Poetic Word: Robert Herrick

The Times Literary Supplement has had a run on good pieces lately but Paul Davis’ review of a new collection of the poetry of Robert Herrick was a particular pleasure. Here’s the lead:

Lyric poetry written in the first half of the seventeenth century is full of little things – Richard Lovelace has his snail and his grasshopper, Andrew Marvell his drop of dew and his glow-worms, Edmund Waller his garters, gloves and ribbons – but Robert Herrick’s appetite for the miniature was uniquely gargantuan. A brief selection of the nano-phenomena, animal, vegetable and mineral, in Hesperides (1648), his only collection of verse, might include: amber beads, ants, apple cores, beans, bees (or just their honey sacs), beetles, beets, crickets, cherries (often just their stones), cowslips, earlobes, earwigs, flies, gnats, mice, newts, nipples (usually reduced to “niplets”, one of several diminutives Herrick coined), nuts, pansies, pearls, peas, robins (Herrick liked shortening his own name to “Robin”), seeds, smallage (his herb of choice for his gravestone), spiders, tears (always singly, never in floods), violets, worms and worts. Then there are the poems themselves. Hesperides contains a massive 1,402 lyrics – 1,130 in the main body of the collection, and 272 in a second religious corpus, His Noble Numbers or Pious Pieces – but only three dozen or so are longer than fifty lines, and a mere eighty-five even get beyond twenty, while more than 1,000 come in at two quatrains or under, including 465 distichs. Poems in pentameter are hugely outnumbered by those in tetrameter or trimeter, and Herrick was not above writing whole poems in dimeter and monometer.

This extent of miniaturism can make reading through Hesperides a strange experience, at once gruelling and unsatisfying, like surfeiting on canapés or climbing an Everest of molehills. For a long time, readers ducked the challenge. …

I certainly did, at least beyond the anthologized greatest hit or two of his.

But TLS sent me back to the poems and here are a few that caught my eye.

Delight in Disorder
By Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

The Present Time Best Pleaseth
by Robert Herrick

Praise they that will times past; I joy to see
Myself now live: this age best pleaseth me.

Matins, or Morning Prayer
by Robert Herrick

When with the virgin morning thou dost rise,
Crossing thyself come thus to sacrifice;
First wash thy heart in innocence; then bring
Pure hands, pure habits, pure, pure every thing.
Next to the altar humbly kneel, and thence
Give up thy soul in clouds of frankincense.
Thy golden censers fill’d with odours sweet
Shall make thy actions with their ends to meet.

Cabinet of Curiosities
“The Cabinet of Curiosities” a glass sculpture by Steffen Dam in the collection of the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Like Herrick, full of tiny wonders, and bigger on the inside.





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