Robert Herrick

The English poet and Anglican parson Robert Herrick (1591-1674) invented a fanciful world compounded of pagan Rome and Christian England, of reality and fantasy, which he ruled as his poetic domain.

Robert Herrick's 83 years stretched from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare was writing history plays and Edmund Spenser was publishing The Faerie Queene, to the Restoration period, when John Dryden was composing heroic drama and John Milton was publishing Paradise Lost. He was contemporary with the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert and is classified with the neoclassic or Cavalier poets Edmund Waller, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.

Little is known about Herrick other than what may be gathered from a few extant letters and the 1,403 poems in his only book, Hesperides; or, The Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (1648). Unknown are what school he attended, what he was doing in 1620-1622, 1624-1626, and 1648-1660, and even the days of his birth and death. Although he probably preached at least 1,500 times, no sermon has survived.

In 1556 Nicholas Herrick, son of an ironmonger in Leicester, went to London. After 10 years as a goldsmith's apprentice, he set up a prosperous business in that craft. In 1582 he married Julian Stone, daughter of a prominent London mercer. Their fifth son, Robert, was born in their Cheapside mansion on Goldsmith's Row, and he was baptized on Aug. 24, 1591. From his father's craft Robert derived the delight in metals, jewels, and amber which shines in his poetry; and his maternal grandfather's trade inspired the fascination which silks, sheer linens, and other fine textiles had for him.


Early Years

His eldest brother died when Robert was 14 months old, and a few days later his father fell from the fourth floor of their home to his death. Legally a suicide's property could be confiscated, but since the cause of death was uncertain, his widow managed to retain the estate, worth £5,000 at a time when a laborer's hire was a few pennies a day.

Robert had an excellent schooling in Latin, but when he was 16 his practical, bourgeois relatives apprenticed him to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, a leading goldsmith. But Robert proved more proficient with words than metal. About 1610, when his brother took up farming, Robert memorialized the occasion in "A Country Life," a poem imitative of Horace and Ben Jonson but distinctively his own. He had already begun to invent his poetic world and populated it with friends and relatives, imaginary mistresses and faithful servants, rascals and fairies, and peasants who made sacrifices to Jove and danced around Maypoles.

With Herrick's twenty-first birthday, in 1612, he inherited £800 from his father's estate, left its management to his uncle, and arranged to leave his apprenticeship in 1613. Shortsightedness may have handicapped Herrick for goldsmithing; he later mentioned his waning eyesight, and throughout his poetry he tends to concentrate on things seen close up—flowers, miniatures, a pipkin of jelly, and those "little spinners," the spiders.

At 22 Herrick was about 6 years older than most undergraduates when he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, as a fellow commoner, paying double fees. Ever eager to enjoy what was available, he participated in student pleasures, made lifelong friends of John Weekes and Clipseby Crew, and laid a foundation in experience for his poems about sack. In them he hailed that potent sherry as "the drink of Gods and Angels," urging the wine to come to him "as Cleopatra came to Anthonie."

Despite the gusto with which Herrick celebrated inebriation and imaginary mistresses in poetry, he had his family's common sense, and from Horace he had learned the value of moderation. So he suggested to his uncle that it might be wise for him to transfer to a less expensive college and study law. This he did, entering sober, intellectual Trinity Hall and assuring his uncle that he would live economically as a recluse, with no company but upright thoughts. He earned his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in 1617-1620.


Clerical Career

In the next 3 years Herrick may have tried to practice law. Perhaps he studied divinity. At any rate, on April 24, 1623, he and his friend Weekes were ordained deacons and, on the next day, priests in the Church of England. This uncanonical haste suggests that he became some nobleman's chaplain. So does his presence as a chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham in 1627, when that royal favorite led a naval attack against the French at the I ˆle de Ré. Two-thirds of the English forces were killed, but Herrick survived to be rewarded by Charles I with the vicarage of Dean Prior in Devonshire.

While waiting for this benefice, Herrick wrote songs and carols which were set to music by the leading court musicians, Henry Lawes and Nicholas Lanier, and were sung before the King. He also celebrated the birth of Prince Charles in a pretty pastoral.

In September 1630 Herrick began his clerical duties at Dean Prior. Typically, he made the best of his environment, thanking God for his "little house" and writing poems about his spaniel Tracie, his pet sparrow, and his maid Prue, "by good luck sent." For 17 years he conducted services, baptisms, marriages, and funerals; interested himself in local folklore; flattered female parishioners in verse; exposed the vices of men named Scobble and Mudge, Groynes and Huncks, in biting epigrams; and "became much beloved by the gentry."

The peace of Devonshire was blasted by the civil war which broke out in 1642. The fact that the conquering Puritans were slow to oust Herrick from his vicarage suggests that he was popular with his parishioners and faithful in his duties. In religion he was moderate and reasonable; his sacred poems express a broad Protestantism based on Scripture and common sense. It was his outspoken royalism which caused his expulsion in 1647.

