Much of the poetry of the 17th century was heavily romantic, focusing on damsels and decadent parties where the Roman wine God Bacchaus ruled supreme. Amongst the movements’ teachings was the idea of “Carpe Diem” – the Latin phrase for “seize the day”. Herrick, fascinated by this ancient philosophy, centred many of his poems on the theme, cautioning people to use their time wisely.
Robert Herrick was one of the “Tribe of Ben”, a group of poets who followed and were inspired by the works of the dramatist Ben Jonson. The Cavalier Poets were seen as followers of Ben Jonson because, in the words of Professor Jennifer Mooney, “they drank with, rhymed with and modeled themselves after Jonson.” The name “Cavalier” was given to the group as they were a movement who believed in living life to the full. Anniina Jokinen states: “They treat life cavalierly, indeed, and sometimes they treat poetic convention cavalierly too” They glorified the ordinary rather than great historical or fantastical epics. However it is not only this group of poets that Herrick is connected with, but with the Carpe Diem poets such as Andrew Marvell who was the author of the famous “To His Coy Mistress” and Christopher Marlowe.
This dissertation will look at the texts: “All Things Decay and Die”, “To Live Merrily and To Trust to Good Verses”, “To Daffodils”, “To Bed of Tulips”, “Corinna’s Gone a Maying” and the famous “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time”. Each of these poems are very similar, however there are many differences that render them unique. This dissertation aims to analyse Herricks’ carpe diem poetry by studying the techniques employed by Robert Herrick in his exploration of the concept.
One reason why Robert Herrick’s poetry is so successful is because it is simple. Part of this simplicity is helped by symbolism that is used to mirror the ideas of mortality and carpe diem. These symbols are universally understood and give the poems not only richness but also an element of clarity that is gracefully treated. This simplicity is brilliantly evident in “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”:
“Gather Ye rosebuds while ye may
Old Time is still a flying
But this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be Dying.”
This first stanza displays Herrick’s effective simplicity. Sarah Gilead states that the first line is the “distillation of the carpe diem message” as it states a mere fact of life: we are here for a limited time only and we must use our time wisely. It is the universality that has made Herrick’s poetry last throughout the ages. He uses parallels that are everlasting. The rosebuds in this stanza symbolize the fruits of life – things we set out to gain in our lives. The “rosebuds” could be anything – they could be ordinary material objects such as a house, or something more sentimental like love. Herrick advises us though, to get them while we are young, for youth quickly dies. Therefore the rosebuds not only symbolize the objects and aspirations of life, but life its self for we too “tomorrow will be dying”. A similar use of flowers as a symbol of the briefness of life is evident in “To Blossoms”:
“Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?”
Blossom is, of course, the blooming of flowers. However, despite their obvious beauty, they quickly wither and die. In this poem Herrick looks upon the dying blossoms of a tree. Through this Herrick sees that these blossoms show how it is the nature of all things to pass away. This is evident as Herrick describes how in its leaves one can read “how soon things can end”, and by saying:
“Like you awhile, they glide
Into the grave.”
Thus, Herrick is comparing the lives of blossom, to the lives of humans to find that they are both the same: they are both mortal and must die. By choosing something like Blossom that passes away so quickly, Herrick exaggerates the shortness of the human life span but in doing so reveals that we too life for only a brief time.
This idea is also shown in “All Things Decay and Die”, which concerns itself not with flowers, but rather with the mighty trees of the forest. Again Herrick shows how no one is invincible by showing that even the mightiest of trees has to “decay and die”. Nothing withstands time but time itself. Herrick portrays this theme by using the idea of trees. Trees, unlike blossoms, live for hundreds of years. Yet they are not immortal and must therefore die. Herrick displays this by writing:
“The sovereign of all plants, the oak
Droops, dies and falls without the cleavers stroke.”
What is interesting is the use of the word “sovereign” as it’s connotations to royalty and King. This concept of power and nobility is repeated earlier in the poem when the oak is described as “the proud dictator of a state like wood”, which once more implies strength, power and authority. So why does Herrick use such words to describe a tree? The answer is because he wanted to show that the mighty fall as well – that they are not immune to the rules of the cosmos. Therefore it is evident that through the use of vegetation Herrick has created a simple, yet effective parallel of human life that explains just how short our lives are and illustrates why exactly we should “seize the day”.
Herrick’s poetry, though, has other ideas which illuminate the theme of carpe diem. The flowers in “To the Virgins” and “To a Bed of Tulips” not only symbolize life, but are used to represent virgin women. These two poems urge the virgins
“Be not coy, but use your time
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may forever tarry.”
