In the latest issue:

Short Cuts

Jonathan Parry

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Clarety ClarityColin Burrow
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick 
edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly.
Oxford, 504 pp. and 803 pp., £125, October 2013, 978 0 19 921284 2
Show More
Show More

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’.

In the heady historicist days of the 1980s Hesperides was seen as a defiant and despairing gesture of royalism. As Herrick urged his mistresses to gather rosebuds, and rejoiced in maypoles and hock-carts and harvest homes, it was argued, he was implicitly sticking up for the ornamented forms of worship and popular ritual that had been defended by Archbishop Laud in the 1630s and suppressed by Parliament in 1643. Lines like ‘the worse, and worst/Times, still succeed the former’ were taken as direct allusions to the darkening end of the 1640s. This view of Hesperides now seems both reductive and inaccurate. Many of Herrick’s best poems appear to have been written before 1630 either at Cambridge or in London. Hesperides may have been put together in a spirit as much of fragile hope as defiance or despair. It was sent to the press in late 1647. One of its latest datable poems was written in August that year, when Charles I was negotiating to make peace with Parliament and was reconstructing a household of musicians and courtiers at Hampton Court. Negotiations broke down, and in November the king fled. By then Hesperides – which might partly have been designed as a bid for favour within that renewed royal household – was in press. It remained as a monument to the rapid fluctuations of its times.

Herrick was the son of a wealthy London goldsmith. His father died after falling out of a window in 1592, when the child was only 15 months old. Herrick was brought up by his uncle, who took charge (more or less benignly) of his inheritance and set him up as an apprentice to his father’s trade. That career didn’t take, and once Herrick came of age and could spend his own money he went to the flashiest college in Cambridge, St John’s. He later moved to Trinity Hall, where he complained to his rich uncle that he had ‘runn somewhat deepe into my Tailours debt’. He studied law and acquired expensive friends, many of whom he retained throughout his life. In 1623, aged over thirty, he took holy orders. A period as a chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham followed, and then 16 years of what he seems to have found positively boring peace at Dean Prior in ‘this dull Devon-shire’ or ‘lothed Devonshire’ or ‘the loathed West’, until the New Model Army rapped on the door in 1646.

Despite Herrick’s reputation as a typical Cavalier poet, many of his poems were written well before the men with their wide hats and curly moustachios took to their horses and charged into battle for King Charles. Some of his writing reflects the interests of literary coteries and clubs in the London of the 1620s. Some of it evokes provincial intimacies rather than courtly self-display. Herrick laments the death of his spaniel Tracy, and bewails the loss of a finger. There are Devonian touches in poems written after 1630: several of his epigrams about dodgy low-life characters give them names found among families in the South Hams. But his reputation as a West Country poet can be overstated. The much anthologised ‘Cherrie-Ripe’ probably mimics the cries of urban rather than Devonian fruit-sellers (‘Cherrie-Ripe, Ripe, Ripe, I cry/Full and faire ones; come and buy’). His penchant for strawberries and cream was already evident in poems that can be securely dated to the 1620s. Nor was he a simple-minded Laudian royalist. Some of the people praised in Hesperides were loyal defenders of Charles I in the 1640s, and a cluster of poems celebrate the period when Henrietta Maria gathered royalist forces in Exeter in 1644. But other poems are edgy about Laud’s smelly and belly religious reforms, and Herrick seems to have had some sympathy with the more moderate forms of worship advocated by Bishop John Williams. Herrick could play with the language of Catholic worship, satirise Puritans who used long hair to hide ears that had been cropped as a punishment for their writings, and criticise kings who extorted money from their subjects. He was not simply drawn towards a comfortable via media in politics and religion but liked to mock extremes in ways that left him free to cultivate verse that sometimes drifted off into Anacreontic hedonism, sometimes perceived death’s shadow beneath the flower of beauty and sometimes just sang.

