Robert Herrick (1591-1674), from Halleck's New English Literature, 1913. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Herrick
Born August 24 1591(1591-Template:MONTHNUMBER-24) (baptized)
Cheapside, London, England
Died October 15 1674(1674-Template:MONTHNUMBER-15) (aged 83) (buried)
Dean Prior, Devon, England
Occupation poet, clergyma

Rev. Robert Herrick (baptized 24 August 1591 - buried 15 October 1674) was an English poet and cleric. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that he "revived the spirit of the ancient classic lyric. He is best remembered for the line, 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may'."[1]

Life[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Herrick, born in London, was apprenticed as a goldsmith to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, with whom he remained for 10 years. Thereafter he went to Cambridge, took orders, and was in 1629 presented by Charles I to the living of Dean Prior, a remote parish in Devonshire, from which he was ejected in 1647, returning in 1662. His Noble Numbers; or, Pious pieces was published in 1647, his Hesperides; or, Works both human and divine in 1648, and the 2 together in 1 volume in the latter year. Over 60, however, of the lighter poems included in Hesperides had previously appeared anonymously in a collection entitled Wit's Recreations. Herrick's early life in London had been free , and his secular poems, in which he appears much more at ease than in his sacred, show him to have been a thorough Epicurean, though he claims that his life was not to be judged by his muse. As a lyric poet Herrick stands in the front rank for sweetness, grace, and true poetic fire, and some of his love songs, e.g. "Anthea," and "Gather ye Rose-buds," are unsurpassed in their kind; while in such exquisite little poems as Blossoms, Daffodils, and others he finds a classic expression for his love of nature and country life. In his epigrams, however, he falls much below himself. He has been described as "the most frankly pagan of English poets."[2]

Youth and education[edit | edit source]

Born in Cheapside, London, Herrick was the 7th child and 4th son of Julia (Stone) and Nicholas Herrick, a prosperous goldsmith.[3] He belonged to an old Leicestershire family which had settled in London.[4] His father died in a fall (or jump) from a 4th-floor window in November 1592, 2 days after making a will, when Robert was a year old.[5]

The children were brought up by their uncle, Sir William Herrick, 1 of the richest goldsmiths of the day, to whom in 1607 Robert was bound apprentice. It was no doubt during his apprenticeship that the young poet was introduced to that circle of wits which he was afterwards to adorn. He seems to have been present at the debut performance of The Alchemist in 1610, and it was probably about this time that Ben Jonson adopted him as his poetical “son.”[4]

He was probably educated at Westminster School; and in 1614 he proceeded to Cambridge. He entered the university as fellow-commoner of St John's College, and he remained there until, in 1616, upon taking his degree, he moved to Trinity Hall. A lively series of 14 letters to his uncle, mainly begging for money, exists at Beaumanoir, and shows that Herrick suffered much from poverty at the university. He earned a B.A. in 1617, and an Master of Arts in 1620.[4]

Career[edit | edit source]

From 1620 until 1627 we entirely lose sight of Herrick; it has been variously conjectured that he spent these years preparing for the ministry at Cambridge, or in much looser pursuits in London. In 1629 he was presented by the king to the vicarage of Dean Prior, not far from Totnes in Devonshire.[4]

At Dean Prior he resided quietly until 1648. The solitude there at 1st oppressed him; the village was dull and remote, and he felt very bitterly that he was cut off from all literary and social associations; but soon the quiet existence in Devonshire soothed and delighted him. He was pleased with the rural and semi-pagan customs that survived in the village, and in some of his most charming verses he has immortalized the morris-dances, wakes and quintains, the Christmas mummers and the Twelfth Night revellings, that diversified the quiet of Dean Prior.[4]

His earliest appearance in print was in some verses he contributed to A Description of the King and Queen of Fairies, in 1635.[4]

We have few hints of his life as a clergyman. Anthony Wood says that Herricks's sermons were florid and witty, and that he was “beloved by the neighbouring gentry.” A very aged woman, one Dorothy King, stated that the poet once threw his sermon at his congregation, cursing them for their inattention. The same old woman recollected his favourite pig,[4] which he taught to drink out of a tankard.[6]

Herrick never married, but lived at the vicarage surrounded by a happy family of pets, and tended by an excellent old servant named Prudence Baldwin. He was a devotedly loyal supporter of the king during the Civil War, and in 1648 he was ejected by the Puritans.[6]

In the interval he appears to have lived in Westminster, probably supported, more or less, by the gifts of wealthy Royalists.[2] That he was reduced to great poverty in London has been stated, but there is no evidence of the fact.[6]

