Revisiting Robert Herrick and His Freedom

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is sometimes called a “poet’s poet.”  The phrase is applied to a poet whose consummate skill in versecraft is especially appreciated by other practitioners of the art, regardless of his popularity (or lack of the same) with the general public.  A “poet’s poet” demonstrates all of the technical virtuosity, verbal command, and professional expertise that mark him as a champion among his peers.  Swinburne—who was not at all sympathetic to the earlier poet’s religiosity—called Herrick “the greatest song-writer ever born of the English race.”

Herrick is certainly that.  How many poets have immortalized themselves with exquisite compositions like “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” or the two perfectly chiseled triplets of “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” or the playful disarray of “Delight in Disorder”?  Or what of “Upon Julia’s Voice,” which to me is the sublimest quatrain ever penned in English?  Here it is:

So smooth, so sweet, so silv’ry is thy voice,
As, could they hear, the Damn’d would make no noise,
But listen to thee, (walking in thy chamber)
Making melodious words, to Lutes of Amber.

I cannot read this short lyric without shivering at its unearthly mixture of loveliness and Hell, a dazzling syzygy that only a supreme poet could confect.  And making it work with near-rhymes?  Wow.

There are dozens of other things that set Herrick apart as stellar.  His thorough assimilation of Greek and Roman predecessors (from Anacreon and the Bucolics to Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, and Martial) is outstanding, even at a time when knowledge of the classics was de rigueur for serious writers.  His delight in coinages (lautitious, discruciate, circumwalk, premonish, underpropt, counterstand) is tempered by just enough restraint to avoid becoming a tedious distraction.  His easy transition from one meter to another in his book Hesperides, with absolute assurance, is a sign of mastery.  He can write brief lyrics and epigrams and gently flowing songs, as well as lengthy panegyrics and epithalamia.

Herrick is of course most famous for his love lyrics, written mainly to his “Julia,” but also to several discrete women addressed as Lucia, Dianeme, Anthea, Corinna, Phillis, Perenna, and other pseudonyms.  The Julia poems are remembered because of Herrick’s penchant for describing the lady’s clothes and anatomy in a playfully erotic manner: her hair, her teeth, her breasts, her nipples, her sweat, her legs, her petticoat.  Stupidly puritanical feminist pseudo-scholars hate these poems, and whine about how Herrick “objectifies” women.  Well, yeah—right.  Herrick celebrates the female body.  That’s a normal male response to feminine charms.  Deal with it, you prissy academic bitches.

There’s much more to Herrick’s credit—his love for all kinds of flowers and fruits (especially the cherry); his delight in cream and fresh milk and all the pleasures of the English countryside; his fierce loyalty to King Charles and the Royalist cause in the face of persecution by Roundhead Parliamentary scum; his palpable contempt for the hypocrisy of Low-Church Puritanism and its anti-joy ideology.  Moreover, his unabashed enjoyment of sex, whether real or fantasized, is as fresh as an unplucked daisy—or a young girl’s maidenhead.

OK, I’ve told what’s to be enjoyed in Herrick.  But now let me tell you more.  He’s free!  He writes without any kind of interior restraint or moral constriction on subjects that today would be utterly taboo in a poetry world largely strangled by the savage political correctness of the Left and the bourgeois uptightness of mainstream conservatism.  Nowadays in poetry you can’t write a single thing without some left-liberal busybody telling you that it’s “offensive,” or some pietistic Bible-thumping moralist telling you that it’s “not in accord with God’s Word.”  No matter where you turn, you’re faced with these two types of dimwitted censors.

Let’s take a look at a few of these wonderfully free poems.  Seeing them here may convince some of my readers that we are indeed living in an Orwellian world of soul-crushing censorship, for I doubt that any of the poems quoted and discussed below could ever be published in our Nicey-Nice cocoon of a desiccated and ball-less New Formalism.  Here goes.

Consider this gem that appears right in the beginning of Hesperides, and which alludes to anyone who dislikes the book:

Who with thy leaves shall wipe (at need)
The place, where swelling Piles do breed:
May every Ill, that bites, or smarts,
Perplex him in his hinder-parts.

What’s Herrick saying here?  If you don’t like my book wipe your ass with it, and I hope you get hemorrhoids and other rectal trouble from the same.  Can you imagine any poet today placing such a poem in the beginning of his published book?  No—the poet would be terrified of offending someone, getting a bad review, or not being invited to a conference.

Then there is a wonderful poem in tetrameter rhyming couplets, titled “The Vine.”  It can’t be taught in colleges where the English department is controlled by feminists, lesbians, #MeToo types, or evangelical Christians:

I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprise;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv’lits were embrac’d:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem’d to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree.
My curles about her neck did craule,
And armes and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy’d,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock, than like a Vine.

Amazing, is it not?  Herrick dreams that he is a vine, growing and crawling all over Lucia’s body, including her genitals.  He awakens from the dream with a very stiff erection.  What male poet today would have the nerve to write and publish something that free and open and sexually unrepressed?

