Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Robert Herrick: A Tithe of Praise

~James Wardwell

Robert Herrick seems an odd subject for a series of essays written to revitalize devotional poetry. Although a clergyman and writer of some conspicuously designated religious verse (“Noble Numbers”), Herrick is better known for his light, occasionally bawdy poems, which he suggests outnumber the former by at least three to one (“His Confession”) and the proportion maybe more like ten to one. Nevertheless, this decided contrast may be seen to oddly highlight an appreciable depth to Herrick’s consideration of spiritual matters.

As masterful craftsmanship, Herrick’s bouncing rhythm and rhyme echo a not-so-latent hedonism. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” his best remembered piece, jams syllables into rapid torrents, “a-flying” toward a carpe diem enticement to “use your time” “while ye may.” Although there may be a legitimizing pun in the admonition to “go marry,” the song originally set by William Lawes remains standard pub fare.

A life long bachelor, in poems like “Upon Julia’s Clothes” and “Upon Julia’s Nipples,” Herrick titillates. He finds a “Delight in Disorder” of a woman imperfectly dressed in “neglectful” cuff and “tempestuous petticoat.” Something completely untoward pants in the dispatching of “cakes and creams,” “green gown[s] . . . given,” and “locks picked” in “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Parson Herrick naughtily twists in religious diction—sin, profanation, matins, hymns, devotion—to advocate ungodly abandon: “Wash, dress, be brief in praying: / Few beads are best, when once we go a-maying” (lines 27-28). There may be a self-critical tone intimated in the last stanza, but it hardly lessens the lawless thrust of its “liberty.”

Come, let us go, while we are in our prime,

And take the harmless folly of the time. (57-58)

Although minister to the humble churches of Dean Priory in Devonshire for nearly forty-five years (his forced removal to London during several years of the civil war and Commonwealth notwithstanding), Herrick may not have been vocationally fit. He writes:

More discontents I never had

Since I was born, than here;

Where I have been, and still am, sad,

In this dull Devonshire

(“Discontents in Devon,” 1-4).

It’s hard to tell whether separation from London—he does embrace many delights of rural existence in his poems—or unhappiness with his job dissatisfies him. However, around 1640, an internal investigation by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office sought the AWOL Herrick in London and found him residing there in the home of Thomsin Parsons, twenty-seven years Herrick’s junior, who had “had a bastard lately.” Although his poem “The suspicion upon his over-much familiarity with a Gentlewoman” proclaims the innocence of a relationship that is open, consensual and loving, he tacitly acknowledges the fathering of a daughter in “Mr Herrick his daughter’s Dowry.”

In as much as we can take Herrick’s (or anyone’s) poems as autobiographical, his occasional turning to devotional poetry may by contrast reflect a depth rarely detected in most of his verse. When Herrick published his poems in Hesperides (1648), he set off a section under the heading “Noble Numbers.” The latter poems are devotional in subject and approach. In spite of their being so compartmentalized, in these poems the poet excels in three themes he also explores in the rest of his poems: penance, celebration, and death.

Given the generally heathenish tenor of his poetry (suggested above), that Herrick displays a forte in penitential poems seems somehow apt. The minister poet may need to repent of some of what he has written. He is apologetic throughout Hesperides, but more pronouncedly so in the “Noble Numbers.” He begins Hesperides with “The Argument of His Book,” which functions as a proud thematic table of contents for the “cleanly wantonness” of the work, and boldly concludes “I write of hell; I sing (and ever shall) / Of heaven, and hope to have it after all” (13-14). The anticlimactic inclusion of heaven in the poem and the pun on having it “after all” as the “Noble Numbers” constitute the last section of Hesperides justly reflect the lightness of Herrick’s compunction in most of his poems. “When He Would Have His Verses Read” is in “orgies” when “well drunk and fed,” not in “sober mornings.”

The contrast of these self justifications with his penance in “Noble Numbers” tolls deeply into his spirit.

Look how our foul days do exceed our fair;

And as our bad, more than our good works are,

E’en so those lines, pen’d by my wanton wit,

Treble the number of these good I’ve writ.

Things precious are least numerous: men are prone

To do ten bad for one good action.