Although Hesperides contains Herrick’s ‘works’, it has a lot in common with the manuscript miscellanies of verse by various hands which were fashionable in the early decades of the 17th century. Indeed it offers so much of everything that it’s hard to see it as the product of a single person. One moment the poet’s dying of old age. Then he’s dying for love. Then he’s after Julia, then Perilla, then Perenna, then Corinna, then Electra, then Anthea, then Lucia, then Silvia, and then ‘I wish all maidens mine.’ A translation from Anacreon or his imitators, then a few poems to the king or to Julia or Prewdence Baldwin (his maid at Dean Prior), then a poem that splices sections of Martial together with Horace or a moral saw from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and then a randy epigram on a girl with bad teeth or a thief who pinches the napkins off your table – Herrick gives you the lot. ‘I’m like a rude,/And all confused multitude,’ he declares. Often the poems that appear to record autobiographical facts are actually a tease. An epitaph on Prew Baldwin was written while she was still alive. So many other poets wrote about losing fingers that it’s quite unlikely Herrick actually misplaced a digit. He rhymes the word ‘Herrick’ with the word ‘lyric’ more than once, as though to persuade his readers that his name didn’t denote his own life and predilections so much as everything included in the loose category of ‘lyric’, all its genres, all its moods, all its changeability.

This makes him sound slight and elusive. Certainly few English poets can be as light on their poetical feet as Herrick, who was dubbed ‘the Ariel of poets’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He refers to both music and his own verse as ‘enchantments’ as though he did indeed learn from Ariel’s blend of magic and song. But he was a far more sociable poet than the lonely Ariel. Many of his pieces – and again this is a feature of manuscript miscellanies, in which poems often answer other poems – draw energy from their relationship to other poems. Some are even best imagined as solo riffs played against a chorus of other poets, who are deliberately called to mind by allusion or parody. Ben Jonson’s collection ‘The Underwood’, posthumously printed in 1640, had gathered together Anacreontic poems and poems about growing old, petitions to the king, imitations of Horace, as well, perplexingly, as some elegies written by John Donne. This volume effectively invented Herrick’s Hesperides. For Jonson ‘the author’ is a big name and a creator of works, but also a fugitive lyric persona who can age, change and dissolve into a series of classical imitations or playful dialogues between nymphs and shepherds and kings and queens. That is the combination of incompatible qualities Herrick aspired to remix in Hesperides. The editors of this truly splendid new edition – the first of note for more than half a century, and one on which it would be extremely hard to improve – show how rapidly Herrick responded to Jonson’s poems. For ‘A Country Life: To His Brother’ Herrick drew on Jonson’s ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ from a manuscript source, since it predates the publication of that poem. ‘A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton’ echoes Jonson’s ‘Penshurst’, which had been printed only a few years before.

Herrick’s characteristic trick is to recall an earlier poem while he is singing a variation on it. When he does so he can be ostentatiously ‘cavalier’ in our loose sense of ‘defiantly free’, rather than in the historical sense of ‘a supporter of the king with long hair and a taste for fine horses and wenches’. He plays games with the notion that he is a poetical ‘son of Ben’ in ‘The Welcome to Sack’ when he declares ‘Call me the sonne of Beere, and then confine/Me to the Tap, the Tost, the Turfe.’ The joke is sealed by an allusion to Ben Jonson’s ‘Execration upon Vulcan’ of 1623, in which Jonson says of Vulcan, the god responsible for the fire which had destroyed a number of his poems in November of that year, ‘confine him to the brew-houses,/The glass-house, dye-vats and their furnaces.’ Cain and Connolly don’t note this echo, but it does help date this poem, and is a good indicator of how rambunctiously Herrick could transform his master. He implicitly compares himself to the fiery element that had wrecked some of Jonson’s prize works in a poem in which he turns the name Ben into Beer. He can also sometimes seem to strip Jonson naked, as he does in the short and crude epigram ‘Clothes do but cheat and Cousen us’:

Away with silks, away with Lawn,
Ile have no Sceans, or Curtains drawn:
Give me my Mistresse, as she is,
Drest in her nak’t simplicities:
For as as my Heart, ene so mine Eye
Is wone with flesh, not Drapery.

This is a deliberately brutal rewriting of the most popular Jonson poem in manuscript miscellanies of the period, the description of Venetia Digby in ‘The Picture of the Body’. Jonson’s poem begins by declaring that a painter has no need of representing the ‘velvets, silks, and lawn,/Embroideries, feathers, fringes, lace’ that obscure Venetia’s beautiful body. Then he coyly says that the painter had better clothe his subject in clouds or suns to convey her true radiance. Readers of 17th-century verse miscellanies would have heard the deliberate disharmony between Herrick’s poem and Jonson’s: like the good son of beer that he was, he gently takes the piss out of father Ben by singing a rollicking undertone to his Platonic music.

