"ODE FOR HIM, AN" Robert Herrick (1648)
The "Him" alluded to in Robert Herrick's poem "An Ode for Him" was indubitably Ben Jonson, poet and playwright extraordinaire, who served as mentor for Herrick. Although never a "sealed member" of the cel
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ebrated Tribe of Ben, Herrick enjoyed a close friendship with Jonson. He often joined the older poet's group in city taverns, as Jonson greatly enjoyed mixing drink and food with talk. While the favorite haunt was the first floor of the Devil and St. Dunstan at Temple Bar, in the Apollo Chamber, the group of poets also frequented other haunts, some of which Herrick mentions in the first of his two-stanza poem. Using the ode, or praise, form, to join others in celebrating Jonson after his death in 1637, Herrick begins with an appeal:
Say how, or when
Shall we thy Guests
Meet at those Lyrick Feasts. (1-4)
With the frequent meetings for food and drink that included both serious and light discussions of intellectual and artistic matters on his mind, Herrick wonders "how, or when" the group can ever again meet. The suggestion remains that they can never duplicate that experience. He next alludes to various meeting places in lines 5 and 6, "Made at the Sun, / The Dog, the triple Tunne?" As George Walton Scott explains, Sun was a common name for taverns and makes the exact location to which Herrick refers difficult to know, while Dog likely referred to a tavern on Talbot Street, later known as the Sun. For some reason, Herrick omits reference to the clubroom in the Apollo Chamber, where Jonson famously sat near a bust of Apollo. He also neglects the best-known of the literary taverns, the Mermaid in Bread Street, which had an entrance facing Cheapside, an area with which Herrick was quite familiar. Founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, it remained a favorite haunt, although its canary wine so loved by Jonson and Herrick cost twopence more than at other taverns. The triple Tunne, also known as Three Tuns, represented the Vintner's Company coat of arms, appearing on a popular establishment standing near the Gate in Guildhall Yard.
Herrick completes that 10-line stanza by comparing the effect of Jonson's contribution to that of the friends consuming drink. He notes that the groups held "clusters" at the various drinking venues, which made the poets "nobly wild, not mad," as "each Verse of thine / Out-did the meat, out-did the frolic wine." As the old saying goes, man's spirit needs sustenance, as does his body. Jonson tended to the needs of the soul, while the taverns cared for the needs of the flesh. obviously Jonson's contribution proved the more important. Any drinking establishment could serve the material need, but only Jonson could satisfy the more crucial requirement.
In the second stanza Herrick repeats his apostrophe, "My Ben," making clear the affectionate quality of their relationship, adding a request that Ben "come agen," or instead "send to us, / Thy wits great over-plus" (1314). He may mimic the classical request for inspiration, seeking motivation from Jonson, now a spiritual muse. The speaker adds, however, a request that Ben's spirit "teach us yet / Wisely to husband it" (15-16), meaning they must learn to distribute carefully in increments whatever they receive from Jonson. otherwise they will too quickly "that Tallent spend" (17). Once that happens, they will bring "to an end / That precious stock" (18-19), and "Of such a wit the world sho'd have no more" (20).
While Herrick's ode is not unusual, he successfully frames it in a tone of unmistakable longing that gives believability to his sentiment. Not only did Herrick legitimately admire Jonson's work, he owed to that poet his acceptance into the tavern life, an important step up in artistic status. Therefore he expresses not only longing, but gratitude.
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