Julia’s nipples and Umber’s fart – Herrick the poet

Here’s an extract (still an early draft) from a book I’m writing called The poetry of Robert Herrick – who was Julia? Seventy four Herrick poems mention a woman called Julia, and there’s lots of others that are probably about her. Modern day consensus has it that Julia, along with all the other mistresses that Herrick wrote about, was a figment of his fertile imagination. It’s rather easy to show in Herrick’s poetry that Julia was a real person, but who was she? Nothing is known about her. There is no historical record. My book looks at the Julia poems, and what’s known about Herrick’s life, in an attempt to discover the real person, and comes to a somewhat startling conclusion.

This is part of the book’s preamble:

Rob Godfrey was born in London in 1964, just across the Thames from where Robert Herrick was born almost 400 years earlier. Rob Godfrey has also been known to write poetry.

The first chapter is called ‘The life and times of Robert Herrick’, which as well as a biography is also the story of how modern day Britain came into being. The following is the second chapter, which is an overview of Herrick’s poetry:

Herrick the poet

Robert Herrick was the only early modern English poet to publish his entire ouevre in one collection. Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine contains around fourteen hundred poems and is in fact two books: Hesperides, which has the date 1648 on the frontispiece and is by far the larger body of work (1,130 poems), and the following His Noble Numbers, a much smaller body of sacred poems, curiously dated 1647.

The first thing that strikes the reader of Hesperides is that it has a versified introduction, and is the only major collection of poetry that begins this way. The ‘Hesperides’ are nymphs in Greek mythology who tend a blissful garden at the edge of the world, where golden apples grow. When you begin to read Herrick’s introduction you are entering his own seemingly blissful garden:

The Argument of his Book

I sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers:
Of April, May, of June, and July-Flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,
Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.
I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse
By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.
I sing of Dewes, of Raines, and piece by piece
Of Balme, of Oyle, of Spice, and Amber-Greece.
I sing of Times trans-shifting; and I write
How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.
I write of Groves, of Twilights, and I sing
The Court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

After The Argument of his Book there are seven further pieces, which together with The Argument make up an eight poem prologue. Some of the things that Herrick says in this prologue may seem extraordinary to the modern reader. In the following lines he curses anyone who has the effrontery to misuse his 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.

In the prologue the self-referential Herrick at times curses, admonishes and instructs the reader:

In sober mornings, doe not thou reherse
The holy incantation of a verse;
But when that men have both well drunke, and fed,
Let my Enchantments then be sung, or read.

Herrick also rails against lady readers who pretend to be embarrassed by his amorous poems:

To read my Booke the Virgin shie
May blush, (while Brutus standeth by:)
But when He’s gone, read through what’s writ,
And never staine a cheeke for it.

It’s Herrick’s temperament as a poet and his earthy view of the world that have always inflamed his critics. When Hesperides was published in 1648 it was during a period of great political turmoil and Herrick’s ‘garden of bliss’ was totally out of sync with the times; yet it must have sold at least some copies, considering Herrick’s connections in the literary world (seventy of the poems were re-published a few years later in Witt’s Recreations). After the Restoration in 1660, it might be safe to assume that more copies of Hesperides would have been sold (the book is dedicated to the Prince of Wales). However, no one seems to have raved about Hesperides and during Herrick’s lifetime it did not bring him the fame he so desired. During the 18th century, Herrick was an all but forgotten poet. It was only in the 19th century, and particularly the Victorian era, that there was more interest in him, which might be somewhat surprising considering the straitlaced nature of Victorian society (perhaps during the horrors of the Industrial Revolution the Victorians hankered after the pastoral scenes portrayed in much of Herrick’s poetry). In 1891, to celebrate the tricentenary of Herrick’s birth, The Works of Robert Herrick .Vol. I was published. This is how the book’s editor, Alfred Pollard, begins the introduction:

OF the lives of many poets we know too much; of some few too little. Lovers of Herrick are almost ideally fortunate. Just such a bare outline of his life has come down to us as is sufficient to explain the allusions in his poems, and, on the other hand, there is no temptation to substitute chatter about his relations with Julia and Dianeme for enjoyment of his delightful verse.

