Robert Herrick – some shorter poems

Too many titles today to squeeze them in the heading. “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast” is an erotic poem comparing the aforementioned nipples to red roses surrounded by white, a cherry placed in the centre of a lily, a strawberry half-drowned in cream and rubies among pearls. All these metaphors are not only about the colours, but also carry sexual undertones, with flowers evoking the sensual connotations and the image of the strawberry in cream referring to some more explicit (but only suggested) sexual images.

Well, we’re into Georgia O’Keeffe territory, because the next poem “To Marigolds” also plays with the idea of flowers as glorified genitalia. Marigolds open in the morning and close at night, which brings to the poet’s mind the idea of women opening themselves to the ravishing sun and becoming virgins again in the evening.

Between these two poems, we get “Upon Jack and Jill. Epigram”, a sarcastic comment about the value of poetry. Jill complains to Jack that she is hungry, and he kisses her, telling her to feed on that. When Jill asks, on what exactly, he answers “On that sweet love”, which is the food of poets. Jill answers that now she knows why the poets are so lanky – it’s because they feed on air. She, for her part, prefers to eat so much until she farts.

“His Prayer to Ben Jonson” is an irreverent comment on his devotion to Ben Jonson, who becomes a saint to the speaker, and a saint of “old religion”, i.e. Catholicism, to boot. This also alludes to Jonson’s erstwhile Catholicism. The speaker calls for Jonson’s help in writing, the way a believer would address a saint, promises to offer the resulting poem to him, to offer to him candles and an altar, and to make him Saint Ben in his psalter.

“The Bad Seasons Makes the Poet Sad” is an overtly political poem and whatever you say of the Commonwealth, it is admirable that in the middle of it Herrick could publish his openly Royalist sentiments with apparently no repercussions. The poet is sad and immune both the charm of his mistresses and music. He wishes for the return of the golden age, when Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria ruled the land. Then the poet would celebrate and “knock at a star with my exalted head”. The last line is the exact translation of Horace’s first ode to his patron Maecenas. The implied idea is that the poet, like Horace, would love to have the patronage of the court and rich noblemen, as before.

“The Night-Piece, to Julia”, is a rather charming poem about the magic of the night evoked to bring the poet’s mistress safely to him. The poet compares her eyes to the glowworm, and hopes she is going to be guided by the shooting stars and the elves. In the second stanza, he dismisses the potential dangers: no will-o’-the-wisps should mislead her, no snakes bite her, and there are no ghosts to scare her. The poet implores Julia to come to him and when he meets her “silv’ry feet” (another association with the night), he promises to pour his soul into her, but I guess we all know what that means.

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