Robert Herrick – “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, “The Hock-Cart, or Harvest Home”, “How Roses Came Red”

“To the Virgins” is one more poem on the “carpe diem” theme. Flowers wither, the sun at noon is inevitably sliding toward the west, when we go older everything goes south, so get married as soon as you can.

“The Hock-Cart”, on the other hand, is much more interesting and I am sure it evoked many a Marxist analysis. The poem is dedicated to Earl of Westmoreland, Herrick’s patron and a poet himself. The hock-cart of the title is the last cart carrying home the harvest, whose travel home was the cause for celebration. Even though we don’t know exactly when the poem was composed, it must have read in 1648, after several years of the Civil War, like a poignant reminder of the past idyll. The poet invites the farm hands to bring the harvest home, making them more Italian than English, because he attributes to them the power of providing people with wine and oil. Then he invites the lord to come and admire the decorated cart. People sing and dance around the cart and also engage in many pagan practices for good luck and good future harvests, such as kissing the sheaves or crossing the horses. All of them head to the lord’s manor, where a sumptuous meal is awaiting them, with loads of various kinds of meat and drink described in great detail. And then, after all this revelling, the poem ends with the exhortation: “don’t you forget to feed the animals, and don’t forget that the ox needs to go back under the yoke (and so do you), and you have to fulfill the duty towards your lord – ‘Feed him ye must whose food fills you'”. Well, a kind of obvious question is: why should we feed the drone who hasn’t done any of the work himself? How is this food “his”? And this is actually the question that many radicals at this time, such as the Diggers, did ask. The final lines – “And that this pleasure is like rain/Not sent ye for to drown your pain/But for to make it spring again” – are pretty much the embodiment of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s pronouncements on mass entertainment, how it serves the purpose of keeping the working class entertained and happy, so that they go back to work every morning. One could also recall Marx’s idea of reproduction costs, i.e. the labourers do not get the whole income from their work, but only enough to keep them alive and keep them coming back to work. And then Herrick presents this as their good lord’s munificence. This is a pretty poem with a rather disgusting idea underneath – do back-breaking labour for your lord all year round and be happy that he throws you a party once a year.

After that, I do not feel like getting into much detail in “How Roses Came Red”. Roses were originally red, and then they argued they are whiter than Sapho’s breast (Herrick’s imaginary lover, not the famous poet), and they lost the debate and they are still blushing. The end.

 

Robert Herrick – “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”

The whole poem is based on the ridiculous premise that it is desirable to get up early in the morning and as such won’t appeal to me. The sun rose an hour ago and you are still not dressed?, exclaims the poet. One hour after sunrise in May is about 6 am and no self-respecting person should be made to rise at this hour, notwithstanding the poet’s babbling about how the flowers and birds have already woken up. Oh, and you say a thousand virgins have already gone to collect flowers? Either you or they are crazy.  They are beasts, not humans. But the poet prefers to live in the world of fantasy, raving on about how you don’t need to take care of your dress because you are going to be decorated with leaves and pearls of dew (brrr….) Then the poet describes how all the houses, decorated with hawthorn flowers according to English Mayday tradition, turn into the tabernacles. Wonderful, but I could see it a few hours later with much more clarity, because then I would be able to keep my eyes open. In the next stanza we get the description of “budding boy or girl” who come laden with flowers and have already eaten their breakfast, did some flirting, hooking up or even engaging. Obviously Herrick, never being a parent, has no idea how hard it is to get a teenager out of bed in the morning. The last stanza strikes a sombre note, reminding about the passage of time and that soon we are all going to be dead, so let’s seize the moment and go a-maying. If you keep on waking me at 6 am, I wish you were dead.

Robert Herrick – “The Vine”, “Dreams”, “Delight in Disorder”, “His Farewell to Sack”

“The Vine” is a very elegant poem about a wet dream. The poet dreams that he turned into a vine which with its tendrils starts to wound around his mistress’ body. But when he starts to grow leaves to cover her intimate parts he gets too excited and awakes, finding a certain part of his more like a stick than a vine.

“Dreams” is more philosophical than the previous poem. It is really just a tiny two-line epigram, reflecting on how, even though by day we are all together, by night we are all hurled into separate realms of our own.