The poet Algernon Swinburne wrote a preface to the Pollard book in which he hailed Herrick as “the greatest song-writer – as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist – ever born of the English race”. However, as with earlier volumes of Herrick’s work, many critics were incensed by him. One such was Robert Southey (the then Poet Laureate), who said the following about an 1825 publication of Hesperides:

Of all our poets this man appears to have had the coarsest mind. Without being intentionally obscene, he is thoroughly filthy, and has not the slightest sense of decency. In an old writer, and especially one of that age, I never saw so large a proportion of what may truly be called either trash or ordure.

The reprint of 1825 (250 copies) has in the title-page a wreath with the motto "perennis et fragrans." A stinking cabbage-leaf would have been the appropriate emblem.

To some extent, Southey has a point. A lot of what Herrick wrote was bawdy, even by 17
th century standards. However, when it comes to what’s conceived as ‘decent’ it’s a matter of contemporary mores. Southey and many others in the 19th century found Herrick’s poetry to be without “the slightest sense of decency” (some Victorian publishers censored-out the ‘naughty bits’ from Herrick editions), whilst 21st century readers might not be so shocked by it. Sex of course is a huge part of human existence, and so poets write about it. Geoffrey Chaucer, who practically invented modern English poetry in the 14th century, wrote stuff that borders on the pornographic. Herrick handles things a bit more decorously:

Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast

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 halfe 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.

The majority of the poems in Hesperides are two and four line epigrams, and while most of them present interesting thoughts, there’s nothing very profound. Also, as you read through the collection you get the impression that Herrick bashed out a lot of it while he was compiling the book:

On Love

That love ‘twixt men do’s ever longest last
Where War and Peace the Dice by turns doe cast.

Another on Love

Love’s of it self, too sweet; the best of all
Is, when loves hony has a dash of gall.

This ‘Another’ business begins in the eight poem prologue and runs throughout Hesperides and His Noble Numbers. Sometimes Herrick pens a third poem titled ‘Another’, adding to the train of thought. This may have been the poetic convention of his day, or maybe Herrick added all those ‘Anothers’ while putting his collection together:

On his Booke

The bound (almost) now of my book I see
But yet no end of those therein or me:
Here we begin new life; while thousands quite
Are lost, and theirs, in everlasting night.

Few will dispute the fact that on a technical level, Herrick was a highly skilled poet (his metre is pure music, once you get your head around the diction of his era). It’s the plethora of slight pieces, and the often coarse language, that has gained Herrick the title of a ‘minor poet’. The final paragraph of Dr Nathan Drake’s 1804 essay, On the Life, Writings, and Genius of Robert Herrick, published in Literary Hours, sums-up pretty well what many commentators feel about Herrick:

Unfortunately, like most authors of the age in which he lived, he has been totally inattentive to selection, and has thrown into his book such a number of worthless pieces, that those which possess decided merit, and which are few, if compared with the multitude which have none, are overlooked and forgotten in the crowd. Out of better than fourteen hundred poems, included in his Hesperides and Noble Numbers, not more than one hundred could be chosen by the hand of Taste. These, however, would form an elegant little volume, and would perpetuate the memory and the genius of HERRICK.

Most poets would struggle to leave a legacy of fifty top notch poems, let alone one hundred. Poetry collections usually take the good stuff and flesh it out with the inevitable lesser pieces. Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine was surely vanity publishing, because there doesn’t seem to have been any kind of editorial control. Herrick appears to have chucked into the collection just about everything he had written, the good, the bad and the ugly, creating a mishmash of genres. There are three pieces in Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine that were sung to the King; ie, at the time, Herrick was a well known songwriter (and it’s probably why Charles I gifted Dean Prior to him). Much of what he published in 1648 was written to be sung, not to be read as poetry. Many readers of Herrick seem to overlook this fact, and it’s perhaps why he became known as a pastoral poet in later centuries, because his countryside poems are more ‘poetry-like’; pieces such as Corinna’s going a Maying, The Hock-Cart, The May-pole and lots of stuff about flowers:

To Daffadills

Faire Daffadills, we weep to see
You haste away so soone:
As yet the early-rising Sun
Has not attain’d his Noone.
Stay, stay,
Untill the hasting day
Has run
But to the Even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will goe with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet Decay,
As you, or any thing.
We die,
As your hours doe, and drie
Away,
Like to the Summers raine;
Or as the pearles of Mornings dew
Ne’r to be found againe.

