- The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly
Oxford, 504 pp and 803 pp, £125.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 921284 2
Roughly thirty miles southwest of Exeter the A38 rips along the edge of the churchyard of Dean Prior, where Robert Herrick, with one period of interruption, was rector between 1630 and his death in 1674. The interruption began in or around January 1646, when the New Model Army marched along the predecessor of the A38 to relieve Plymouth. On their way they seem to have ejected Herrick from his relatively wealthy living, which had brought him £100 a year. Herrick fled to London, which he had always regarded as home, and in 1648 published his only book of poems, a double volume containing Hesperides and His Noble Numbers or Pious Pieces. The publication may have been a way of supplementing his drastically reduced income: if he presented copies to those praised within it he might expect a little something in return. After 1648 Herrick printed only one further poem. So Hesperides did amount to, as it said on the title page, The Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick, his life’s work, and Herrick’s pride in his achievement is marked by the fact that this is the first volume in England to refer to a collection of lyric poems as ‘works’.
Vol. 36 No. 16 · 21 August 2014
Colin Burrow’s piece about Cain and Connolly’s new edition of Robert Herrick showed the centrality of echoes and allusions to the Roman poets, but I was struck by the omission of Catullus, one of Herrick’s favourites (LRB, 31 July). Too often overlooked, Catullus shone out for me in two of Burrow’s examples. First when Herrick toasts Ovid (‘Naso’) in ‘To Live Merrily’, writing that in his honour the world would have one nose. Here, as well as punning on Ovid’s olfactory cognomen, he was, I think, gesturing towards Catullus’ 13th poem, in which the poet tells his friend Fabullus that if he comes to dinner (bringing everything required since Catullus was broke) he will repay him not only with ‘meros amores’ (‘unmixed loves’) but also by letting him ‘smell the perfume’ of his girl, which will, he says, make him pray to the gods to transform him ‘totum nasum’ (‘all nose’). The allusion is mixed, but the next verse shows that Catullus wasn’t far from Herrick’s mind: ‘Then this immensive cup/Of aromatic wine,/Catullus, I quaff up/To that terse muse of thine.’
The next and more obvious allusion to Catullus comes in ‘Upon Shark’, where Herrick tells of a man, Shark, who swipes napkins (and a silver spoon) at feasts, hiding them in his ‘wide codpiece’. In Catullus’ 12th poem he shames a fellow diner, Asinius Marrucinus, for stealing an especially precious napkin. In the poem he tells Asinius that if he doesn’t give the napkin back, he’ll be the victim of another three hundred abusive poems. The absence/presence of Catullus alongside the more familiar names of Horace, Virgil and Ovid is important because his poetry (alongside that of the Roman elegists he inspired) might help contextualise the odd marriage of restraint and excess which Burrow identifies in Herrick’s eroticism – as well as partly explaining his nasal fixation.
King’s College London, WC2