In 1648 he published his celebrated collection of lyrical poems, entitled Hesperides; or, The works both human and divine of Robert Herrick. The “divine works” bore the title of Noble Numbers and the date 1647. That is the only volume which Herrick published, but he also contributed poems to Lachrymae Musarum, 1649, In 1650 a volume of Wit's Recreation contained 62 small poems acknowledged by Herrick in the Hesperides, and another not reprinted until the 20th century.[6]

In August 1662 Herrick returned to Dean Prior, supplanting his own supplanter, Dr. John Syms. He died in his 84th year, and was buried at Dean Prior, October 15, 1674.[6]

Writing[edit | edit source]

Title page of Robert Herrick, Hesperides, 1648. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Main article: Hesperides

Herrick wrote over 2,500 poems, about half of which appear in his major work, Hesperides.[7] Hesperides also includes the much shorter Noble Numbers, his 1st book (of spiritual works), published in 1647. He is well-known for, in his earlier works, frequent references to lovemaking and the female body. His later poetry was more of a spiritual and philosophical nature. Among his most famous short poetical sayings are the unique monometers, such as "Thus I / Pass by / And die,/ As one / Unknown / And gone."

As a pastoral lyrist Herrick stands 1st among English poets. His genius is limited in scope, and comparatively unambitious, but in its own field it is unrivalled. His tiny poems are like jewels of various value, heaped together in a casket. Some are of the purest water, radiant with light and color, some were originally set in false metal that has tarnished, some were rude and repulsive from the first. Out of the unarranged, heterogeneous mass the student has to select what is not worth reading, but, after he has cast aside all the rubbish, he is astonished at the amount of excellent and exquisite work that remains.[6]

Herrick has himself summed up, very correctly, the themes of his sylvan muse when he says:-

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.”

He saw the picturesqueness of English homely life as no one before him had seen it, and he described it in his verse with a certain purple glow of Arcadian romance over it, in tones of immortal vigor and freshness.[6]

Gather Ye rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse, 1909. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

His love poems are still more beautiful; the best of them have an ardor and tender sweetness which give them a place in the forefront of modern lyrical poetry, and remind us of what was best in Horace and in the poets of the Greek Anthology.[6] Herrick never married, and none of his love-poems seem to connect directly with any one beloved woman. He loved the richness of sensuality and the variety of life, and this is shown vividly in such poems as Cherry-Ripe , Delight in Disorder and Upon Julia's Clothes .

The over-riding message of Herrick's work is that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it. This message can be seen clearly in To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, To Daffodils , To Blossoms and Corinna going a-Maying, where the warmth and exuberance of what seems to have been a kindly and jovial personality comes over strongly.

Critical introduction[edit | edit source]

by Edmund Gosse

Among the English pastoral poets, Herrick takes an undisputed precedence, and as a lyrist generally he is scarcely excelled, except by Shelley. No other writer of the seventeenth century approached him in abundance of song, in sustained exercise of the purely musical and intuitive gifts of poetry. Shakspeare, Milton, and perhaps Fletcher, surpassed him in the passion and elevated harmony of their best lyrical pieces, as they easily excelled him in the wider range of their genius and the breadth of their accomplishment. But while these men exercised their art in all its branches, Herrick confined himself very narrowly to one or two, and the unflagging freshness of his inspiration, flowing through a long life in so straitened a channel, enabled him to amass such a wealth of purely lyrical poetry as no other Englishman has produced.

His level of performance was very high; he seems to have preserved all that he wrote, and the result is that we possess more than 1200 of his little poems, in at least 1 out of every 3 of which we may find something charming or characteristic. Of all the Cavalier lyrists Herrick is the only one that followed the bent of his genius undisturbed, and lived a genuine artist’s life. Consequently, while we have to lament, in the case of Lovelace or Suckling, a constant waste of energy, and unthrifty drain of poetic power, in Herrick all is wisely husbanded, and we feel satisfied that we possess the best that he could produce.

His life was an ideal one so far as quiet and retirement went; to 14 years of seclusion at Cambridge there succeeded 20 years of unbroken Arcadian repose in a Devonshire vicarage, and it was not till the desire to rhyme had left him that the poet was brought rudely face to face with the clamor and vexation of political feud. Thus he was preserved from that public riot and constant disturbance of the commonwealth which did its best to drown the voice of every poet from Carew to Dryden, which drove Crashaw away to madness and death, which made harsh the liquid melodies of Milton, which belied the promise of Davenant and broke the heart of Cowley. From all this disturbance and discord Herrick was fortunately free, and we may look in vain through his pastoral elegies and jets of amorous verse to discover a trace of the frantic times he lived in.