These musical metaphors are not fanciful. Herrick wrote beautifully about music: ‘Melt, melt my paines,/With thy soft straines’; ‘sink down into a silv’rie straine;/And make me smooth as Balme, and Oile againe.’ He also wrote beautifully for music: a significant number of his lyrics were genuinely lyrics, set to be sung by (and sometimes it seems written in collaboration with) Henry and William Lawes. These poems often have a perfectly unambiguous clarity of theme and language as though they are a single musical line designed to stand out from its setting. Herrick’s lyrical simplicity and directness of expression had an enormous influence on Edmund Waller and later English lyric poets, and is very easy to underrate. It’s analogous to the way his more readerly and allusive poems often work in consort with the poems to which they allude, by counterpoint or by playing variations around them.

But his purity of line is also his main limitation. No one who wrote so many different kinds of poem could fairly be called monotonous, but Herrick does tend to be deliberately monotonal. Saying just one thing with perfect clarity is often his aim. When he’s not doing a Ben Jonson singalong or artfully playing against Martial or Horace or Ovid, his directness can be almost impoverishing. His expressions of what he considers bare truths can be brutally direct (‘Maids’ nays are nothing’; ‘Notwithstanding Love will win/Or else force a passage in’). And when he sounds least like Jonson and most like Herrick he can press on his readers an excess of strong primary flavours. He gives you strawberries, curds, cream, breasts, thighs, all. This can sometimes have the lipid overkill of a monster cream tea:

Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them;
And if more: Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, her’s Strawberries.

This is him at his worst. But he can also take single elements and blend them with extraordinary delicacy: he loves lilies beneath crystal, flesh hidden under a veil, or the blend of colours in Julia’s ‘Cheeks like Creame Enclarited’. Herrick’s sensuous clarity is often slightly clarety, or indeed beery, and the moments when his vision becomes a little blurred at the edges, when claret and cream blend, are the ones to cherish. He says more than once that he was ‘mop-eyed’, or short-sighted, and that’s one of his few autobiographical confessions which rings true. In Herrick’s poems tiny well-wrought objects viewed close-up appear in full HD, like the ‘golden Flie one shew’d to me/Clos’d in a box of Yvorie’, or the earring made of a cherry stone carved with a beautiful woman’s face on one side and a death’s head on the other that he describes in one of his manuscript poems. His edibly close inspections of female flesh are matched elsewhere by longer distance views of women which are blurred by a gauzy haze, beauties ‘halfe-betray’d by Tiffanies’ (tiffanies are transparent muslins, or lawn) or ‘Lawnie filmes’, or which appear like ‘Lillies shrin’d in Christall’. These moments can be uncomfortably reminiscent of the visual style of Playboy in the 1970s: the Vaseline on the lens can seem genteelly obstructive of what is declared to be the real point. But that blurred vision can also be magnificent. Since Herrick was also a great neologiser (he gives us ‘lautitious’, ‘repululation’, ‘circumspangle’, ‘tardidation’, ‘discruciate’, ‘progermination’, ‘circumgyration’ and ‘superlast’), he can on occasion veil the flesh of a girl with a big throbbing Latinate word, as when he urges ‘Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me/Behold that circummortall purity’, or, most famously, in ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave Vibration each way free;
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

It’s tempting to see this as just a poem by a short-sighted dodgy vicar. But it’s much more than that. Herrick can make a sensual blur ethereal. ‘Vibration’ could by the mid-17th century be used of musical resonance, and could also refer to interstellar influences. ‘Liquefaction’ could be used of the melting of a soul in passion. This poem doesn’t just express relish at the quivering of cloth over a shapely thigh, but gives physical excitement and blurred vision a spiritual resonance.

Herrick is portrayed in profile at the front of Hesperides as plump, moustachioed, with a fine set of curls and an even finer Roman nose. He seems to have been particularly fond of his nose, not just because Ovid, one of his masters and models, was called Naso, ‘the nose’ (Herrick says of Ovid that he would ‘think/The world had all one Nose’), but also because his nose seems to have compensated for the deficiencies of his eyes: ‘Hands, and Thighs, and legs, are all/Richly Aromaticall,’ he declares. When Julia unlaces herself, ‘The passive Aire such odour then assum’d,/As when to Jove Great Juno goes perfum’d.’ Even his kinswoman Bridget’s blush can smell ‘as Blossomes of the Almond tree’. His repeated odorous metaphors for flesh – cherries, strawberries, cream, cheese – seek to take vision inside your palate and make you taste what you can’t quite see.