The main theme that runs through Hesperides is death and decay, which is perhaps not surprising for a poet who lived in the 17th century. Herrick wrote an awful lot of poems about his own death and is firmly in the carpe diem school, ‘seize the day’ (Gather ye rosebuds while ye may). Herrick was a Christian clergyman, yet he did not seem to believe in an afterlife.

The parting verse, the feast there ended

Loth to depart, but yet at last, each one
Back must now go to’s habitation:
Not knowing thus much, when we once do sever,
Whether or no, that we shall meet here ever.
As for my self, since time a thousand cares
And griefs hath fil’de upon my silver hairs;
‘Tis to be doubted whether I next yeer,
Or no, shall give ye a re-meeting here.
If die I must, then my last vow shall be,
You’l with a tear or two, remember me,
Your sometime Poet; but if fates do give
Me longer date, and more fresh springs to live:
Oft as your field, shall her old age renew,
Herrick shall make the meddow-verse for you.

Modest as ever, Herrick believed that only through his poetry would he achieve eternity:

On himselfe

Live by thy Muse thou shalt; when others die
Leaving no Fame to long Posterity:
When Monarchies trans-shifted are, and gone;
Here shall endure thy vast Dominion.

In Hesperides, Herrick talks a lot about his coming fame; in fact, the last poem in the collection is another egotistical rant called ‘The pillar of Fame’. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that Herrick was drinking too much ale, because as well as the breasts and nipples and the may-poles and hock-carts and death and disease and self-glory, there are very slight pieces of schoolboyish humour, such as these:

Upon Umber. Epig.

Umber was painting of a Lyon fierce,
And working it, by chance from Umbers Erse
Flew out a crack, so mighty, that the Fart,
(As Umber sweares) did make his Lyon start.

Upon Blisse

Blisse (last night drunk) did kisse his mothers knee:
Where he will kisse (next drunk) conjecture ye.

The above two epigrams are crude, to say the least, but once again, perhaps later readers overlook the fact that epigrams were very popular in the 17th century – during his lifetime, Herrick’s epigrams were reprinted more than any of the other poems in Hesperides (the vulgarity of some of them should be seen only in the context of Herrick as a clergyman). The collection also contains a large number of very obsequious poems written for royals and nobels, but I think we can forgive Herrick for this; after all, most of them were his patrons. As well as the ‘great and good’, Herrick wrote a lot about the ‘ordinary’ people in his life, which was quite unusual for a 17th century poet (Herrick was writing confessional poetry hundreds of years before anyone had thought up the term). For example, Prudence Baldwin, his housekeeper in Devon, had a number of poems written for her and gets mentioned in others.

To his maid Prew

These Summer-Birds did with thy Master stay
The times of warmth; but then they flew away;
Leaving their Poet (being now grown old)
Expos’d to all the comming Winters cold.
But thou kind Prew did’st with my Fates abide,
As well the Winters, as the Summers Tide:
For which thy Love, live with thy Master here,
Not two, but all the seasons of the yeare.

Into the apparent hotchpotch that is Hesperides we also get Herrick’s classical education – thus we have hymns to Apollo and Bacchus and odes to Sappho and Electra and almost direct translations of ancient Greek poetry – and although he was known as a Royalist, Herrick also wrote political poems that were against the monarchy. It’s all in there, alongside Julia’s nipples and Umber’s fart and may-poles et al. It’s this diversity of subject and substance that has thrown so many readers over the years (and it’s why the label ‘Cavalier Poet’ should not be attached to Herrick). It’s also caused much debate as to whether Hesperides is an ordered collection, or whether Herrick threw it together in a haphazard manner. There’s certainly some order to it, because as well as an eight poem prologue there’s also an eight poem epilogue (with Herrick being his usual modest self), and the most substantial poems are largely found in the first half of the collection. Not many Herrick poems can be accurately dated, but from the ones that can there does seem to be some sort of chronological order in the early part of the book. The problem is, Hesperides was published almost four hundred years ago and there’s no surviving evidence of what the author’s intent is. All we can do is see if Herrick can provide an answer, because there’s lots and lots of poems in his book that are about his book. What Herrick writes about ‘his booke’ is both self-reverential and self-mocking. Here’s some examples:

To his Booke

Take mine advise, and go not neere
Those faces (sower as Vineger.)
For these, and Nobler numbers can
Ne’r please the supercillious man.