(“His Confession”)

Like many of his penitential poems in “Noble Numbers,” “His Confession,” is short (six lines), perhaps reflecting the humility of the sinner’s prayer “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” Starting with a general observation that we all have good days and bad days, the persona moves on to assessing our works and then his own “lines.” He seems to confess to disproportion. Our “foul days” exceed “our fair”; our bad, our good “works,” culpably. So his “wanton” poems out mass “the number of these [the noble numbers] I’ve writ.” Suggesting that the proportion is three “wanton” to one “noble” poem seems generously self-protective. Judging from the entirety of Herrick’s poetic works, the proportion may more justly be intimated in the ten to one proportion between men’s bad and good “action[s]” of the last lines. The implication, in economic terms, is that by their scarcity the noble numbers are more to be valued; they are “precious” material. The practice of Herrick’s rural village was that the minister was due a tithe of the land’s increase paid in vegetables, eggs, and lambs, a tithe onto the Lord practically given to the parson twice a year. In “The Tithe. To the Bride” (not a noble number), Herrick cajoles,

If nine times you your Bridegroom kiss;

The tenth you know the Parsons is.

Pay then your tithe.

These funny lines reflect Herrick’s familiarity with the appropriating of a tenth proportion to the Lord via the parson and perhaps a willingness to apply the principle liberally. This proportioning may also formulate his design for his poetic offerings. Nine ignoble poems in Hesperides may balance his tithe of praise in the “Noble Numbers.”

“His Prayer for Absolution” seeks forgiveness for his “unbaptized Rhimes” written in his “wild unhallowed Times.” Nevertheless, Herrick does not throw out the earlier poems wholly. Rather he pleads God “blot” the unholy therein, those words, lines, sentences not “inlaid with Thee.” By doing so the resilient poet invites God and thereby the reader to read and examine all of his poems which are at least “inlaid,” that is, adorned with God. Having apprenticed six years to a goldsmith, Herrick no doubt would distinguish between those works “inlaid” with God and those bonded with Him. He is making a minimal claim of achievement. Although explicitly asking “Forgive me God” for some unworthy writing (if any exists), the “Prayer” concludes seeking approval of any “worthy” poem of his that God might find.

That One of all the rest, shall be

The Glory of my Work, and Me. (9-10)

What might be misconstrued as more nonchalance in Herrick’s attitude, actually reflects through ambiguity the depth of his struggle with vocation. He has been gifted as a poet and has achieved a high level of success in the craft. In that way his poems are done as onto the Lord. He is his “work.” Herrick is caught in a sanctification dialectic: knowing that his “unbaptized,” “unhallowed” writing will not make him “holy, acceptable unto God” but needing to “work out his own salvation.” His prayer is that God find one of his poems or works “Worthy thy Benediction,” meaning both one that God would praise and one that is praise to God.

In “His Ejaculation to God,” Herrick anguishes over his repulsiveness before the Lord.

My God! Look on me with thine eye

Of pity, not of scrutiny (1-2).

The persona extends the anthropomorphic glance of God to observe the “loathsome sores” and “irruptions” in his diseased skin. Again, to the goldsmith’s eye surface beauty is important and metaphorically he is “odious” in God’s sight. In such a state, the penitent one pleads that God “heal me with thy look, or touch,” anything, just “cure me quite.”

In keeping with his [dis]proportion of praise, when he writes “To His Conscience,” fourteen of the eighteen lines are questions. The questions all seek asylum for a cherished, hidden sin: “a short and sweet iniquity.” Perhaps not explicitly naming the sin apes the words, effectually cradling the “delicate transgression” in obfuscation. But “conscience” remains a “private protonotary,” that is the lead prosecutor in the Court of Common Pleas. The questions prompt a turning from “hugg’d impiety” and a “vow” in the end to “live free” from “aberrations.”

Even as Herrick celebrated an idyllic and Bacchanalian world in his non-religious poems like “The Wassail” and “Oberon’s Feast,” he festively explores the events of the Christian life in his “Noble Numbers.” Christmas seems a favorite topic of such poems, receiving numerous considerations in both sections of Hesperides. Herrick wrote the words to some Christmas carols which were set to music by Henry Lawes and presented at court in the presence of the King. Like Milton, he wrote an ode “of the birth of our saviour.” Herrick’s ode contrasts the lowly “out-stable” of the Christ child’s birth to the amplification of his contemporaries’ celebrating in “silks” and “jewels” as a just retrospective to the Lord’s life and work, “more for love than pity.”

In graphically incarnational language, “To His Saviour. The New Year’s Gift,” Herrick’s persona trades his “bleeding heart” for the “foreskin” God had sent him. In contrast to the “gem” God sent, his “small” and “faulty” gift is accepted only “because I send Thee all.” In celebration of the crucifixion, Herrick writes a poem that prints in the shape of a cross.

And O! dear Christ,

E’en as Thou di’st,

Look down, and see

Us weep for Thee.

“A Thanksgiving To God For His House” enumerates the simple pleasures of life from a leakless roof to a “little loaf” of daily bread to “the mess / Of watercress, / Which of thy kindness Thou hast sent” to hens laying and ewes lambing and “wassail bowls:” “That I should render for my part / A thankful heart.” “To Find God” seeks and celebrates the Creator who can weigh fire, measure the wind, distill fresh water from the sea, and “fetch” the rain drop back into the cloudy heavens. For surely that One can

Show me that world of stars, and whence

They noiseless spill their influence. (13-14)

“To Keep a True Lent” celebrates the spiritual discipline of fasting. At first the poem questions the purposefulness of the practice. Is it to keep the “larder lean, / And clean?” In the proverbial flesh or fish debate, Herrick questions the commitment that gives up meat but gorges itself on fish. The meaning of the fast is not in the participant’s “downcast look.” Surely, it is not to grow “ragg’d” or “sour” that we fast; even here the Lord loves a cheerful giver. “No,” the Lenten fast is to “dole” some “meat” “unto the hungry soul.” “To circumcise thy life” from “hate,” “debate,” and “strife.”

To show a heart grief-rent;

To starve thy sin,

Not bin.

And that’s to keep thy Lent. (21-24)

In as much as a carpe diem attitude can be summed up “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” it is a response to our ultimate demise: death. In his “Noble Numbers” Herrick reconsiders this familiar theme with a very different attitude than that found in most of the rest of Hesperides. He attaches the date 1647 to “Noble Numbers.” Although he lived to the age of eighty-three, in 1647 he was already fifty-six and had outlasted most of his Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Carolingian contemporaries. His own sensibility and even his style of writing were out of fashion. So perhaps consequently he turns to the end in a profoundly personal way and often in his devotional poems.

“His Wish To God” is that he be afforded in “mine old age” a time to prepare for death. He envisions a period of mortification (the spiritual discipline of dying well, which was of tantamount importance to those susceptible to plague and is foolishly ignored by those of us so less familiar with widespread and instantaneous death) as a “living grave,” a “poor almshouse” from whence he might consider “Thy Cross” and read “Thy Bible.” Thus, the “necessity” of his “meaner sepulcher” of actual death might “excite” him to both “fore and after-grace;” that is, to live better in this life and the next. “[S]o end.”

In “To Death,” mortification demands some “tears / For faults of former years” and the repenting of present “crimes.” Either sacramentally or symbolically, the persona wishes to take communion. “To don my robes of love” and “gird my loins . . . with charity” will move him on “With feet of innocence.” “These done, I’ll only cry / God mercy, and so die” (15-16).

“His Meditation Upon Death” begins with a prayer for mortification.

Be those few hours, which I have yet to spend,

Blest with the meditation of my end.

What he has in mind that follows in the poem will help him to a blessed end. First, he considers that the quality not the quantity of years on this earth matters. “A multitude of days” “heaped on” only brings “confusion.” Herrick, who will live over a quarter of a century after publishing the poem, writes that if he could choose “long life should be withstood.” This persona urges on his own demise, supplicating that the next death knell be his own. So he imaginatively delights in his nightly being his eternal rest, that his blankets are “turfs” to cover him, his sheet, his “winding sheet.” If he doesn’t die in the night and wakes again to another day, “I’ll have in mind my resurrection,” imaging a correspondence in his earthly to his heavenly existence. He hopes in the “General Doom.” Thus, a second prayer: “Let me, though late, yet at the last, begin / To shun the least temptation to a sin” (29-30). Even if “late,” a sanctified life reassures “I am safe in death.”

Which is the height of comfort: when I fall,

I rise triumphant in my funeral.