Cain and Connolly’s​ edition is remarkable. Its biographical introduction gives a sage and complex view of Herrick’s relation to the crises of the 1640s in church and state. The editors also provide invaluable transcriptions of the relatively few poems Herrick circulated in manuscript, and show how he revised those poems for publication. This is the result of heroic labour in the archives, and particularly in the tangled wasteland that is the manuscript miscellanies of the early 17th century. They identify his (royalist) printer for the first time. Their transcriptions of musical settings of his poems by contemporary composers mean that, while Herrick sings-along-a Ben Jonson, readers of this edition who have a lute to hand can sing-along-a Lawes. The notes to the poems are often in themselves an education. When Herrick mentions a festival or a historical event the editors usually don’t just explain what it was but quote a historical source in order to bring it to life. Readers who work their way through both volumes will come away understanding what a 17th-century harvest home was like, and how exactly tithes worked, as well as grasping the social and political nuances of Herrick’s addresses to named individuals. They will also learn an immense amount about the manuscript circulation of poetry in this period. The Cain and Connolly edition is bound to become the best guide to Herrick’s verse. It deserves also to be regarded as one of the best sources of information about earlier 17th-century poetry.

What even such a fine edition can’t quite eradicate, however, are the problems of taste that Herrick repeatedly raises. The religious poems gathered in the Noble Numbers volume appended to Hesperides are just not very good. This is largely Ben Jonson’s fault. When Jonson did God he tended to drop into a short-lined plain style that never quite rises to the impersonality of a fine hymn but also seems to resist any complexity of religious feeling. Herrick followed him, and it was a bad idea. Herrick also wrote too many religious epigrams which are not quite sharp enough to provoke thought and not quite soulful enough to make you believe he believes what he’s saying (‘Hell is the place where whipping-cheer abounds,/But no one Jailor there to wash the wounds’ – yeah, right). These on the whole are late poems (many of them slavishly adapt thoughts and phrases from John Gregory’s Notes and Observations upon Some Passages of Scripture, which wasn’t published until 1646) and may have been written in haste to give the Noble Numbers a similar bulk to Hesperides. But even the earlier religious verse doesn’t represent spiritual conflict in ways that would encourage aficionados of Herbert or Donne to move on to Herrick. He never quite rises to the great purple inflated Counter-Reformation bad taste of Crashaw either – though he almost gets there in a poem on the Feast of the Circumcision in which he asks his Saviour ‘That little prettie bleeding part/Of foreskin send to me.’

As an erotic poet Herrick does not have the violence or crudity people are willing to tolerate and even admire in Rochester, and he does not have the watch-me-while-I-run-rings-around-this-chick knowingness of Donne. Herrick was often criticised by Victorian readers as tasteless, but most readers today will find him too tasteful, in several senses. Bursting joy’s grape against your palate fine is an act of voluntary sensuous delight; reading too much Herrick can feel like having strawberries pushed so close to your nose that they start dissolving into a sticky mass. His sexuality, on the other hand, seems too carefully strapped down, and that makes it more discomforting than exciting. You feel that if he let himself go he might do something interestingly awful, but that he retains such control over his appetites and the revelation of them that he seems often to be sharing with his readers secrets not quite dirty enough to be fascinating.

But that’s to judge him by criteria that are completely alien to his work. When he calls his poems ‘my Enchantments’, to be read ‘When Laurell spirts i’ the fire’, he means it. He was a maker of beautiful things that evoke the pleasure that comes from transience. And very few English poets have done that better than Herrick. To enjoy Hesperides you have to decide to be enchanted and allow yourself to be seduced, as in this delicious poem ‘To Musick, to becalme a sweet-sick-youth’:

Charms, that call down the moon from out her sphere,
On this sick youth work your enchantments here:
Bind up his senses with your numbers, so,
As to entrance his paine, or cure his woe.
Fall gently, gently, and a while him keep
Lost in the civill Wildernesse of sleep:
That done, then let him, dispossest of paine,
Like to a slumbring Bride, awake againe.

What makes this poem more than simply beautiful is the unsettling suggestion at its end that losing the pain of sickness in the ‘Wildernesse of sleep’ is akin to sleeping off the pain a bride feels when she loses her virginity. There is a price to ravishment, and that disturbing ripple in the apparently limpid surface of this lyric makes it the very quintessence of Herrick.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

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.

Henry Stead
King’s College London, WC2

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.