Herrick's father died one year after his son's birth in cheapside, London. Raised by an uncle who shared his father's goldsmith and banker trade, Robert was destined to follow in the family tradition. However, after a brief apprenticeship to his uncle in 1607, he elected instead to continue his education at Cambridge. There he first attended St. John's College and later matriculated to Trinity Hall, moving at a leisurely, good-natured pace that biographers note reflected his disposition. After ordination in 1623, he served as chaplain to the duke of Buckingham during his 1627 expedition to Isle de Rhe. He moved to a parish at Dean Prior in Devonshire, reluctantly accepting a living that forced him away from his beloved London into a country life he did not enjoy. However, true to his happy nature, he eventually accepted his position, enjoying the bachelor life.
Herrick had begun to write and publish and received an extraordinary tribute in 1625 from the writer Richard James. James wondered in print why no remarkable writer had ever paid tribute to King James during his lifetime, famously noting in "The Muse's Dirge" that "Some Jonson, Drayton or some Herrick" should "Before this time have charactered the mould" of the monarch. As critics remark, for Herrick to be named as equal to Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton was high praise, indeed; he would later express his feelings about Jonson in "An Ode for Him" and "His Prayer to Ben Jonson." Approximately 10 poems had been published before 1648, although others circulated in manuscript, "The Curse" and "Welcome to Sack" proving favorites, the latter balancing his later "His Farewell to Sack." Herrick began to produce poetry at an extraordinary rate, although he had little interest in publishing it.
With Civil War, the Puritans came to power and removed Herrick's appointment. He moved to London, where in 1648 he published a volume with dual titles, Hesperides, which included secular verse, and Noble Numbers, containing sacred. Dedicated to the future monarch, Charles II, it contained an astonishing number of poems on various subjects, many of which are no more than epigrams. They included the later widely anthologized "Corinna's Gone a Maying," considered a major contribution to lyric poetry. Many other of his poems proved reader favorites, including "A Thanksgiving to God," "Delight in Disorder" "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," "The Mad Maid's Song," "Upon Julia's Clothes," "Upon the Losse of His Mis tresses" (the mistresses all being imaginary), "The Vine," "Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast," "Upon Jack and Jill," "The Night-Piece, to Julia," and "Upon His Verses." Additional selections included epigrammatic poems, such as "Dreams," complete in two lines: "Here we are all, by day; by night, we're hurled / By dreams, each one into a several world," where the term several means "separate," and "To His Conscience," in which he wrote, "Can I not sin, but thou wilt be / My private protonotary," protonotary referencing the chief recording clerk of a court. Herrick celebrated nature, both environmental and human.
Although he was a practicing cleric, much of Herrick's attitude resembled that of a pagan. The opening to his collection, titled "The Argument of His Book," presented a catalog of songs, as he wrote in part, "I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers, / Of April, May, of June, and July flowers." Some entries in this catalog did not please his Puritan peers, including "I write of youth, of love, and have access / By these to sing of cleanly wantonness," as they believed wantonness nothing to joke about, even in paradox form. His volume contained more than 1,400 separate poems, none of which proved well received by a public not inclined to enjoy his playful approach. Herrick's good humor informed all of his work, about 60 selections of which appeared in Wit's Recreations (1650), although the remainder of his works sat unpublished for some time. Despite the fact that his poetry was ignored, Herrick survived the period until King Charles took the throne, regaining his former employment and dying at age 83.
Only in the 19th century did critics embrace Herrick in an era ready to celebrate his self-effacing work. Despite characterizations of Herrick's work as "light" by well-respected critics such as Louis Untermeyer, they remain widely read and cited, readily available in both print and electronic form.
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