Robert Herrick strikes a note here as it is human nature to put things off and to say “There’s always tomorrow”, but if we “forever tarry” then we shall never do what we planned – time will catch up on us. In other words: seize the day! “To a Bed of Tulips” has an almost identical last stanza as again Herrick repeats his message to those unmarried maidens by saying –
“Come virgins, then and see
Your frailties, and bemoan ye
For, lost like these, twill be
As time has never known ye”
Once more Robert Herrick is drawing a parallel between his two subjects as he compares these virgins with the Tulips. In this final stanza he describes the virgins as frail and insignificant in the world. This mirrors the rest of the poem as the tulips “quickly wither” and that they, like the virgins, will die “even as the meanest flower.” However, these stanzas’ show another side of Herrick which, four hundred years after these poems were written, is not quite as popular. To the modern reader, who may regard these stanzas as sexist, might find these final verses as an anti climax. After three beautifully lyrical verses of flowers and rising suns, a final stanza describing marriage as a woman’s greatest ambition is not going to appeal to the career woman of the 21st century. So why, then, are these poems still popular in our modern times? The answer is quite simply that the earlier verses with their simple imagery and the parallels of the sun and flowers make up for a somewhat dated ideology.
Flowers though are not the only use of symbolism in Herrick’s writings. The sun and its daily path of sunrise and sunset has also featured in some of his poems. For example in “To the Virgins” the second stanza begins:
“As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.”
This shows how the suns rising and setting are used to symbolize the cycle of life. Perhaps not an uncommon thing in literature or religion, but effective as it not only parallels life and death but it also holds links to the idea of heaven and eternal life – an ironic feature in poems about mortality. The connection with heaven is evident in “To the Virgins” when in verse two Herrick states:
“The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun
The higher he’s a getting
The sooner will his race be run
And nearer he is to setting.”
What Herrick is saying here is that time is wearing on and that life is drawing to a close for the sun is almost setting on a day and on a life. However it is the first line in this stanza – “The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun” – that is the most effective. It has connotations with God, the land of eternal youth and happiness – the immortality that does not exist in our physical world. The word “glorious” makes the sun seem dazzling, brilliant, and because “glory” is also a biblical term, it echoes this link with God and heaven. “Lamp” though is a curious term to be used to describe something of such importance and beauty. Yet it works, for the sun is the light of Heaven, which all people hope to be our final destination and homeland. Roger B Rollin says in his study of Herricks’ poetry that the rules of the atmosphere mirror the rules of all life – whether it be animal or plant, and that we are fated to die before we come to our prime. This argument is extremely accurate as the sun’s daily routine of rising and setting is a mirror of human life that begins in child hood and ends in a withering old age.
As Herrick has used symbolism and imagery expertly in his work he has created many beautiful poems which, despite outdated views on the role of women in society, remain favourite verses in this modern world of equal opportunity. Another reason though, why Herrick’s poems are still popular today is his cultural experimentation: namely the influence of Greek and classical mythology in his writings.
Greek mythology, which appears frequently in Herrick’s writings, has greatly influenced his poetry. H. R. Swardson says: “all the girls are Antheas and Julias and Corinnas and even the ‘sea-scourged merchant’ is going to Ithaca.” In fact such is this influence that some critiques suggest that it shows a devotion to the pagan spirit. However as Robert H Denning states:
“It is a humanistic fusion which is neither exclusively Christian nor classical-pagan, but rather an imaginative blend.”
This “imaginative blend” creates what Denning describes as “ceremonial universality” – meaning that the poem can appeal ceremonially to all faiths and generations. This is most clearly seen in “Corinna’s Going A Maying” where classical myths are used in harmony with more Christian ideas and rituals to describe the idyllic English countryside in spring. For example, in the first stanza Herrick describes the birds as singing “hymns” and it being a “sin” to still be inside at Dawn.
However, whilst these two references are plainly Christian the description of the “Titan” on the eastern hill is distinctly classical. The celebration of May is also heaped in lore as its many myths show that it is a pagan festival about fertility when sexual relations, which were generally not accepted in Herrick’s day, were tolerated. May Day is used in “Corinna’s Gone A Maying” as a celebration of youth. This is effective as May Day is the gathering of spring and spring is youth. This is evident in the poem as Herrick writes:
“There’s not a budding boy or girl this day
But is got up and gone to bring in May;
A deal of youth, ere this, is come”
This describes the festive spirit of the occasion: a mood that is portrayed so often in Herrick’s writings. By depicting the boys and girl’s as “budding” he reflects the setting of the warm spring day and the flowers opening in the sun of May. Herrick also shows that it is a celebration of youth by saying it is the boys and girls getting up and describing the youth as coming to bring in May. However the moral holiday is evident later in the poem when Herrick says:
“Many a kiss, both odd and even;
Many a glance, too, has been sent
From out the eye, love’s firmament”
This part of the poem exhibits the social looseness of May Day as Herrick illustrates the flirtatious nature of the day by describing how the kisses are both “odd and even” which gives the impression that many advances have been made that day. Also, by writing how love has been sealed by looks from “out the eye” Herrick shows the festivity and the sexual nature of the day. Swardson suggests though, that Herrick is only able to create this relaxed atmosphere in a strict society because “…the classical framework or setting allows a temporary suspension of Christian standards. It may provide, in the modern phrase, a ‘moral holiday'” . In other words, because Herrick uses both strict Christian doctrines and the more liberal atmosphere of pagan May Day and classical ideas he is able to write a poem using looser morals than would normally be allowable.