The book which Herrick has bequeathed to us is filled with short poems, thrown together without any attempt at arrangement either of subject or time of composition. They range between odes and epithalamia of 5 or 6 pages, and epigrams of a single couplet. In preparing the Hesperides for the press it would seem as though the English poet took for his model the works of the Latin epigrammatist Martial. There is, however, a deeper resemblance between the 2 writers than is to be found in the mere outward arrangement of their works. The successive editors of Herrick have noted what they conceive to be his likeness to Catullus, but this is hardly critical.

The prominent qualities of Herrick’s verse are not passion so much as sensuous reverie, not fire so much as light, not the music of the lyre so much as of the flute and fiddle. In all these respects he is far enough from resembling Catullus, but very near to Martial, who, moreover, alone among the Latin poets has that minute picturesqueness of detail and delight in the accessories of life which we admire in Herrick. Moreover, it must be frankly admitted, that in his tendency to obscene and unsavory jest, and in his radical indelicacy of fancy the English poet follows, happily at a great distance, the foulest of the ancients.

But Herrick was not indebted solely to Martial or to Catullus; his imagination was steeped in antique literature, and whether he was a Greek scholar or not, he contrived to assimilate into his work more of the temper of Theocritus and of the lyrists of the Greek Anthology than any English writer of the century. The atmosphere is Greek, though we find little that shows direct study; perhaps, with the tact of a poet, he extracted the odor and flavor of ancient verse without understanding it very well, just as Petrarch, dreaming above the MS. of Homer that he could not read, divined the place that Greek was destined to take in the revival of culture.

Herrick was a pagan and a hedonist, and it was natural that his mind should revert with extreme longing to the primitive civilisation of Europe. He dreamed himself to be a priest in some past age of Sicily or Tuscany, earnestly partaking in the ceremonial of a god that could be wreathed with flowers or invoked in a libation of wine, and he was quietly contented with the physical fullness of life around him, without caring to define with much antiquarian exactitude what the age was or what the worship. So little had he of the pedant in his constitution, that he brought these genial rites in fancy to the doors of his Devonian vicarage, and raised the thyrsus underneath his clerical roof, while the roses reigned around, and his puritan locks were shining with galbanum and storax.

There were quintals at Dean-Prior, wakes and wassailings, and Herrick gaily assimilated to his antique dream these pleasant pastoral survivals, ribbanding the may-pole as though it were the cone-tipped rod of Dionysus, and pouring over the clumsy morris-dances of his parishioners the ideal grace of some Dorian round of nymphs and shepherds. His classic fancy is brighter, and his sensuous vision more amply sustained than in the poems of those of his contemporaries who affected the same sentimental paganism. Even Ben Jonson, when he was most Latin, was but a burly Londoner masquerading in a toga; but Herrick, if not born a Greek, as Keats was, might yet claim to be the compatriot of those Italian lyrists of the early renaissance, who completely divested themselves of all trace of Christendom.

In saying this, no harsh judgment is passed upon Herrick’s performance of those duties, ceremonial or poetical, which his position as a clerk of the English Church demanded from him. He preached sermons or wrote Noble Numbers with zeal and sincerity, but these were not the product of the native spirit of the man. He was an exile from Arcadia all his days, walking through our sober modern life without revolt or passion, but always conscious that he had seen more glorious sights, and walked through a land much more eminent for luxury and beauty. In Herrick the sense of bodily loveliness was perilously acute, but his good sense and artistic tact sufficed to restrain it within bounds; and, thus confined, it simply served to redeem his verse from the tasteless errors of his contemporaries, and to interpenetrate it with melody and colour.

What Herrick did not learn from the ancients, he gathered at the feet of Ben Jonson. He was the greatest and the most reverential in the group of youths of genius who formed the school and boasted of being the "sons" of the great tragic master. But in temper and bent of mind few writers could naturally have less in common than Jonson and Herrick, and it is therefore not surprising that we find but a section of the older poet’s work exercising an influence over the younger. How wide and versatile was the genius of Ben Jonson is but little known to those who study him only as a dramatist. His masques, and the beautiful collection called The Forest, display him to us as 1 of the most graceful and original of lyrists; and it was at this point that Herrick fell under his inspiration.

