Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq., 1648 (includes Noble Numbers)
The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, 1963, 1968
Robert Herrick, a poet who found his poetic inspiration in the pagan poets, especially Anacreon, Horace, Catullus, and Martial and who was in his youth associated with Ben Jonson and his witty followers, would hardly seem to have been suited for a career in the Church and even less so for a rural parish. Indeed, Herrick was deeply dissatisfied with his ignorant country congregation and regarded his Devonshire residence as a punishment. He found some consolation, nevertheless, in the pagan qualities of the local songs and dances, and he loved his pet menagerie, particularly the pig he taught to drink.
Herrick was born in London in 1591, about the time William Shakespeare began to write for the stage, and he died in the same year as John Milton. Herrick’s father, a prosperous goldsmith, died when Herrick was an infant, but he was aided by a rich uncle, Sir William Herrick, who was jeweler to the king. He was apprenticed to his uncle, but his academic talents made it advisable to send him to St. John’s, Cambridge, at the age of twenty-two. He took his bachelor’s degree in 1617 and his master’s degree in 1620. Little is known of the next nine years of his life, but he probably spent them in London.
In 1629 Herrick became vicar at Dean Prior, Devonshire, where, despite feeling exiled, he began to write poetry that exalted the charms of rusticity. He stayed in this rural setting until 1647, when he was removed from his position because he refused to subscribe to Parliamentary reforms. He thereupon went to London and collected his twelve hundred short poems into his single volume, Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq., which was published in 1648. Many of his lyrics were subsequently anthologized and set to music. In 1662 he was restored to his parish and lived there until his death in October, 1674.
Although some of his poems are devotional, Herrick’s most representative lyrics are full of pagan delights. His style is not Petrarchan but classic. Among the English poets he followed Christopher Marlowe and Jonson rather than the metaphysical wit of John Donne. He revised diligently, and as a result his metrics and stanzaic patterns are pleasingly varied. Herrick’s talents were little appreciated during most of the eighteenth century, but his idyllic charms captured the attention of the Romantic audience and his reputation has increased steadily since that time.