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Robert Herrick
by [?]

During this time he was assumed to be in receipt of a quarterly allowance of ten pounds–a not illiberal provision, the pound being then five times its present value; but as the payments were eccentric, the master of arts was in recurrent distress. If this money came from his own share of his father’s estate, as seems likely, Herrick had cause for complaint; if otherwise, the pith is taken out of his grievance.

The Iliad of his financial woes at this juncture is told in a few chance-preserved letters written to his “most careful uncle,” as he calls that evidently thrifty person. In one of these monotonous and dreary epistles, which are signed “R. Hearick,” the writer says: “The essence of my writing is (as heretofore) to entreat you to paye for my use to Mr. Arthour Johnson, bookseller, in Paule’s Churchyarde, the ordinarie sume of tenn pounds, and that with as much sceleritie as you maye.” He also indulges in the natural wish that his college bills “had leaden wings and tortice feet.” This was in 1617. The young man’s patrimony, whatever it may have been, had dwindled, and he confesses to “many a throe and pinches of the purse.” For the moment, at least, his prospects were not flattering.

Robert Herrick’s means of livelihood, when in 1620 he quitted the university and went up to London, are conjectural. It is clear that he was not without some resources, since he did not starve to death on his wits before he discovered a patron in the Earl of Pembroke. In the court circle Herrick also unearthed humbler, but perhaps not less useful, allies in the persons of Edward Norgate, clerk of the signet, and Master John Crofts, cup-bearer to the king. Through the two New Year anthems, honored by the music of Henry Lawes, his Majesty’s organist at Westminster, it is more than possible that Herrick was brought to the personal notice of Charles and Henrietta Maria. All this was a promise of success, but not success itself. It has been thought probable that Herrick may have secured some minor office in the chapel at Whitehall. That would accord with his subsequent appointment (September, 1627,) as chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham’s unfortunate expedition of the Isle of Rhe.

Precisely when Herrick was invested with holy orders is not ascertainable. If one may draw an inference from his poems, the life he led meanwhile was not such as his “most careful uncle” would have warmly approved. The literary clubs and coffee-houses of the day were open to a free-lance like young Herrick, some of whose blithe measures, passing in manuscript from hand to hand, had brought him faintly to light as a poet. The Dog and the Triple Tun were not places devoted to worship, unless it were to the worship of “rare Ben Jonson,” at whose feet Herrick now sat, with the other blossoming young poets of the season. He was a faithful disciple to the end, and addressed many loving lyrics to the master, of which not the least graceful is His Prayer to Ben Jonson:

When I a verse shall make,
Know I have praid thee
For old religion’s sake,
Saint Ben, to aide me.

Make the way smooth for me,
When I, thy Herrick,
Honouring thee, on my knee
Offer my lyric.

Candles I’ll give to thee,
And a new altar;
And thou, Saint Ben, shalt be
Writ in my Psalter.

On September 30, 1629, Charles I., at the recommending of the Earl of Exeter, presented Herrick with the vicarage of Dean Prior, near Totnes, in Devonshire. Here he was destined to pass the next nineteen years of his life among surroundings not congenial. For Herrick to be a mile away from London stone was for Herrick to be in exile. Even with railway and telegraphic interruptions from the outside world, the dullness of a provincial English town of today is something formidable. The dullness of a sequestered English hamlet in the early part of the seventeenth century must have been appalling. One is dimly conscious of a belated throb of sympathy for Robert Herrick. Yet, however discontented or unhappy he may have been at first in that lonely vicarage, the world may congratulate itself on the circumstances that stranded him there, far from the distractions of the town, and with no other solace than his Muse, for there it was he wrote the greater number of the poems which were to make his fame. It is to this accidental banishment to Devon that we owe the cluster of exquisite pieces descriptive of obsolete rural manners and customs–the Christmas masks, the Twelfth-night mummeries, the morris-dances, and the May-day festivals.