This ‘moral holiday’ that Swardson describes is essential in Carpe Diem poetry for Christian guidelines generally promoted patience, simplicity and in some factions it discouraged the art of merry making. Herrick though, uses the looser principles of Paganism along in harmony with Christianity to create a legitimate, but festive setting. The festive setting is fundamental in Herricks’ poetry as he uses it to mirror the idea of living life to the full and seizing the day.
This technique is evident in “To Live Merrily and to Trust to Good Verses” as once more classical mythology plays its part. This poem is about the ‘ceremony of mirth’ and uses mythology to create as in “Corrinna’s Gone a Maying”, a loose and festive setting in which to portray the theme of seizing the day. “To Live Merrily and to Trust to Good Verses” follows typical Herrick structure in its simplicity and lyrical style. Each verse toasts a classical writer like Homer. However the poem starts by describing the flowering earth.
“Now is the time for mirth,
Nor cheek or tongue be dumb;
For with the flow’ry earth
The golden pomp is come.”
Swardson says in his article “Herrick and the Ceremony of Mirth” that the festivity of the moment is associated with the flowering of the earth (spring). This is evidently very similar to Corinna’s Gone A Maying which also uses the gaiety of May Day as a platform for the theme of seizing the day. The theme of this poem is slightly different than others though as Herrick recognizes that there is an element of immortality in writing – after all Homer and Ovid were all writers many centuries before and yet they were alive in Herrick’s day , and are still alive in ours through their art. Swardson describes this by saying:
“Death is conquered not by renouncing the ‘frail world’ whose beauty dies, in favour of an everlasting other world, but by realizing most successfully the beauty and mirth in the natural world. Thus you do not abjure verses but ‘trust to good verses’.”
Swardson explains how by recognizing the magnificence of this temporary world, rather than be loyal to that of the next you can become immortal. This is evident in his poetry as it consistently conveys the beauty of the world. Therefore Herrick sees his poetry as immortalizing himself. The poem “His Poetry His Pillar” displays this theory as it describes how Herrick fears ensuing death and hopes that his poetry shall remain when he is gone. This is an uncommon idea in Carpe Diem poetry. The majority of writers in this movement wrote poems that seemed “as fleeting as life and youth themselves” in the hope of convincing their lover to cast caution to the wind. The Sonneteers though, wrote poetry for a reason similar to Herrick – in the hope that they and their loves could become immortal.
Part of “To Live Merrily and to Trust to Good Verses” festivity though, is due to its structure. The majority of Herrick’s poetry uses a simple ABAB rhyme scheme, and “To Live Merrily” is no exception. Although the poem is longer than the majority of Herrick’s poetry (which is usually no more than four verses long) is simple rhyme scheme and flowing verse help to mirror the party atmosphere in which the poem is set. The majority of Herrick’s poetry is lyrical – short and songlike. Most of his poems are no more than four verses and use only six to seven syllables per line. This factor, and the simple rhyme scheme create a quick and fast flowing lyrical verse. This is apparent in the poem “To a Bed of Tulips”.
“Bright Tulips, we do know
You had you’re coming hither
And fading time does know
That ye must quickly wither.”
This technique results in a poem that is short and to the point (another similarity between Herrick and his fellow Cavaliers). This simple, song-like rhythm and rhyme scheme are very effective as they help to create that joyful party atmosphere that is so well portrayed in “To Live Merrily” and to Trust to Good Verses”. However another interpretation sometimes offered is that this flowing rhythm mirrors the reality of mortality. Critic Gordon Braden describes Herrick’s lyrical style as almost childlike for he says in his book “The Classics and English Renaissance Poetry” that Herrick’s poetry is like:
“That of childlike discovery and amazement, a short but bright faculty of attention continually distracted by something new.”
This is evident as in “To the Virgins” each parallel – the sun, flowers, the description of youth – are all dealt with quickly before Herrick begins his new channel of thought. The idea of Herricks’ poetry as being child-like in aspects is also evident in his subject matter as although his theme is serious, his glorification of the sun and of the festive party atmosphere creates something more playful and fun.
