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Robert Herrick
by [?]

The November following Herrick’s appointment to the benefice was marked by the death of his mother, who left him no heavier legacy than “a ringe of twenty shillings.” Perhaps this was an understood arrangement between them; but it is to be observed that, though Herrick was a spendthrift in epitaphs, he wasted no funeral lines on Julian Herrick. In the matter of verse he dealt generously with his family down to the latest nephew. One of his most charming and touching poems is entitled To His Dying Brother, Master William Herrick, a posthumous son. There appear to have been two brothers named William. The younger, who died early, is supposed to be referred to here.

The story of Herrick’s existence at Dean Prior is as vague and bare of detail as the rest of the narrative. His parochial duties must have been irksome to him, and it is to be imagined that he wore his cassock lightly. As a preparation for ecclesiastical life he forswore sack and poetry; but presently he was with the Muse again, and his farewell to sack was in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Herrick had probably accepted the vicarship as he would have accepted a lieutenancy in a troop of horse–with an eye to present emolument and future promotion. The promotion never came, and the emolument was nearly as scant as that of Goldsmith’s parson, who considered himself “passing rich with forty pounds a year”–a height of optimism beyond the reach of Herrick, with his expensive town wants and habits. But fifty pounds–the salary of his benefice–and possible perquisites in the way of marriage and burial fees would enable him to live for the time being. It was better than a possible nothing a year in London.

Herrick’s religious convictions were assuredly not deeper than those of the average layman. Various writers have taken a different view of the subject; but it is inconceivable that a clergyman with a fitting sense of his function could have written certain of the poems which Herrick afterward gave to the world–those astonishing epigrams upon his rustic enemies, and those habitual bridal compliments which, among his personal friends, must have added a terror to matrimony. Had he written only in that vein, the posterity which he so often invoked with pathetic confidence would not have greatly troubled itself about him.

It cannot positively be asserted that all the verses in question relate to the period of his incumbency, for none of his verse is dated, with the exception of the Dialogue betwixt Horace and Lydia. The date of some of the compositions may be arrived at by induction. The religious pieces grouped under the title of Noble Numbers distinctly associate themselves with Dean Prior, and have little other interest. Very few of them are “born of the royal blood.” They lack the inspiration and magic of his secular poetry, and are frequently so fantastical and grotesque as to stir a suspicion touching the absolute soundness of Herrick’s mind at all times. The lines in which the Supreme Being is assured that he may read Herrick’s poems without taking any tincture from their sinfulness might have been written in a retreat for the unbalanced. “For unconscious impiety,” remarks Mr. Edmund Gosse, (1) “this rivals the famous passage in which Robert Montgomery exhorted God to ‘pause and think.'” Elsewhere, in an apostrophe to “Heaven,” Herrick says:

Let mercy be
So kind to set me free,
And I will straight
Come in, or force the gate.

In any event, the poet did not purpose to be left out!

(1) In Seventeenth-Century Studies. and the general
absence of arrangement in the “Hesperides,” Dr. Grosart
advances the theory that the printers exercised arbitrary
authority on these points. Dr. Grosart assumes that Herrick
kept the epigrams and personal tributes in manuscript books
separate from the rest of the work, which would have made a
too slender volume by itself, and on the plea of this
slender-ness was induced to trust the two collections to the
publisher, “whereupon he or some un-skilled subordinate
proceeded to intermix these additions with the others. That
the poet him-self had nothing to do with the arrangement or
disarrangement lies on the surface.” This is an amiable
supposition, but merely a supposition.