Royalist Poet Robert Herrick

             The Works both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq

                         On this blog, there have been posts about the use of panegyrics in honour of luminaries such as Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. But probably not enough has been written about Royalist poets- besides Richard Lovelace.However I  recently found a work titled 'Ben Johnson and the Cavalier Poets. Selected and Edited by Hugh Maclean ( with Authorative Texts Criticism)  and published in 1974 in a local charity bookshop.  So this post will be one of series of features to help redresses the balance. And I will start with  Royalist clergyman Robert Herrick ( 1591- 1674) .                                           


                         Robert Herrick 1591-1674  


                Robert Herrick was a goldsmith apprentice from a 'Trade' family  who were wealthy enough to send him to Cambridge University in 1613. He graduated in 1617, obtained an MA in 1620, and was ordained as a minister in 1623. It's not clear how his studies were funded. After enjoying London  cultural life of the 1620s, Robert Herrick was chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham during the  doomed 1627 Isle de Rhe expedition to assist the French Huguenots at La Rochelle.The expedition was a dismal failure, resulting in high casualties and wasted expenditure.  Interesting to find-in Robert Herrick- a poet of this era who had seen warfare at first hand. In 1629, Robert Herrick  received the living of Dean Prior, Devon.

Deposed throughout  the Commonwealth and Protectorate, Robert Herrick seemed to have lived in Westminster from 1646 -1662 . It is feasible that he existed on the goodwill of family members- or possibly  other Royalist sympathisers but avoided getting drawn into any political activity against the regime. Robert Herrick never married, and had no known children, though his poetry suggests that he conducted love affairs.

 Robert Herrick's only collection , Hesperides from 1648, contained some 1,400 poem, some of them epigrams. The historian Diane Purkiss has suggested ( in 'The English Civil War-A People's History)  that Hesperides  with its emphasis on nature,  rural life and tradition, was deliberately compiled in  defiance of the radicalism of the Parliamentarians.  The work opens with the lines " I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and Bowers/ Of April, May, of June and July flowers" . Certainly the collection contains a huge array of poems about flowers, rustic charms, pastoral scenes,  a great deal of love poetry, some of it quite erotic.  John Milton, for the Parliamentarian side, saw the end of Royal rule in quite epic almost Biblical proportions, Herrick was stressing the continuity of the cycle of nature and rural life.

Robert Herrick's line 'Gather ye rose-buds while ye may' is one of the most famous lines from this era and opens the poem 'To The Virgins, to make much of Time' , and is one amongst several 'Carpe Diem'
 ( 'seize the day' ) poems that he devised. To quote from the first lines;

" Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
  Old time is still a flying;
 And this same flower the smiles to day
   To morrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun
  The higher he's a getting;
The sooner will be his Race be run,
 And neerer he's to Setting...."

                                        Royalist poems 

Robert Herrick wrote a number of poems in honour of Charles I. One example is 'To the King Upon His Coming with His Army into the West'. The West Country - 'the drooping west '  which had once stood in 'long lamented widowhood' acclaimed as Charles as a king like an expectant bride.  The misery of war is transformed by his presence-
 ' War, which before was horrid, now appears/ Lovely in you, brave prince of cavaliers'

  Charles I appeared at Exeter in July 1644,, and it is possible that Robert Herrick saw him in person at this time. Robert Herrick living at Dean Prior , on the edge of Dartmoor, would that have been far away.

Charles I Painting by Anthony Van Dyck courtesy Wikipedia/Google Arts Project

                                        To the King
                                       Upon His Coming with His Army into the West 

                                      Welcome, most welcome to our vows and us
                                      Most great and universal Genius!
                                      The drooping west, which hitherto has stood
                                      As one in long-lamented widowhood
                                      Looks like a bride now, or a bed of flowers,
                                      Newly refreshed both by the sun and showers
                                     War, which before was horrid, now appears
                                     Lovely in you, brave prince of cavaliers
                                     A deal of courage in each bosom springs
                                     By your access, O you the best of kings!
                                     Ride on with all white omens, to that where
                                    Your standards up, we fix a conquest there.

The mythologising of Charles got more intense during a second poem 'To the King (II)', with Charles' presence approaching cosmic proportions. The praise is lavish and indulgent.                             
                                   To the King (II)

                                      Give way, give way, now; now my Charles shines here
                                      A public light, in this immensive sphere;
                                      Some stars were fix'd before, but there are dim
                                      Compar'd, in this ample org, to him.
                                      Draw in your feeble fires, while that he
                                      Appears but in his meaner majesty
                                      Where, is such glory flashes from his name,
                                      Which is his shade, who can abide his flame!
                                      Princes, and such like public lights as these,
                                      Must not be look'd on but at distances;
                                      For if we gaze on these brave lamps too near
                                      Our eyes they'll blind, or if not blind they'll blear.

The king becomes an almost supernatural force, somehow ordained by the universe.  Robert Herrick wrote also poems in praise of Queen Henrietta (wife to Charles I) , to the Prince of Wales ( later Charles II) and to the handsome Duke of York ( the future James II). However, it is noticeable that the poems dedicated to members of the House of Stuart are treated more as curiosities rather than make their way in to later anthologies. There is little evidence to suggest later poets, loyal to the House of Stuart such as John Dryden, were particularly inspired by Herrick.

Yet the value in considering Hesperides is precisely for its evocation of a natural order with the king at its centre as a Most great and universal Genius , along with the poems inspired by nature, love, religion and rural life.

After his sojourn in Westminster, Robert Herrick returned to Dean Prior in 1662. He died in 1674 -the exact date is unknown- but the Dean Prior records that Herrick was buried on 15th October 1674, presumably still in the parish.


An excellent on line collection of Robert Herrick's Work can be found at the
Remember the other blog run by Michael Bully World War 2 Poetry


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