Robert Herrick (1591 –1674) was an English poet and cleric, best known for his book of poems, Hesperides. Born in London, his father died in a fall from a fourth-floor window in November 1592, when Robert was a year old (whether this was suicide remains unclear). In 1607 he became apprenticed to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, who was a goldsmith and jeweler to the king. The apprenticeship ended after six years when Herrick, at age twenty-two, matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge. He was ordained in 1623 and in 1629 became the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire.
In 1647, in the wake of the English Civil War, he was ejected from his vicarage on political grounds. He returned to London, where he depended on the charity of his friends and family. When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Herrick petitioned for his own restoration to his living and became the vicar of Dean Prior again in the summer of 1662. He lived there until his death in October 1674, at the age of 83.
Herrick was a bachelor all his life, and many of the women he names in his poems are thought to be fictional.
Hesperides is a book of poetry published in 1648 by Robert Herrick. Herrick wrote over 2,500 poems, about half of which appear in this, his major work. (Hesperides also includes the much shorter Noble Numbers, his first book, of spiritual works, first published in 1647.) His poems dealt with English country life and its seasons, village customs, complimentary poems to various ladies and his friends, themes taken from classical writings and poems about his Christian faith. It has been said of Herrick’s style by F. T. Palgrave that ‘his directness of speech with clear and simple presentation of thought, a fine artist working with conscious knowledge of his art, of an England of his youth in which he lives and moves and loves, clearly assigns him to the first place as a lyrical poet in the strict and pure sense of the phrase’.
That is one view. Another is offered by The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). “Herrick surpasses all his contemporaries as an epigrammatist, both in variety of theme and delicacy of finish, and is almost as supreme in the epigrammatic art as in the lyric.” It does, however, take a dim view of those epigrams I have included below as Brief Coarse Poems, disdaining “his scurrilous distichs, which reflect the nastiness of Martial without his wit, and which were discharged against hapless parishioners at Dean Prior, or enemies in town.”
According to the Poetry Foundation page on him, “Herrick never married, and literary gossips have reveled in speculations about the identities of the fourteen “mistresses” …. to whom he addressed 158 poems. Whether they were flesh and blood or, as modern consensus has it, pretty fictions is of little consequence: Herrick is only conforming to the common poetic practice of the time when he addresses his uniformly young and beautiful Julias, Corinnas, and Antheas…. Herrick’s love poetry ranges from the bawdy to the neo-Petrarchan. That range … makes “cleanly-Wantonnesse” an apt phrase to characterize his amatory verses.”
I leave it to you to make up your own mind on the merits or demerits of Robert Herrick’s brief poems, coarse, cleanly-wanton or otherwise. And the pretty feet? Not only are they the subject of one of his poems (another is on Julia’s “pretty” legs) but they also testify to his mastery of metrics, even in such a brief space.
Brief Poems by Robert Herrick
TO HIS BOOK
Take mine advice, and go not near
Those faces, sour as vinegar;
For these, and nobler numbers, can
Ne’er please the supercilious man.
Lost to the world; lost to myself; alone
Here now I rest under this marble stone,
In depth of silence, heard and seen of none.
A VOW TO VENUS
Happily I had a sight
Of my dearest dear last night;
Make her this day smile on me,
And I’ll roses give to thee!
See’st thou that cloud as silver clear,
Plump, soft, and swelling every where?
‘Tis Julia’s bed, and she sleeps there.
Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg,
Which is s white and hairless as an egg.
UPON HER FEET
Her pretty feet
Like snails did creep
A little out, and then,
As if they played at Bo-peep,
Did soon draw in again.
ANOTHER UPON HER WEEPING
She by the river sat, and sitting there,
She wept, and made it deeper by a tear.
All has been plunder’d from me but my wit:
Fortune herself can lay no claim to it.
THINGS MORTAL STILL MUTABLE
Things are uncertain; and the more we get,
The more on icy pavements we are set.
Tears, though they’re here below the sinner’s brine,
Above, they are the Angels’ spiced wine.
Love’s of itself too sweet; the best of all
Is, when love’s honey has a dash of gall.
UPON PRUE, HIS MAID
In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
MONEY MAKES THE MIRTH
When all birds else do of their music fail,
Money’s the still-sweet-singing nightingale.
Here we are all, by day: by night we’re hurled
By dreams, each one into a several world.
SAFETY ON THE SHORE
What though the sea be calm? Trust to the shore;
Ships have been drown’d, where late they danced before.
UPON A PAINTED GENTLEWOMAN
Men say you’re fair; and fair ye are, ’tis true;
But, hark! we praise the painter now, not you.
Wrinkles no more are, or no less,
Than beauty turn’d to sourness.
UPON A CHILD
Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies;
Pray be silent, and not stir
Th’ easy earth that covers her.
HIS WISH TO PRIVACY
Give me a cell
Where no foot hath
There will I spend,
My wearied years
To his Book’s end this last line he’d have plac’t,
Jocund his Muse was; but his Life was chast.
Brief Coarse Poems by Robert Herrick
Upon Jolly’s Wife
First, Jolly’s wife is lame; then next loose-hipp’d:
Squint-ey’d, hook-nos’d; and lastly, kidney-lipp’d.
Batt he gets children, not for love to rear ’em;
But out of hope his wife might die to bear ’em.
Upon a Blear-Ey’d Woman
Wither’d with years, and bed-rid Mumma lies;
Dry-roasted all, but raw yet in her eyes.
Upon a Crooked Maid
Crooked you are, but that dislikes not me:
So you be straight where virgins straight should be.
Long and Lazy
That was the proverb. Let my mistress be
Lazy to others, but be long to me.
Doll, she so soon began the wanton trade,
She ne’er remembers that she was a maid.
Skinns, he dined well today: how do you think?
His nails they were his meat, his rheum the drink.
Of four teeth only Bridget was possest;
Two she spat out, a cough forced out the rest.
Putrefaction is the end
Of all that nature doth intend.
Jack and Jill
Since Jack and Jill both wicked be;
It seems a wonder unto me,
That they, no better do agree.
Upon One who Said she was Always Young
You say you’re young; but when your teeth are told
To be but three, black-ey’d, we’ll think you old.
Joan would go tell her hairs; and well she might,
Having but seven in all: three black, four white.
Upon a Free Maid, with a Foul Breath
You say you’ll kiss me, and I thank you for it;
But stinking breath, I do as hell abhor it.
Thou writes in prose how sweet all virgins be;
But there’s not one, doth praise the smell of thee.
Lulls swears he is all heart; but you’ll suppose
By his proboscis that he is all nose.
Blisse, last night drunk, did kiss his mother’s knee;
Where will he kiss, next drunk, conjecture ye.
Vinegar is no other, I define,
Than the dead corps, or carcase of the wine.
Science puffs up, says Gut, when either pease
Make him thus swell, or windy cabbages.
The Poetry Foundation Page on Robert Herrick
A Selection From The Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick (Editor: Francis Turner Palgrave)
The Hesperides and Noble Numbers by Robert Herrick. (Complete text.)