It has been conjectured that Herrick became acquainted with the author of The Alchemist on the memorable occasion of the 1st performance of that comedy in 1610, when the young man was in his 19th year. It was in that same year that Jonson published Oberon, the Fairy Prince, a masque peopled by the gay assemblage of fays and elves, which Herrick afterwards adopted as his own peculiar property, and full of classical allusions and strains of light versification in the spirit of the Hesperides. It is here, and in the other masques and songs of Jonson, that we must look for the immediate inspiration of much that Herrick afterwards adorned, intensified, and made his own.

There is not a sunnier book in the world than the Hesperides. To open it is to enter a rich garden on a summer afternoon, and to smell the perfume of a wealth of flowers and warm herbs and ripening fruits. The poet sings, in short flights of song, of all that makes life gay and luxurious, of the freshness of a dewy field, of the fecundity and heat of harvest, of the odour and quietude of an autumn orchard. All the innocent pastimes of the people find a laureate in him, his Muse disdains no circumstance of rural holiday, and is more than ready to accompany him to country wakes and races, to the riot of the hay-field and the may-pole, to the village bridal and to the crowning of the hock-cart. She presides with him at the mixing of a wedding-cake or of a spicy wassail-bowl, and lends her presence to the celebration of the humblest rites of rural superstition....

But his verse is not all so objective as he pretends; to the observation of nature and the praise of enjoyment in others he adds copious reflection on the construction of his own mind and body, and discusses his experiences with a charming candor. No more garrulous egotist is to be found in literature; he prattles away, with child-like simplicity, about his hopes of pleasure and his fears of death, his loves and his companions, even about his food and the various creature comforts of his vicarage. He tells us that he is anxious for fame, and, again, that he is confident of securing it. He gives us a list of his domestic pets, and we see them pass before us, his goose, his lamb, his spaniel, his cat, his learned pig. We sit with him beside the fire so quietly that we see the brisk mouse come out to feed herself with crumbs, till "Prewdence Baldwin" or "the green-eyed kitling comes."

It is this happy realism and personal frankness which, in conjunction with that Doric fancy of which we have already spoken, combine to give the poetry of Herrick such an intimate charm, at once strange and familiar, like that of the more dramatic passages in Theocritus. There is no strain on the feelings, no rage or fervour, all is quiet, picturesque and penetrating, and the poet is so circumstantial in describing his Arcadia, that it seems to us while we listen to him, that we have lived there all our lives.

The deceptive air of reality which clothes the landscapes of Herrick should, by analogy, make his biographers careful in accepting too exactly all that he says about himself. Little can be gained by analyzing his various loves, or by attempting to disentangle Silvia from Perilla, or Corinna from Anthea. These nymphs were probably mere artist’s studies, for which some primrose-gatherer or milk-maid of Dean-Prior sat quite unconsciously. Only in the description of Julia we may detect more individuality and personal presence, and the poems which are dedicated to her probably date from the years preceding the poet’s acceptance of holy orders. We must not forget that before he left Cambridge he was 39 years of age and the youthful fever of the blood was allayed, and without doubt the warmest verses of the Hesperides, his ‘wild unbaptisëd rhymes,’ were the production of his youth.

The sacred poetry of Herrick is weak, as might be expected, from a theological point of view, and attains success rather in spite of the author’s aim than through it. He is very genuine in his devotion, as far as it goes, but his pagan temperament leaves him rather callous, and we have none of the spiritual elevation of Vaughan, none of the conscience-searching and holy aspiration of Herbert. Herrick sings lustily in church, but he sings to the old heathen tunes, and, even at his prayers, his spirit is mundane and not filled with heavenly things. He succeeds best where he permits himself to adorn a celestial theme with the picturesque detail of his secular poems; he is happy if he be allowed to crown the infant Saviour with daffodils or pin a rose into His stomacher. His longer odes and elegies owe their interest to no divine fervor, but to the bright and fantastic touches, to the introduction of flowers and odors, and to the luxury and pomp of ceremonial.

Herrick must ever be regarded as an alien in the choir of divine singers which the 17th century produced; he has something of their technical character, but in spirit he is divided from them by a barrier that neither a genuine piety nor a desire to edify could over-step. His best religious pieces are "The Litany", "The Dirge of Jephthah’s Daughter" ... and "The Dirge of Dorcas", a poem containing some grotesque passages, but many of extraordinary lyric felicity.