To his Booke

Make haste away, and let one be
A friendly Patron unto thee:
Lest rapt from hence, I see thee lye
Torn for the use of Pasterie:
Or see thy injur’d Leaves serve well,
To make loose Gownes for Mackarell:
Or see the Grocers in a trice,
Make hoods of thee to serve out Spice.

Unfortunately, none of these ‘booke’ poems tell us what Herrick’s intent was. Other pieces perhaps do: in the early part of Hesperides, just as the chronological order of the poems begins to break down, there’s this well-known piece:

Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dresse
Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:
A Lawne about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring Lace, which here and there
Enthralls the Crimson Stomacher:
A Cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving Note)
In the tempestuous petticote:
A carelesse shooe-string, in whose tye
I see a wilde civility:
Doe more bewitch me, then when Art
Is too precise in every part.

Herrick clearly tells us of his ‘Delight in Disorder’, which is poem number 83 out of the 1,130 in Hesperides. So did Herrick randomly throw together the rest of the collection? or is there something else going on? There’s one poem, number 652 in the running order (buried deep inside the book), that might give us a clue:

To his Closet-Gods

When I goe Hence ye Closet-Gods, I feare
Never againe to have ingression here:
Where I have had, what ever thing co’d be
Pleasant, and precious to my Muse and me.
Besides rare sweets, I had a Book which none
Co’d reade the Intext but my selfe alone.
About the Cover of this Book there went
A curious-comely clean Compartlement:
And, in the midst, to grace it more, was set
A blushing-pretty-peeping Rubelet:
But now ’tis clos’d; and being shut, & seal’d,
Be it, O be it, never more reveal’d!
Keep here still, Closet-Gods, ‘fore whom I’ve set
Oblations oft, of sweetest Marmelet.

Amongst other things, in the above poem we have: ‘Besides rare sweets, I had a Book which none / Co’d reade the Intext but my selfe alone’. Is Hesperides some kind of cryptogram? and if so what secrets lay within it? These are intriguing questions which we’ll delve into in the next chapter.

After Hesperides there comes the smaller body of work, His Noble Numbers: or, His Pious Pieces, which contains 272 poems. Over the centuries, Noble Numbers has received an even worse press than Hesperides. In modern editions of Herrick, editors would regularly separate the two bodies of work by a couple of blank pages. Often, Hesperides was published without including Noble Numbers. Returning to Dr Nathan Drake’s 1804 essay, On the Life, Writings, and Genius of Robert Herrick, he had this to say about Noble Numbers:

It has already been observed, that Herrick closes his book with seventy-nine pages of religious poetry, to which is prefixed a separate title page, under the quaint and alliterative appellation of "His Noble Numbers or His Pious Pieces." From these, it might naturally be supposed, the examples I have to bring forward would be drawn. Our bard, however, like many others who have attempted divine themes, has completely failed to infuse into their structure the smallest portion of poetic fire.

John Nott, writing in 1809, called the Noble Numbers “laboured and conceited”. FW Moorman, in his Robert Herrick, A Biographical and Critical Study (London 1910), said: ” The childlike mind of Herrick is disclosed in poem after poem of the Noble Numbers, and as we contemplate it we wonder what the sermons were like which he preached to his Devonshire parishioners”.

With typical panache, Herrick begins Noble Numbers by apologising to God for the vulgarity that can be found in Hesperides:

His Prayer for Absolution

For Those my unbaptized Rhimes,
Writ in my wild unhallowed Times;
For every sentence, clause and word,
That’s not inlaid with Thee, (my Lord)
Forgive me God, and blot each Line
Out of my Book, that is not Thine.
But if, ‘mongst all, thou find’st here one
Worthy thy Benediction;
That One of all the rest, shall be
The Glory of my Work, and Me.

Noble Numbers has its own frontispiece, dated 1647, indicating that Herrick originally intended to publish it separately. If Herrick was an unlikely clergyman, Noble Numbers is an even more unlikely book of sacred poetry. More than half of ‘His Pious Pieces’ consist of 2 and 4 line poems that are flat and simplistic:

Welcome what comes

Whatever comes, let’s be content withall:
Among Gods Blessings, there is no one small.

