Herrick wrote over 2,500 poems, about half of which appear in his major work, Hesperides. Hesperides also includes the much shorter Noble Numbers, his first book, of spiritual works, first published in 1647. He is well known for his style and, in his earlier works, for frequent references to lovemaking and the female body. His later poetry was more of a spiritual and philosophical nature. Among his most famous short poetical sayings are the unique monometers, such as number 475, "Thus I / Pass by / And die,/ As one / Unknown / And gone."
Herrick sets out his subject-matter in the poem he printed at the beginning of his collection, The Argument of his Book. He dealt with English country life and its seasons, village customs, complimentary poems to various ladies and his friends, themes taken from classical writings and a solid bedrock of Christian faith, not intellectualized but underpinning the rest. It has been said of Herrick's style 'his directness of speech with clear and simple presentation of thought, a fine artist working with conscious knowledge of his art, of an England of his youth in which he lives and moves and loves, clearly assigns him to the first place as a lyrical poet in the strict and pure sense of the phrase'.
Herrick never married, and none of his love-poems seem to connect directly with any one woman. He loved the richness of sensuality and the variety of life, and this is shown vividly in such poems as Cherry-ripe, Delight in Disorder and Upon Julia’s Clothes.
The over-riding message of Herrick’s work is that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it. This message can be seen clearly in To the Virgins, to make much of Time; To Daffodils; To Blossoms; and Corinna going a-Maying, where the warmth and exuberance of what seems to have been a kindly and jovial personality comes over strongly.
The opening stanza in one of his more famous poems, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time", is as follows:
- Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
- Old Time is still a-flying;
- And this same flower that smiles today,
- Tomorrow will be dying.
This poem is an example of the carpe diem genre; the popularity of Herrick's poems of this kind helped revive the genre.
His poems were not widely popular at the time they were published. His style was strongly influenced by Ben Jonson, by the classical Roman writers, and by the poems of the late Elizabethan era. This must have seemed quite old-fashioned to an audience whose tastes were tuned to the complexities of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell. His works were rediscovered in the early nineteenth century, and have been regularly printed ever since.
The Victorian poet Swinburne described Herrick as "the greatest song writer ever born of English race". Despite his use of classical allusions and names, Herrick's poems are easier for modern readers to understand than those of many of his contemporaries.