Presumably Herrick returned to London to see his book into print in 1648. Then he drops out of sight until 1660, when he was restored to his vicarage. If he wrote more poems, they have not survived. He was buried at Dean Prior on Oct. 15, 1674. His successor 30 years later reported that he had been a "sober and learned man"; and after more than a century locals recalled "that he kept a pet pig, which he taught to drink out of a tankard."


His Poetry

The many roles which he played in his poetry only partially correspond to the real Herrick. Indeed, it is misleading to identify the "I" in his verse with all the personae he assumed—inebriate, lover, and sensualist; scholar, moralist, and royalist; innocent child, advocate of moderation, and obscene epigrammatist. The fact is that he ranges over the whole human comedy, singing of nature, seasons, youth and love, physical dews and rains, and balms which symbolize the spiritual heaven. He extends to the causes of things and the twilight realm of fairies; and he meditates upon hell, death, and heaven, urging readers to gather the roses of joy while they may. And he concludes his volume with His Noble Numbers; or, His Pious Pieces, Wherein (amongst other things) he sings the Birth of his Christ: and sighes for his Saviour's suffering on the Crosse.

The first edition of Herrick's Hesperides seems to have been large and popular with royalists but unsuited to Restoration and 18th-century taste. Not until 1810 did a second edition appear. Despite some attacks on his "naughty" material, the fame which he was certain he deserved came to him, and today his position as one of the great lyrical artists is secure. Moreover, scholars are beginning to recognize that his technical brilliance is complemented by complex profundities.


Further Reading on Robert Herrick

The standard editions are The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, edited by L. C. Martin (1956), and The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by J. Max Patrick (1963). The sparse biographical data and the background are attractively set forth in Marchette Chute, Two Gentle Men: The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick (1959). There is perceptive criticism of the poetry in Roger B. Rollin, Robert Herrick (1966). The cultural background and debt to Jonson are considered in Kathryn Anderson McEuen, Classical Influence upon the Tribe of Ben (1939). For the general literary milieu see Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1946; 2d ed. 1962). Rose Macaulay's novel The Shadow Flies (1932) gives an imaginary but delightful treatment of Herrick. He is also treated fictionally in Emily Easton, Youth Immortal: A Life of Robert Herrick (1934).


Additional Biography Sources

Aiken, Pauline, The influence of the Latin elegists on English lyric poetry, 1600-1650, with particular reference to the works of Robert Herrick, New York, Phaeton Press, 1970.

Braden, Gordon, The classics and English Renaissance poetry: three case studies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Budd, Louis J., Robert Herrick, New York, Twayne 1971.

Coiro, Ann Baynes, Robert Herrick's Hesperides and the epigram book tradition, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Deming, Robert H., Ceremony and art. Robert Herrick's poetry, The Hague, Paris, Mouton, 1974.

Deneef, A. Leigh, "This poetick liturgie": Robert Herrick's ceremonial mode, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1974.

Ferrari, Ferruccio, L'influenza classica nell'Inghilterra del Seicento e la poesia di Robert Herrick, Messina; Firenze: G. D'Anna, 1979.

Ferrari, Ferruccio, La poesia religiosa inglese del Seicento, Messina; Firenze: G. D'Anna, 1975.

Gertzman, Jay A., Fantasy, fashion, and affection: editions of Robert Herrick's poetry for the common reader, 1810-1968, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986.

Hageman, Elizabeth, Robert Herrick: a reference guide, Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1983.

Holloway, Robin, The consolation of music: for unaccompanied mixed voices, op. 38, no. 1, on poems by Herrick and Strode, London; New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1979.

Horlacher, Friedrich W., Die Romane Robert Herricks: Empirie u. Fiktion, Frankfurt am Main; Las Vegas: Lang, 1978.

Ishii, Shåonosuke, The poetry of Robert Herrick, Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1974.

Johnston, Jack, Diverse voices of Herrick: songs for medium voice and piano, Geneseo, N.Y.: Leyerle Publications, 1986.

Macaulay, Rose, Dame, The shadow flies, St. Clair Shores, Mich., Scholarly Press, 1971.

Macaulay, Rose, Dame, They were defeated, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

MacLeod, Malcolm Lorimer, A concordance to the poems of Robert Herrick, New York, Haskell House Publishers, 1971; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978 c1936.

Musgrove, S. (Sydney), The universe of Robert Herrick, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1975; Norwood Editions, 1978 c1869.

Robert Herrick Memorial Conference, University of Michigan, Dearborn, "Trust to good verses": Herrick tercentenary essays, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.

Rollin, Roger B., Robert Herrick, New York, Twayne Publishers 1966; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.

Scott, George Walton, Robert Herrick, 1591-1674, London, Sidgwick & Jackson 1974; New York, St. Martin's Press 1974.