
  • Meet at those lyric feasts
  • Made at the Sun,
  • The Dog, the Triple Tun?
  • Where we such clusters had
  • As made us nobly wild, not mad;
  • And yet each verse of thine
  • Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine!”
  • Herrick wrote most of his verses at Dean Prior, where he lived as an old bachelor in his rustic vicarage, hung with the honeysuckle that he loved so well. His companions were Prudence Baldwin, his housekeeper; Tracy, a pet spaniel; Phil, a tame sparrow; a cat, a pet lamb, a goose, a few chickens, and a pig, which he taught to delight in the dregs of his ale jug. He commends Prudence in various verses for her loyalty, and when she dies, writes this epitaph:—

  • “In this little urn is laid
  • Prudence Baldwin (once my maid),
  • From whose happy spark here let
  • Spring the purple violet.”
  • Herrick does not like Devonshire; he laughs at the country folk in scraps of verse; and once he throws his sermon at his inattentive hearers, whom he calls—

  • “A people currish, churlish as the seas,
  • And rude, almost as rude as savages.”
  • He constantly sighs for London; he hates Cromwell, and though valuing his home, he will not subscribe to Puritanism, and is turned out of Dean Prior by the government. Returning to London in 1648, he drops his ecclesiastical habit and title and publishes ‘Hesperides.’ Perhaps his friends aid him; perhaps he lives in Bohemia, out at elbows but not unhappy. Whatever his estate, the good-natured Charles II. restored him in 1660 to Dean Prior, where he died in his eighty-fourth year, October 15th, 1674.

    His portrait shows him in clerical garb with a Roman head, the profile of the voluptuous Roman emperors, and a broad bull-throat, which loved to quaff the blushing wine-cup or a tankard of frothing beer. He is at times an amatory poet, and at times a looker-on at country fairs and merrymakings, enjoying Twelfth Night revels, Christmas wassailings, Whitsun ales, May games, wakes, and bridals, morris dancers, mummers, and every manifestation of “nut-brown mirth.”

    The gay old vicar seems never so light of heart as when inditing his tiny lyrics to those imaginary beauties whom he addresses as Corinna, Silvia, Anthea, Electra, Diamene, Perilla, and Perinna. Julia was a real love. Her lips are cherries, her teeth “quarelets of pearl,” her cheeks roses, her tears “the dew of roses,” her voice silver, while her very shadow “breathes of pomander.” She is his “queen-priest”; when she is ill, the flowers wither in sympathy; and when he dies, he is sure the “myrrh of her breath” will be sufficient to embalm him. How splendid is her apparel! her azure petticoat sprinkled with golden stars, under which her little feet play bo-peep; her jeweled stomacher; her slashed sleeves; and her lawn neckerchief smelling of musk and ambergris. How her silks shimmer, clinging to her as she walks or blowing from her like a flame! How lovely are the “roses on her bosom,” her hair “filled with dew,” the golden net that binds her ringlets, her lacing-strings, her fillet, her ring, her ribbons, and her bracelet!

    Just as Herrick loves the coquetry of dress, he loves the goodies his Prudence makes him: the custards, mince pies, almond paste, frumenty, wassail, Twelfth Night cakes, possets of wine. He encourages himself to hospitality:—

  • “Yet can thy humble roof maintain a choir
  • Of singing Crickets by the fire;
  • And the brisk Mouse may feast herself with crumbs,
  • Till that the green-eyed Kitling comes.”
  • ‘The Hesperides’ has been frequently compared to the ‘Carmina’ of Catullus; but Gosse in his sympathetic study of Herrick shows him as more like Martial. He points out also how much Herrick owes to Ben Jonson’s ‘Masques,’ a debt which the pupil acknowledges in a—

  • WHEN I a verse shall make,
  • Know I have prayed thee
  • For old religion’s sake,
  • Saint Ben, to aid me.
  • Make the way smooth to me
  • When I, thy Herrick,
  • Honoring thee on my knee,
  • Offer my lyric!
  • Candles I’ll give to thee,
  • And a new altar,
  • And thou, Saint Ben, shalt be
  • Writ in my Psalter.
  • With a few exceptions, the ‘Noble Numbers’ are written in the same spirit. “Here,” says Gosse, “our pagan priest is seen despoiled of his vine wreath and his thyrsus, doing penance in a white sheet and with a candle in his hand. That rubicund visage, with its sly eye and prodigious jowl, looks ludicrously out of place in the penitential surplice; but he is evidently sincere, though not very deep in his repentance, and sings hymns of faultless orthodoxy with a loud and lusty voice to the old pagan airs.” It must be remembered that Herrick wrote some beautiful ‘Epithalamia,’ and that with him the poetic literature of England’s fairy lore, so choicely described in Drayton’s ‘Nymphidia,’ in Browne’s ‘Pastorals,’ and in Ben Jonson’s ‘Oberon,’ died, killed by the chill of Puritanism. In his own day his verses were greatly admired, and many of them were set to music. His first published poem was ‘Oberon’s Feast,’ which appeared in a ‘Description of the King and Queen of Fairies’ (1635). Half forgotten for two generations, Herrick was revived by Nichols in an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1796, by a sketch in Dr. Drake’s ‘Literary Hours,’ and by a few selected poems issued by Dr. Nott in 1810. Many modern editions exist; that of Alfred Pollard, published in 1891, contains a fine critical preface by Swinburne.