Yet not all Herrick’s lyrical poems comply with the same structure. “To Blossoms” and “To Daffodils” are both slightly more erratic and complex in rhythm and rhyme. “To Blossoms” consists of one stanza of eighteen lines, its rhyme scheme is In “To Daffodils” we have two stanzas of eleven lines with only the occasional rhyme such as “soon” and “noon” and “spring” and “thing.” The number of syllables in these two poems is also not consistent. In “To Blossoms” lines range from having four to eight syllables and in “To Daffodils” there is from two to seven.
These poems, you assume on first glance, would have a more rambling rhythm rather than flowing style of the majority of Herrick’s other poems, and yet when read the poems retain Herrick’s musical sound. This is maintained simply by the combination of both styles. For example at the start of “To Daffodils” we have his more regular sound:
“Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon
As yet the early rising sun
Has not attained his noon.”
This first part of the poem uses the iambic foot. What this means is that the stresses fall on every second syllable and therefore when reading the poem the stresses always fall on the last word at each line creating a sing song effect that suits Herrick’s lyrical style.
However in the second part of the poem: instead of using his regular structure he uses a cross between long and short lines using enjambment. For example lines five to seven use a pattern of one six syllable line sandwiched between two, two syllable lines. This part of the poem is particularly effective as by putting “Stay, stay” twice on the one line the speaker sounds more urgently pleading as thought the daffodils would wither away before his eyes unless he begged them not to. This structure of the two part stanza is repeated in the second verse as once more it begins with Herrick’s usual lyrical form, before changing in the latter half to a more irregular one. This second half of the stanza uses enjambment to put an emphasis on certain words.
As your hours do, and dry
The way the words “We die” are placed on their own line reminds the reader that we share the same fate as the daffodils. The effect is mirrored with the word “away” and by putting this emphasis on these words it creates a more drumming rhythm. The manner in which the word “Away” is put onto a line of its own suggests the hollow finality of death.
“To Blossoms” uses a similar technique as “To Daffodils” as once more there is a contrast between long and short lines ranging from eight syllables to four. The rhyme scheme is also slightly more complex with an ABBCCB structure. These factors help to produce a slightly more interesting rhythm as it speeds up and slows down. For example in Stanza 1:
Fair pledges of a fruitful tree
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past”
The longer line followed by the two shorter lines creates a fast first two lines, but when typical Herrick structure dictates that line two should be followed by a another line of eight syllables and it does not then it creates a slower rhythm which makes line three stand out. This is evident to a greater extent of the last lines of each stanza, which are also the shortest at only four syllables. The lines “And go at last” and “Into the grave” are the most noticeable of these. The words “Into the grave” end the poem on a chilling note. The fact that the poem is fairly fast paced up until that point means that the words are given a particular stress and reveal a particularly sudden and abrupt end – the very nature of life.
Herrick reflects the relative simplicity of his narrative with an exceedingly uncomplicated structure, both with rhyme and rhythm. Even his more complicated verses still hold the musical quality that his simpler poems contain. This is one of Herricks’ merits as an over adorned structure would clash with the content and would ruin his poetry. On the other hand, when he ventures slightly outwith his simplistic sphere he creates very effective structures that help to emphasis the theme as can be seen in “To Daffodils” and “To Blossoms”.
In conclusion it is evident that Herrick uses structure, symbolism and an interesting blend of religious ceremonies in his exploration of the theme Carpe Diem. Through the simplicity in the rhythm and rhyme of his poems, Herrick has invoked the fleeting quality of life and the beauty of the world we live in. These two ideas are portrayed in the content of these poems through the use of symbolism and imagery. Yet the reason why Herrick, despite having somewhat dated opinions on the role of women, is still a poet of our time is because of his simplicity and “ceremonial universality”.
To describe his poetry one would have to say “simple but beautiful”, for throughout his writings Herrick pays homage to the flowering of the earth and uses it to show how brief and temporary our presence is a parallel that all can understand. Herrick’s blend of different cultures and religions in his writing has also helped to immortalize him as it gave his poetry an acceptable but care free moral tone that remains relevant and enjoyable today.
A. Leigh Deneef
This Poetick Leturgie
Duke University Press 1974
Poetry and the Fountain of Light
Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 0048210161 1962
Robert H. Denning
Robert Herrick’s Classical Ceremony
John Hopkin’s University Press 1967
Roger B. Rollin
Twayne Publishers 1992
Ungathering Ye Rosebuds: Herrick’s misreading of Carpe Diem
Critisism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 1985
Other Resources Used