Herrick has no problem in frankly expressing his own desire for a woman.  In his poem “To Electra,” he develops a continuing comparison of whiteness using lilies, snow, swans, cream, moonlight, pearls, and three classical allusions to Juno’s thigh, the ivory arm of Pelops, and Ixion’s cloud—all of which lead to a direct proposition of the addressee:

More white than whitest Lillies far,
Or Snow, or whitest Swans you are:
More white than are the whitest Creames,
Or Moone-light tinselling the streames:
More white than Pearls, or Juno’s thigh;
Or Pelops’ Arme of Yvorie.
True, I confesse; such Whites as these
May me delight, not fully please:
Till, like Ixion’s Cloud you be
White, warme, and soft to lye with me.

Has a seducer ever been more honest, or eloquent?  But publish a similar poem today and you’d be surrounded by screaming feminists and Sunday-School teachers.

Herrick is very skilled in the epigram, which he seems to have learned primarily from Martial.  The same sharp bite and sting of the Roman poet appear in Herrick’s epigrams “Upon Scobble” and “Upon a Crooked Maid,” both of which allude to the female private parts in an explicit manner:

Scobble for Whoredom whips his wife; and cryes
He’ll slit her nose; But blubb’ring, she replyes,
Good Sir, make no more cuts i’th’ outward skin,
One slit’s enough to let Adultry in.

Here’s the other, which refers to a crippled (“crooked”) virgin.  Herrick’s comment is that he does not care if she’s crippled, as long as her vaginal passage is straight:

Crooked you are, but that dislikes not me;
So you be straight, where Virgins straight sho’d be.

Print that today, and you’d have the Disabilities Office after you, as well as the feminists.  Am I getting through to you, reader?  Do you see the web of censorship and verbal restriction that currently surrounds all of us?

Let’s look at three of the famous “Julia” poems.  (There are about sixty of them, as Herrick seems to have had quite a thing for this lady.)  I’ve picked the ones on her breasts, for Herrick was clearly fixated on this part of the woman’s anatomy—either that, or he loved the conceit of comparing Julia’s bosom with images of strawberries and cream.  Take a peek at all three:

Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me
Behold that circummortall purity:
Betweene whose glories, there my lips Ile lay,
Ravisht, in that faire Via Lactea.

Have ye beheld (with much delight)
A red-Rose peeping through a white?
Or else a Cherrie (double grac’t)
Within a Lillie?  Center plac’t?
Or ever mark’t the pretty beam
A Strawberry shewes half drown’d in Creame?
Or seen rich Rubies blushing through
A pure smooth Pearle, and Orient too?
So like to this, nay all the rest,
Is each neate Niplet of her breast.

Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them:
And if more; Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, here’s Strawberries.

We have a truly celebratory kind of verse here, one that zeroes in on a fixed locus of delight and allows itself to dwell on the object endlessly and lovingly.  In today’s atmosphere of judgmental psychologizing, Herrick would be accused of some sort of infantile fetish.  But is that fair?  Or is it just another symptom of our modern puritanical prurience?  We are not allowed to write certain types of poems because of unspoken attitudinal orthodoxies pushed on us by mass media and public education.  Herrick was not shackled by that tyranny.

We can also check out Herrick poems that are not sexual at all, but comic-scatological—another category of verse that is streng verboten in our epicene New Formalist kindergarten.  Great writers such as Chaucer, Skelton, and Rabelais were not afraid of scatology, but poets in our current po-biz establishment are jackrabbit-terrified of the slightest hint of the same.  Look at Herrick’s epigram “Upon Skoles,” a poem that today would be dismissed as “tasteless” or “inappropriate” by the straight-laced Mrs. Grundys who police our poetry like self-appointed chaperones:

Skoles stinks so deadly, that his Breeches loath
His dampish Buttocks furthermore to cloath:
Cloy’d they are up with Arse; but hope, one blast
Will whirle about, and blow them thence at last.

Somewhat more sophisticated is “Upon Jack and Jill,” a wonderfully sarcastic comment on the irreconcilable outlooks of a romantic poet and a down-to-earth girl:

When Jill complaines to Jack for want of meate;
Jack kisses Jill, and bids her freely eate:
Jill sayes, of what?  sayes Jack, on that sweet kisse,
Which full of Nectar and Ambrosia is,
The food of Poets; so I thought sayes Jill,
That makes them looke so lanke, so Ghost-like still.
Let Poets feed on aire, or what they will;
Let me feed full, till that I fart, says Jill.

 I could go on and on, but ten poems are enough.  For those who are interested, see the following poems in Hesperides for which there is no space here:  “Upon Doll,” a two-line dismissal of a slut; “A Vision,” where the poet wishes to kiss the naked thigh of a goddess; “Dean-Bourn,” where he roundly attacks a rural town and its churlish inhabitants; “Chop-Cherry,” a witty pair of quatrains playing on the sexual meaning of the word cherry; “To Dianeme,” where a girl is solicited to strip naked; and “Upon Lucia,” where another girl is chided for not giving him a kiss, and her virginity.

Besides the desire for sheer verbal pleasure and intellectual stimulation, one purpose of reading great poetry from the past is to see how other ages differed from our own, and to judge our failings by their strengths.  Robert Herrick was free and uninhibited in ways that are basically unavailable to persons who commit words to paper today.  Despite all our meretricious blather about “liberation” and “honesty,” we are cowed and hesitant.  The fact that a brilliant poet like Herrick cannot be taught in American colleges (or can only be presented with “trigger warnings” for fatuous coeds) is evidence of our ignorant provincialism.

Be free while you can.  Read Robert Herrick.  Even if you can’t match his genius, you can at least imitate his fearlessness.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.