Gods Bounty

Gods Bounty, that ebbs lesse and lesse,
As men do wane in thankfulnesse.

There are some ambitious pieces in Noble Numbers, when Herrick’s Hesperides poet persona emerges. One such is ‘His Letanie, to the Holy Spirit’ which has twelve verses, two of which are shown here:

When the Tempter me pursu’th
With the sins of all my youth,
And halfe damns me with untruth;
Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the flames and hellish cries
Fright mine eares, and fright mine eyes,
And all terrors me surprize;
Sweet Spirit comfort me!

One question often asked by readers of Noble Numbers is: why on earth did Herrick publish something so slight together with the much meatier Hesperides? As with most things Herrick, it’s a bit of puzzle. The answer probably lays in the historical background. In early 1646, the Royalist Herrick had been kicked out of the vicarage at Dean Prior by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans. These were uncertain times and our unlikely vicar no doubt feared for his life (amongst other things, the Puritans went around executing witches). You could postulate that during 1646, thinking that he might not be having many more birthdays, Herrick decided to publish just about everything he had written (Herrick was fixated by going down in posterity with his poetry). The problem was, the Puritans frowned upon such things as may-pole dancing and mistresses and merry-making, all of which were championed in Hesperides. Also, there were all those obsequious poems written for royals and nobels, who at the time were being soundly beaten by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Herrick decided to appease the Puritans by publishing a book of ‘Pious Pieces’, which would make it easier for him to get away with publishing Hesperides. He took the religious poems that were going to be in Hesperides, then bashed out a load of filler around them to turn it into a book (this could also account for the apparent filler in Hesperides). When Herrick arrived in London in 1647 it was with the intention of publishing Noble Numbers. We don’t know exactly what made him change his mind. In 1647, following the defeat of the Royalists, Charles I had been imprisoned and the Commonwealth of England was still being established. The Puritan dominated Parliament banned folk dancing and Christmas (which caused riots). Now back in London, Herrick was right at the centre of things, and maybe he was waiting to see which way the political wind would blow.

We can postulate further that the turbulent political situation made Herrick decide to hurriedly publish Hesperides and Noble Numbers the following year as one work (so that he could go down in posterity), with Noble Numbers being a sop to the Puritans. It is not known precisely when in 1648 Herrick published Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine. In that same year King Charles I had gained enough support to start the second English civil war. It might have been this that made Herrick publish both works as one. Whatever the order of events, it could be supposed that Herrick would have been eager to overplay his piety. With its own frontispiece and mostly flat poetry, Noble Numbers does seem to fit this theory. Also, towards the end of Hesperides, in the eight poem epilogue, Herrick says this:

The end of his worke

Part of the worke remaines; one part is past:
And here my ship rides having Anchor cast.

The above lines seem to indicate that Hesperides and Noble Numbers are a planned whole, but of course Herrick could have easily written them in when he decided to publish the two works together. There’s often confusion about just how many poems there are in Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine. This is because everything is versified, including the dedication to the Prince of Wales and even the notes about error corrections. It’s generally taken that any piece that has a title is a poem in the collection. The final piece in Hesperides is called ‘The pillar of Fame’. Then, curiously, following this poem there are two untitled lines:

To his Book’s end this last line he’d have plac’t,
Jocond his Muse was; but his Life was chast.

It would not be presuming too much to say that the above lines were originally titled ‘The end of his worke’, before Herrick used the title for the later added lines that feed into Noble Numbers. ‘The end of his worke’ works much better as a title for the above lines. It doesn’t sit well as a title for the lines: Part of the worke remaines; one part is past: / And here my ship rides having Anchor cast. Incidentally, that final sentence is also rather telling, since it can also be construed as meaning that the anchor is down and the ‘booke’ finished, but the ship has to sail on to the insurance policy against the Puritans; aka, Noble Numbers.

So, we can postulate further that if the Royalists had won the first Civil War there wouldn’t have been a Noble Numbers, and Hesperides would have been a much better work, and the final line would have ended with: ‘Jocond his Muse was; but his Life was chast’; which of course brings us on to Julia.

Editing in: my book, The poetry of Robert Herrick – who was Julia?, was completed in August. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00942U4BK


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