A reading of a famous poem
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was an English Cavalier poet, whose 1648 collection Hesperides contains much of his great poetry. Algernon Charles Swinburne called Herrick the ‘greatest songwriter ever born of English race’. A number of Herrick’s poems, including ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, ‘Delight in Disorder’, and ‘Corinna’s Going a Maying’ – but it is ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’, an intriguing little poem of just six lines, which is the focus of our analysis here.
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free
O how that glittering taketh me!
A poem comprising just two triplets, rhymed aaa and bbb, and just two sentences. What are we to make of ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’? There are two things to note here. One is that the poem is deceptively simple. It seems, in summary, to be simply a 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 (perhaps shortly before she removes the clothes: note the implied shift between the silken-clad Julia in the first stanza, and the ‘brave vibration each way free’ in the second, ‘Next’: what is now ‘free’ exactly?).
But the poem seems to hint at far more than this. The second thing to note is that Herrick wrote other ‘Julia’ poems, including the following, ‘Upon Julia’s Breasts’:
Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me
Behold that circummortal purity;
Between whose glories, there my lips I’ll lay,
Ravished in that fair Via Lactea.
Another Julia poem, ‘Upon Julia’s Hair Filled with Dew’, features, like ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’, a glittering: the dew ‘glittered to [the poet’s] sight’, we are told, like leaves laden with ‘trembling dew’.
In other words, any critical analysis of ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ that doesn’t see the poem as an eroticised portrayal of Julia’s body and the way her graceful and seductive movement makes her silken clothes shine and glitter misses the fact that elsewhere in his Julia poems, Robert Herrick clearly depicts Julia in erotic terms.
Numerous critics, including Michael Schmidt in his wonderfully comprehensive Lives of the Poets, have detected a fishing analogy in ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’: the watery words ‘flows’ and ‘liquefaction’ (i.e. making into liquid) in the poem’s first stanza, and the poet’s reference to casting his eyes (like a fishing net) in the second stanza, all suggest that Herrick is ‘taken’ in that final line much as a fish is taken when it bites the bait on the end of the line.
So a poem that seems to be about objectifying women is also, in this reading, a poem in which the woman has control over the helpless male: he is in her thrall, thanks to her shimmering nightgown.
We might make an additional point about the poem’s context. Many of Robert Herrick’s poems praise disorder, disruption, and dishevelment. This love of the disorderly might be linked to Herrick’s identification as a Cavalier poet: that is, a follower and supporter of King Charles I.
The Cavaliers often embraced the things which their enemies, the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell, condemned – such as the pursuit of worldly pleasures including the theatre and, yes, sex (or its enjoyment, leastways).
The Puritan and puritanical values of a Cromwell would, we can surmise, be anathema to a poet like Robert Herrick. Like ‘Delight in Disorder’ – and, indeed, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, which calls for the young to enjoy themselves and sow their wild oats while they can – ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ is a reaction against the Puritan love of order and control championed by Cromwell.
‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ is a puzzling little poem, which can be interpreted and analysed in a number of ways, despite its brevity and apparent plainness of speech. If this has whetted your appetite for more of Robert Herrick’s poetry, you can discover more of his work here.
Image: Robert Herrick (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.