“Delight in Disorder” is a poem somewhat similar to Jonson’s “Still to Be Neat”. The poet writes about how he delights in certain carelessness in women’s dress – a loosely draped shawl or a “cuff neglectful” are going to excite him more than being “too precise in every part”. The word “precise” is another subtle jibe against Puritans, who were often dubbed “precise” or “precious”, their scrupulousness contrasted with the easy and careless grace of the Cavaliers.

“His Farewell to Sack” is addressed to sherry, the wine which was also Falstaff’s favourite. At the beginning the poet recites a whole list of things which are not as pleasant to him as this wine, and these include sex with virgins. Wine is the drink of gods and angels, and it gave inspiration to the great poets of the past and present. So why does he have to leave it, or rather her, because in the poem the wine is presented very much like a scorned lover? Well, he realizes it’s just not too good for him, just like some women. Don’t blame me, says he, blame nature – it is she who made “a brain/uncapable of such a sovereign”. So even though the wine tries to smile and give him tempting looks, the poet swears to enjoy it only from afar – look at it, but not drink, even though it could mean lowering the standard of his poetry. From now on it’s not going to smell of wine but “of the Lamp”, meaning it is going to be a result of a laborious drudgery rather than divine inspiration.

Robert Herrick – “The Argument of His Book”, “Upon the Loss of His Mistresses”

Robert Herrick was one of the so-called Sons of Ben, the young admirers/hangers-on of Ben Jonson. He became a priest and was posted to rural Devonshire. He lost his job when the Puritans came to power, but fortunately for them outlived them and was reinstituted in his parish by Charles II . His major volume Hesperides was published in this period of his unemployment under the Commonwealth. Despite being an Anglican priest, he doesn’t seem to share with Herbert or Donne their passionate engagement with God. He wrote some religious poetry, which I am going to read later, but he is mostly famous for his very secular poems. But even his love poems are very different from those of Donne’s – this is Cavalier poetry, smooth, elegant and addressed to a series of pretty interchangeable mistresses.

This being said, it is easy to miss the fact that a poem such as “The Argument of His Book” (so like an introduction to Hesperides) is deeply political. In 1648 Herrick publishes a poem in which he claims to celebrate all the joys of life and nature. The particularly political line is when he says “I sing of Maypoles, hock carts, wassails, wakes” – all of them folk traditions, supported by the Stuart kings, who perceived them as a good way to keep the lower orders happy, and suppressed by Puritans, who condemned them as the occasions for drunkenness and also (correctly) suspected their Pagan origins. Other parts of Herrick’s poetical agenda include love (“cleanly wantonness”), nature, weather, sweet smells, some Ovidian echoes of metamorphoses (“I write/How roses first came red and lilies white”), and the evenings spent on talking about folk legends about the fairies. In the end Herrick does mention hell and heaven as his subjects as well, but the thoughts of afterlife seem to come as an afterthought.

“Upon the Loss of His Mistresses” is basically a long list of conventional names used in love poetry to denote a female lover. None of these names were given to real women in Herrick’s times (even the name “Julia” was not used until the 18th c.). Some of women’s names are accompanied by a short explanation of what made them special, like super-white skin of Anthea or wit of Corinna, but ultimately it all leads to the sad conclusion that Herrick is now left alone, numbering his sorrows by their departures and can only expect to die. It is like a sadder version of “Song for Whoever”:

 

 

Richard Crashaw – “The Flaming Heart”

Another poem with a very wordy title, this time on the subject of St Teresa of Avila, and in particular her ecstatic experience, as described in her autobiography The Flaming Heart and depicted by a number of artists, most notably Bernini. Teresa claimed in her vision she saw an angel who pierced her with an arrow. It is tempting to think Crashaw was inspired by Bernini: even though the sculpture was not installed until after Crashaw’s death, Bernini was at work on it when Crashaw was in Rome, so maybe, who knows? Although the problem is, in the poem Crashaw addresses a (perhaps imaginary ) painter rather than a sculptor. Crashaw begins by saying the painter got it wrong, because it is Teresa who is the true seraph in this picture and she should be given the dart. (He writes erroneously “seraphim”, which is the plural for “seraph”, sacrificing grammar for rhyme) Teresa, as depicted by this painter, is too pale and too cold, while she deserves all the beauties with which he painted the seraph: burning cheeks, radiant hair etc. Every line that Teresa ever wrote is like a dart sent at the hearts of her readers. But if the picture cannot be amended, the poet prefers to focus only on Teresa as a wounded lover, because her every wound becomes her dart. In the last part of the poem (which was added later) Crashaw expresses his hope, in the ecstatic lines all starting with  “by all”  (as in “by all thy lives and deaths of love”) and reminiscent of a litany, he expresses his hope that his meditation on Teresa can light a fire in his cold heart and lead him along a similar mystical path, up to the total annihilation of self. The poem is written in simiarly uneven lines as “To the Countess of Denbigh”, except that now I am inclined to see it more leniently: the overall effect is that of someone so overcome by powerful feelings that he simply can’t be bothered by keeping the rhythm.

