Clarety Clarity

Colin Burrow

  • 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’.

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.

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