Robert Herrick: A lyrist of the seventeenth century
Drolette, Wesley Bates
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The primary conception of the term "lyric" is that it has to co with song. The song-like quality remains with the lyric to this day, although it is not recited to the accompaniment of the lyre as in Aristotle's day. The lyric concerns itself with the thoughts, emotions, and passions of the poet. This is especially true of Robert Herrick. One learns a good deal of the man's inner life and outward struggles through Hesperides, his greatest work. In the lyric the whole gamut of human emotion and feeling is the range: wit, sadness, love, and fancy. These are univeral qualities of any age, which means to the poet that the lyric is assured of longevity. Herrick writes that he is confident that Hesperides will be read until the Judgment Day. The lyric distinguishes itself from many other forms of poetry in that it has unity of subject matter. It revolves about one thought, feeling, or emotion. It is not interested in mixed motives, and complex action, characteristic of dramatic poetry. Some commentators have said that when Herrick appeared with his poetry, the golden summer of the English lyric was on the wane. Swinburne, however, felt that the lyrical record culminated in Herrick. The reason why men differed was due to the fact that as poetry passed from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, there was a decided change in form and character. The Elizabethan age was characterized by youthfulness. The nation was in the glory of adolescence carefree and exuberant. It was an age of flattery and compliments, and people were little disturbed by problems. Not so with the seventeenth century! This age was marked by a sobering in spirit and temper. It was an age of restraint and the poetry that was produced concerned itself with the choiceness of diction and concentration of thought. Also, the poetry became more personal the cry of the human soul. Among Herrick's many friends in London, Ben Jonson was the first. He was the "rare Arch-poet". Jonson's influence was felt among his literary friends, and the nobility who patronized the arts. He was a brilliant star. It was to Jonson, therefore, that Herrick turned to for inspiration and suggestion. Jonson had a great love for the classics and employed them freely in his poetry and drama. Herrick did likewise. Herrick imitated Jonson in thought content, as seen for example in Jonson's Still to be Neat and Herrick's Delight in Disorder, although it was with his own genius added. He wrote a poem in which he said that he was not given to plagerism, but rather adapted and revised. Jonson was the schoolmaster: heavy, careful, and precise. Herrick came by his poetry naturally, with ease and grace. He sang because he had to sing. Not alone did Herrick receive inspirition from Jonson, but also from the classics. In his To live Merrily and Trust to Good Verses he listed the major dieties of his poetic pantheon: Virgil, Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus. Of these men, Catullus and Tibullus seem to stand out as the favorite poets. Concerning Catullus, Harrington wrote that Herrick alone, of all the men of the seventeenth century, drank deepest from the Catullian fount. The Latin poet was interested in the simple things, such as the sparrow, as was Herrick. The Vivamus Mea Lesbia theme, characteristic of Catullus, was taken by Herrick for some of his poetry. The Latin poet did honor to his deceased brother in far off Troad, and Herrick paid tribute to his dying brother. The Catullian Epithalamium, with its songs, marriage customs, and homecoming, had its counterpart in Herrick's marriage poems to Sir. Clipseby and Lady Crew and Sir Thomas and Lady Southwell. The other Latin influence was Tibullus who had a love for the beauties of nature and the village festivals. This attracted Herrick as seen in the Argument of His Book: "I sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers: I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes," These men inspired him, but they die not claim him. He rose above them artistically. Herrick was a master at using an assortment of themes. On the pages of Hesperides are more than fourteen hundred separate poems, all lyrical and delicate. He has poems in which he celebrates every season of the year with its accompanying feasts. He has poems that deal with the origin, fragrance, and color of flowers. He has poems about perfumed ladies. He has poems that tell how music calms a fever or a sweet-sick-youth. He has poems about fair mistresses, his favorite being Julia, as forty-four poems are addressed to her. He has poems for his family and friends. His father, brother, and relatives are remembered. A number of poems express his loyalty to the throne. Another popular theme is himself, with some twenty-four On Himself. Robert Herrick adds Noble Humbers to complete the volume. He possibly feels that Hesperides has an unchurchmanlike tone. Although there are several splendid poems in the volume, it can not be considered on a par with the secular work. Generally, the lyrics are not as sweet and delicate as in Hesperides. Many of the poems lack the imprint of a deep religious fervor. Two most familiar poems of the volume are, Litany to the Holy Spirit, and, A Thanksgiving to God: a tribute to Dean Prior. The poetry of Robert Herrick wall never lose its appeal. He can write about the alehouse and then proceed to the harmonies of the classical ode. He writes about death, and yet gives a Welcome to Sack. Because of the wide variety of themes and his artistry, Hesperides and Noble Numbers will have a place in English literature.
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