That’s the end of the selection from Crashaw, a rather overheated poet for my taste. Tomorrow we are moving to a more moderate sphere of Robert Herrick.

Richard Crashaw – “Non Vi”/”To the Noblest and Best of Ladies, the Countess of Denbigh”

This is a fairly complicated poetic structure: first we have “Non Vi”, an emblem poem which is a kind of a poetic rebus, combining an image with a poem. This in turn serves as an introduction to the longer poem “To the Countess of Denbigh”, whose title is simply too long for me to copy – to put it briefly, it’s about convincing the Countess to convert to Catholicism (which she eventually did).

So first, “Non Vi” (Latin for “not by force”). It is an emblem poem, which means there is an image, in this case a heart locked by a padlock of sorts, the Latin maxim and a four-line poem explaining the meaning of both the image and the adage. The engraving was allegedly made by Crashaw himself. The poem explains that the heart cannot be opened by force but by skill, and only love knows the word which can open this heart (there are some blurred letters on the padlock).

The Countess of Denbigh was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, who followed her into exile and in France started considering converting to Roman Catholicism. I must say I feel Crashaw spent all his poetic energies on the emblem poem, because this one feels more like a doggerel at places – the lines are irregular and there are some which couldn’t have rhymed, even taking into account changes in pronunciation between the 17th c. and our own (e.g. “now”/”you”) Crashaw first addresses Countess’s heart, picturing it as trembling and irresolute, standing on the threshold of accepting of what he believes to be the one true faith. He compares her irresolution to waters in winter, blocked by ice which, however, is only water itself, holding water in bondage. So Countess’ heart is self-defeating. Then Crashaw invokes the (Catholic) God, who is, however, here somewhat like Cupid, because he implores him to find the arrow which could open this heart.  The poem ends with the exhortations to Countess’ heart to succumb to God’s Love, which is again written of in terms akin to conventional love poetry: Love lays siege to her heart and the fort of her “fair self. He also indulges in some paradoxes: it’s actually cowardice that makes her resist so long, and it would be courageous to yield; if she manages to repulse God’s advances, it will mean her failure.

Richard Crashaw – “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds”

The poem under this succinct title has the format of an oratorio, with the chorus singing the introduction and then the soloists taking their part, although I do not think it was every actually set to music. The shepherds, on their way back from the stable, sing to wake up the sun and tell him that tonight they saw a thing much more brighter than he; also, they saw by night something much better than they ever had seen by day. Then the two shepherds, named rather incongruously Tityrus and Thyrsis rather than Aaron and Isaac, take parts to describe the shining face of the child Jesus and how around him winter turned to spring. Tityrus scolds the world for not offering its God anything better than a cold stable and a manger, but Thyrsis corrects him: like phoenix building its own nest, God created the whole world and by extension also the place where he chose to be born. Clouds offer white bedsheets of snow, but these are too cold; the seraphim offer their fiery wings, but these are not pure enough. But the Virgin Mary’s breasts, in another metaphor uncomfortably too close to erotic poetry of the day, offer both warmth and the purity of snow. Then the full chorus takes up, welcoming the child Jesus in a series of oxymorons (“Summer in winter, Day in night” etc.) Even though Jesus is not born in riches, he has something far better than that: “two sister seas of virgin milk”. He is not welcomed to this world by vain courtiers but by humble shepherds, who nevertheless promise to come back in spring with its first gifts: flowers, lambs and doves.