We have no means of discovering, or even of conjecturing, by what steps Herrick arrived at the mastery over the technical part of poetry which we discover in the Hesperides. It was characteristic of the fashion of the day to invent verse-forms of great intricacy and difficulty, the beauty of which was of less import to the writer than the oddity. Donne had set the example of these fantastic eccentricities, and the wanton way in which they were employed soon drove men of taste to the rigid use of the heroic couplet only. Herrick, however, avoided this capital offence against artistic harmony. His measures are many of them his own, and show great ingenuity, but they are all, or almost all, justified by their inherent beauty. He attempted a great variety of experiments, mainly with a view to intensifying and sustaining the pleasurable recurrence of rhyme; some of these are scarcely successful, because the language is not pliant enough for such tours-de-force, but the experiments themselves are not contrary to the principles of versification.

The lyrics of Herrick are very luscious and liquid in their flow of language; he is not a passionate writer, and we always miss, even in his best work, that mounting and piercing melody which goes straight to the heart, and which Burns and Shelley give us, each in his own way. In his verse-music, as in everything else, Herrick is excessively mundane, too easily satisfied with the sincere and exquisite expression of a common thought to care about the uncommon; and hence it is that with all his wonderful art and skill he is never named among the few English poets of the 1st class, but always as pre-eminent among those of the 2nd class.[8]

Recognition[edit | edit source]

After suffering complete extinction for more than a century, the fame of Herrick was revived by John Nichols, who introduced his poems to the readers of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1796 and 1797. Nathan Drake followed in 1798 with considerable enthusiasm. By 1810 interest had so far revived in the forgotten poet that Dr. Nott ventured to print a selection from his poems, which attracted the favorable notice of the Quarterly Review. In 1823 the Hesperides and the Noble Numbers were edited by T. Maitland, afterwards Lord Dundrennan. Since then the reprints of Herrick's have been too numerous to be mentioned; there are few English poets of the 17th century whose writings are now more accessible.[6]

A monument was erected to his memory in the parish church in 1857, by Perry Herrick, a descendant of a collateral branch of the family.[6]

Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne declared Herrick to be "the greatest song writer ever born of English race."[5]

29 of his poems ("Corinna's going a-Maying," "To the Virgins, to make much of Time," "To the Western Wind," "To Electra," "To Violets," "To Daffodils," "To Blossoms," "The Primrose," "The Funeral Rites of the Rose," "Cherry-Ripe," "A Meditation for his Mistress," "Delight in Disorder," "Upon Julia's Clothes," "The Bracelet: To Julia," "To Daisies, not to shut so soon," "The Night-piece: To Julia," "To Music, to becalm his Fever," "To Dianeme," "To Oenone," "To Anthea, who may command him Anything," "To the Willow-tree," "The Mad Maid's Song," "Comfort to a Youth that had lost his Love," "To Meadows," "A Child's Grace," "Epitaph, upon a Child that died," "Another," "His Winding-sheet," "Litany to the Holy Spirit") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900, the largest number of any poet except only Shakespeare.[9]

Herrick has a memorial panel in the stained glass window designed by Graham Jones and installed in 1994 above Chaucer's monument in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.[10]

Publications[edit | edit source]

Poetry[edit | edit source]

Collected editions[edit | edit source]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[11]


To Anthea Who May Command Him Any Thing Robert Herrick Audiobook Short Poetry


Relaxing Poetry Reading, Robert Herrick

Poems by Robert Herrick[edit | edit source]

  1. Ceremonies for Christmas
  2. Cherry-Ripe
  3. The Night Piece, to Julia
  4. On Himself
  5. To Daffodils
  6. To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
  7. Upon Julia's Clothes

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  •  Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Herrick, Robert". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 389-390. . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 25, 2018.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. "Robert Herrick," Encyclopaedia Britannica, Britannica Online, Web, June 29, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 John William Cousin, "Herrick, Robert," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 188-189. Web, Jan. 24, 2018.
  3. "Robert Herrick,", Academy of American Poets, Web, May 20, 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Gosse 1911, 389.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jokinen, Anniina. "The Life of Robert Herrick ." Luminarium. Web, June 29, 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Gosse 1911, 390.
  7. "Robert Herrick,", Web, May 20, 2011.
  8. from Edmund W. Gosse, "Critical Introduction: Robert Herrick (1591–1674)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 10, 2016.
  9. Alphabetical list of authors: Daniel, Samuel to Hyde, Douglas, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 18, 2012.
  10. Robert Herrick, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  11. Search results = au:Robert Herrick 1591, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 6, 2016.

External links[edit | edit source]

Audio / video

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.. Original article is at Herrick, Robert

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