Friday, August 24, 2012

`A Good One, However Small'

Robert Herrick was born or at least baptized on this date, Aug. 24, in 1591, the year Shakespeare moved to London. Herrick’s father, Nicholas, was a goldsmith in that city, and some imaginatively literal-minded critics have suggested that’s how the son became so dedicated a craftsman of poetry. This seems unlikely, both on the face of it and considering Nicholas Herrick’s fate. On Nov. 7, 1592, when Robert was not yet fifteen months old, Nicholas drew up his will, leaving an estate of more than three thousand pounds to his wife and seven children, all younger than eight years old. In the will, Nicholas describes himself as “sick in body.” Two days later, he fell or jumped from a fourth-floor window of his house. Scholars assume it was suicide, but such a ruling could have invalidated the will and forfeited the estate to the Crown. Instead, the family pulled strings and held on to the money. 

I start with a seemingly unhappy digression because the facts of Herrick’s early life belie his later accomplishments. He was not “dysfunctional,” emotionally stunted, fated to misery. His life was difficult, but conventionally so. His poems are notably happy, some of the happiest we have in English. Here is the erotically charged but chaste “On Julia’s Clothes”: 

“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes. 

“Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!” 

Herrick could write seductive come-on poems, pitches sweet but salacious, most famously in “To the Virgins to make much of Time,” but often, as in “On Julia’s Clothes,” he’s delighted with what life has given him. “Liquefaction” is priceless, a word I remember when in the company of a graceful, attractively dressed woman. The speaker says nothing to Julia. He’s content to gaze at her and celebrate her. The spirit of celebration moves many of Herrick’s poems. He seems always ready for a party. Here is “The Argument of His Book”: 

“I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.” 

There’s more to poetry than expressions of happiness, however heartfelt, and Yvor Winters in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967) renders a balanced assessment. Herrick, he writes, is “a disciple of Ben Jonson, but essentially of Jonson's lesser poems. Herrick learned the art of writing from Jonson but he lacked Jonson's intelligence.” 

Harsh but accurate. Winters goes on to praise several Herrick poems (Winters was always a critic of poems, not of poets), including “Litany to the Holy Spirit,”  “Night-Piece to Julia,” “Now is the time for Mirth, "Only a Little More" and this little wonder, “Upon His Departure Hence”: 

“Thus I
Passe by
And die:
As one,
And gone:
I'm made
A shade,
And laid
I' th' grave:
There have
My cave.
Where tell
I dwell,

Winters says the poem possesses “a certain technical interest, merely as a curiosity: so far as I can recollect, it is the only poem in English in iambic monometer. This is a trivial consideration, but the poem is a good one, however small.”

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

these lines often come to my mind:

"Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss."