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"CORINNA'S GOING A MAYING" Robert
Herrick (1648) Robert Herrick wrote "Corinna's Going a Maying" as a contribution to the popular carpe diem poems of his day. Those verses urged readers or listeners to make the most of the present, as time would produce a sure decline followed by death. They urged their audiences to accept today as the best day during which to act, because one could never positively count on another day to follow. Such poetry often incorporated imagery of growing things already threatened in their prime by death. The traditional idea had been present in ancient poetry, including that of the Hebrews, as well as in Roman and Greek poetry. However, the latter groups stressed the positive aspect of accepting death as inevitable and then enjoying all that life had to offer. Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, Publius Syrus, and Seneca all celebrated the pleasure of the moment, according to the Herrick biographer George Walton Scott. Horace provided a direct descent for carpe diem, derived from the Latin infinitive carpere, in many instances representing the action of gathering fruits or flowers, just as one would gather, or pluck, a "ripe" day. In "Corinna," Herrick does conclude on a serious note, alluding to death after a celebration of the promise of May. In the end, time will cheat even the most abundant of lives; thus, one must extend time by thoroughly enjoying each available moment.
The poem's structure includes 70 lines of rhyming couplets with varying meter. Five stanzas of 14 lines each contain two lines of iambic pentameter, followed by three lines of tetrameter, with that pattern repeated in a second set of five lines. The season is spring, specifically at the beginning of the month of May, and the speaker urges his audience, every "budding Boy, or Girlie," to "bring in May," an admonition to harvest time.
The opening line labels the morn as "Blooming," as the speaker calls all sleepers to arise and celebrate day. Herrick references "Aurora," the goddess of the dawn, and calls on imagery of the dawn's "fresh-quilted colors" and "The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree," as well as "Each Flower" and birds, including the traditional singer of the day, the Lark, "to fetch in May." While the tone remains light and teasing, it also betrays a sense of urgency. If the audience remains in bed an hour after the dawn, precious time will be wasted. Herrick also references Virgins in line 13, a traditional reference, used seductively by Cavalier poets, but simply indicating an untried and as yet immature being in this poem. Herrick extends his use of figurative language with plant and growth metaphors. The second stanza suggests those the speaker calls "put on your Foliage" and "come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene." Participants in the celebration may eschew
"Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire," as "leaves will strew / Gems in abundance upon you." In addition, the young day retains "some Orient Pearls unwept," an allusion to dew, whose sparkling diamondlike appearance in the bright sun was often compared to jewels. Herrick does not insist that the maidens to whom he speaks ignore their faith. His speaker merely bids them to "be brief in praying: / Few Beads are best," with the beads referencing prayer beads. In the third stanza the speaker addresses Corinna, a representative of all young virgins, bidding her to notice "How each field turns a street; each street a Parke / Made green, and trimm'd with trees," while each house is decorated with boughs or branches. Herrick references biblical verses that describe the use of parts of trees and bushes in celebrations and mentions the "white-thorn," a traditional symbol of both joy and pain. The stanza concludes with the command to "sin no more," as spring represents a new beginning, or a life without sin.
By the fourth stanza, all boys and girls are intent on bringing in May, having gone into the fields and returned with the white-thorn after eating "Cakes and Cream." They may later dream or weep or plight their troth, choosing their priest, exchanging kisses and glances, and telling jokes. In short, a celebration of coupling and, by extension, propagation of the human race is under way. Herrick strongly emphasizes the carpe diem philosophy in his fifth stanza, which reads:
Come, let us go, while we are in our prime; And take the harmless follie of the time. We shall grow old apace, and die Before we know our liberty. Our life is short; and our dayes run As fast away as do's the Sunne: And as a vapour, or a drop of raine Once lost, can ne'r be found againe: (57-64)
Herrick uses stock references to the popular theme of fleeting time, including the sun running across the sky as the mythical Apollo, driving his fiery horse-pulled chariot that hauls the sun from east to west. He next references art as the only way to beat time at his own game, writing, "So when or you or I are made / A fable, song, or fleeting shade." However, little satisfaction exists today in the knowledge that one may remain alive as a literary reference or a recognized spirit. Rather, humans favor "All love, all liking, all delight," but that joy "Lies drown'd with us in endlesse night," the night symbolizing the dark of the unknown represented by death. The penultimate line loses some of the upbeat tone in a solemn reference, "Then while time serves, and we are but decaying," which alludes to the theory that organisms begin to die as soon as they are born. It also allows further extension of the comparison of humans to plant life, each having its specific life cycle. Herrick does conclude with a repeat call to enjoy the day as his speaker bids, "Come, my Corinna, come, let's go a Maying."
A priest as well as a poet, Herrick called upon Hebrew tradition in addition to classical tradition in which to ground his theme. As noted by G. W. Scott, the second book of The Wisdom of Solomon, a poetic discourse in Greek, probably written by a Hellenistic Jew assuming the identity of the biblical Solomon, may have provided a model. It carries the admonition that "in the death of man there is no remedy," and the spark that represents his life will be extinguished. Therefore, man should "enjoy the good things that are present; and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth . . . and let no flower of the spring pass by us."
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