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.

 

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