The finest poems of the Cavalier poet selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Algernon Charles Swinburne called Robert Herrick (1591-1674) the ‘greatest songwriter ever born of English race’. In this post, we’ve chosen ten of Robert Herrick’s best poems, most of which are beautifully short lyrics about a number of themes, from religion to love to untidy clothes. We hope you enjoy this pick of the finest Herrick poems.
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying …
The poem’s message is straightforward: Herrick is addressing ‘the virgins’. This provides another clue as to what he is driving at. Herrick tells the young to enjoy themselves before their youth and beauty fade. And yet encouraging a load of young people who haven’t had sex yet has never been couched in such delightful verse as Herrick deploys here. This is one of the best ‘seize the day’ poems in English – and probably the most famous.
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction …
Clothes worn in a state of dishevelment have a certain charm – indeed, more so than when they are simply worn in a state of perfect precision: that is the basic ‘argument’ of this short classic Herrick poem. So a cuff worn round the wrist that lets ribbons flow out from it in confusion, and a stray ‘wave’ or ripple in a petticoat, and a shoelace that is tied in a haphazard fashion: these all ‘bewitch’ the poet, or pique his attention, more powerfully than clothes worn in a more straight-laced and conventional manner.
‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’. One of Herrick’s Julia poems, this poem is a six-line description of the woman’s silken clothing, and its pleasure-inducing effects on our poet. The ‘vibration’ and ‘glittering’ may be the result of Julia’s gracefully moving about, her silken garments shimmering in the light – and there’s a suggestion that Julia may disrobe in the second stanza.
Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
See how Aurora throwes her faire
Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree …
This is another of Robert Herrick’s most popular poems, and like ‘To the Virgins’ it’s a carpe diem poem, which sees the poet entreating his beloved to come to the Mayday festivities with him, ‘while we are in our prime’.
‘The Coming of Good Luck’.
So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the tree
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.
At just four lines, this is one of the shortest poems on this list. (Its title sometimes retains the original spelling, so it’s not unusual to see it cited as ‘The Comming of Good Luck’.) Herrick rejoices that good luck comes to him not in one go, but in slight and gentle waves.
Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.
A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free,
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I’ll give to thee …
A delightful little love poem, this, in which Herrick pledges his heart to Anthea to do with as she pleases.
‘The Night Piece: To Julia’. Glow-worms, shooting stars, and elves: it’s all in this charming poem (and that’s just the first three lines). The last line invites a sexual reading, another sign of the eroticism that pervades the Julia poems. (Though here we might add foot-fetishism as well.)
‘Upon Prew His Maid’. Another four-line poem, this elegy and epitaph memorialises Prewdence Baldwin who was Herrick’s maid. Herrick hopes that from the ‘happy spark’ of Prew’s remains, a purple violet will spring. The poem is short enough to be quoted in full here:
In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time’s trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white …
‘I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers, / Of April, May, of June, and July flowers’: this is how Robert Herrick begins this poem, which acts as preface to Hesperides, the 1648 volume which contained most of his finest poems. Herrick summarises the varied content of his book in rhyming couplets, drawing the reader’s attention to the range of topics which his poetry covers.
Farewell thou thing, time past so known, so dear
To me as blood to life and spirit; near,
Nay, thou more near than kindred, friend, man, wife,
Male to the female, soul to body; life
To quick action, or the warm soft side
Of the resigning, yet resisting bride.
The kiss of virgins, first fruits of the bed,
Soft speech, smooth touch, the lips, the maidenhead:
These and a thousand sweets could never be
So near or dear as thou wast once to me …
Is there a finer poem about giving up drink in all of English literature? This is a glorious paean to wine – specifically, ‘sack’, a Spanish fortified wine similar to sherry. It’s up there with Falstaff’s words in praise of sack in 2 Henry IV. (Herrick’s ‘The Welcome to Sack’ is also worth reading.)
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Robert Herrick (artist unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.