Who is Robert Herrick and why should anyone want to read his poems? Dramatist, poet, literary critic and owner of one of the all-time great names in the creative arts Algernon Swinburne labeled Herrick as, quite simply, “the greatest songwriter ever born of English race.” If such elegant and elevated praise is not enough to stimulate interest in reading the prodigious output of Herrick’s poetic flights of fancy, then perhaps a quick look at some of the titles of those songs which Swinburne found so resonant will do the job:
“Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast.”
“Upon Julia’s Clothes.”
“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
“Upon Julia’s Breast.”
“Upon a Comely and Curious Maid.”
When gazing upon these titles and the many others of a similar nature, one might well assume with some authority that Robert Herrick was one of those typical sorts of poets who makes his way through a series of mistresses, leaving behind as evidence of his temporary infatuation only the immortalized preservation of the moment in poetic form. Was Robert Herrick one of the many world-traveling, alcohol-consuming, laudanum ingesting, opium-smoking rounders and bounders and rakes who made of his lack of impulse control a creative career?
Not in the slightest. In fact, Robert Herrick was ordained as a priest in 1623 and composed much of his greatest work while heading up a Devonshire parish in Dean Prior. The shock of going from the hubbub of London to the Puritanical rural setting of his parish was like a real life version of the BBC series Doc Martin. So much so that for a brief period of time, Herrick left Dean Prior, lived in sin with a woman 27 years younger and produced an illegitimate child. As an ardent Loyalist during the Commonwealth period, Herrick was essentially an outcast and forced to live on the kindness of friends and family. Eventually, he went back to his post at Dean Prior where he infamously made a pig his pet and where his apparently produced no more poetry.
As for the young mother of that illegitimate daughter, her name was not Julia. In fact, there was no Julia. The greater bulk of Herrick’s most memorable secular poems are populated by alluring sirens which existed then as now only within the imagination of the poet. Living out there in the boondocks amongst a gaggle of Puritans and a congregation that on at least one memorable occasion literally felt the wrath of the priest’s sermon when he threw the pages at them in frustration over their exhibition of inattention, Herrick was forced to create a series of mistresses to whom and about whom his poems reference in increasingly intimate detail.
What sets the poems of Robert Herrick apart from so many others who produced a body of similar work—and what, perhaps, made Algernon Swinburne deems him the best of the best—is that unlike so much of the competition, Herrick’s poems are truly comprehensive creations of a creative mind. When reading about Julia’s breasts or Corinna’s adventures in A-Maying, it is imperative to remember that there was no actual, tactile, palpable model for either woman. Every aspect of the object of Herrick’s attention is derived from the same mysterious spot in the imagination capable of imagining entire worlds that never really existed.