Robert Herrick

(1591—1674) poet

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Robert Herrick (1868—1938)


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seventh child of Nicholas Herrick, a prosperous goldsmith. Herrick's earliest datable poem was written about 1610 to his brother Thomas on his leaving London to farm in Leicestershire (‘A Country Life: To his Brother M. Tho. Herrick’). ‘To my dearest Sister M. Mercie Herrick’ must also have been written before 1612.

In 1613 he entered St John's College, Cambridge, as a fellow commoner, and later moved to Trinity Hall. College friends included Clipsby Crew, to whom he addressed the outstanding ‘Nuptiall Song’. In 1623 he was ordained priest. He evidently mixed with literary circles in London, particularly the group around Jonson, and by 1625 he was well known as a poet. In 1627 he was one of the army chaplains on the duke of Buckingham's disastrous expedition to the Isle of Rhé. In reward for his services he received in 1630 the living of Dean Prior in Devon.

Repelled by the barren isolation of rural life at first, he developed, as his poems show, a feeling for folk customs and festivals like May Day and Harvest Home. He left Dean Prior for a period without permission from his bishop, and lived in Westminster with Tomasin Parsons, 27 years younger than Herrick. An ardent loyalist, Herrick was ejected from his living by Parliament in 1647 and returned to London, where the following year his poems Hesperides, together with his religious poems Noble Numbers, were published. In 1660 he was reinstated at Dean Prior where he remained until his death. As late as 1810 villagers there could repeat some of his verses.

Herrick's secular poems are mostly exercises in miniature, very highly polished and employing meticulous displacements of syntax and word order so as to give diminutive aesthetic grace to the great chaotic subjects—sex, transience, death—that obsess him. He is one of the finest English lyric poets, and has a faultless ear. Swinburne called him ‘the greatest song‐writer ever born of English race’.

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