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Robert Herrick: A True Cavalier

by William J. Long

Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick is the true Cavalier, happy, devil-may-care in disposition, but by some freak of fate a clergyman of Dean Prior, in South Devon, a county made famous by him and Blackmore. Here, in a country parish, he lived discontentedly, longing for the joys of London and the Mermaid Tavern, his bachelor establishment consisting of an old housekeeper, a cat, a dog, a goose, a tame lamb, one hen,--for which he thanked God in poetry because she laid an egg every day,--and a pet pig that drank beer with Herrick out of a tankard. With admirable good nature, Herrick made the best of these uncongenial surroundings. He watched with sympathy the country life about him and caught its spirit in many lyrics, a few of which, like "Corinna's Maying," "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," and "To Daffodils," are among the best known in our language. His poems cover a wide range, from trivial love songs, pagan in spirit, to hymns of deep religious feeling. Only the best of his poems should be read; and these are remarkable for their exquisite sentiment and their graceful, melodious expression. The rest, since they reflect something of the coarseness of his audience, may be passed over in silence.

Late in life Herrick published his one book, Hesperides and Noble Numbers (1648). The latter half contains his religious poems, and one has only to read there the remarkable "Litany" to see how the religious terror that finds expression in Bunyan's Grace Abounding could master even the most careless of Cavalier singers.