Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: Dean Prior, Devonshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. George the Martyr Churchyard, Dean Prior, Devon, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Hesperides
English poet, born at Cheapside, London, and baptized on the 24th of August 1591. He belonged to an old Leicestershire family which had settled in London. He was the seventh child of Nicholas Herrick, goldsmith, of the city of London, who died in 1592, under suspicion of suicide. The children were brought up by their uncle, Sir William Herrick, one of the richest goldsmiths of the day, to whom in 1607 Robert was bound apprentice. He had probably been educated at Westminster school, and in 1614 he proceeded to Cambridge; and it was no doubt during his apprenticeship that the young poet was introduced to that circle of wits which he was afterwards to adorn. He seems to have been present at the first performance of The Alchemist in 1610, and it was probably about this time that Ben Jonson adopted him as his poetical son. He entered the university as fellow commoner of St. John's College, and he remained there until, in 1616, upon taking his degree, he removed to Trinity Hall. A lively series of fourteen letters to his uncle, mainly begging for money, exists at Beaumanoir, and shows that Herrick suffered much from poverty at the university. He took his B.A. in 1617, and in 1620 he became master of arts. From this date until 1627 we entirely lose sight of him; it has been variously conjectured that he spent these years preparing for the ministry at Cambridge, or in much looser pursuits in London. In 1629 (September 30) he was presented by the king to the vicarage of Dean Prior, not far from Totnes in Devonshire. At Dean Prior he resided quietly until 1648, when he was ejected by the Puritans. The solitude there oppressed him at first; the village was dull and remote, and he felt very bitterly that he was cut off from all literary and social associations; but soon the quiet existence in Devonshire soothed and delighted him. He was pleased with the rural and semi-pagan customs that survived in the village, and in some of his most charming verses he has immortalized the morris-dances, wakes and quintains, the Christmas mummers and the Twelfth Night revellings, that diversified the quiet of Dean Prior. Herrick never married, but lived at the vicarage surrounded by a happy family of pets, and tended by an excellent old servant named Prudence Baldwin. His first appearance in print was in sonic verses he contributed to A Description of the King and Queen of Fairies, in 1635. In 1650 a volume of Wit's Recreations contained sixty-two small poems afterwards acknowledged by Herrick in the Hesperides, and one not reprinted until the 20th century. These partial appearances make it probable that he visited London from time to time. We have few hints of his life as a clergyman. Anthony à Wood says that Herricks's sermons were florid and witty, and that he was "beloved by the neighboring gentry." A very aged woman, one Dorothy King, stated that the poet once threw his sermon at his congregation, cursing them for their inattention. The same old woman recollected his favorite pig, which he taught to drink out of a tankard. He was a devotedly loyal supporter of the king during the Civil War, and immediately upon his ejection in 1648 he published his celebrated collection of lyrical poems, entitled Hesperides; or the Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick. The "divine works" bore the title of Noble Numbers and the date 1647. That he was reduced to great poverty in London has been stated, but there is no evidence of the fact. In August 1662 Herrick returned to Dean Prior, supplanting his own supplanter, Dr. John Syms. He died in his eighty-fourth year, and was buried at Dean Prior, October 15, 1674. A monument was erected to his memory in the parish church in 1857, by Perry Herrick, a descendant of a collateral branch of the family. The Hesperides (and Noble Numbers) is the only volume which Herrick published, but he contributed poems to Lachrymae Musarum (1649) and to Wit's Recreations.
As a pastoral lyrist Herrick stands first among English poets. His genius is limited in scope, and comparatively unambitious, but in its own field it is unrivalled. His tiny poems -- —and of the thirteen hundred that he has left behind him not one is long -- —are like jewels of various value, heaped together in a casket. Some are of the purest water, radiant with light and color, some were originally set in false metal that has tarnished, some were rude and repulsive from the first. Out of the unarranged, heterogeneous mass the student has to select what is not worth reading, but, after he has cast aside all the rubbish, he is astonished at the amount of excellent and exquisite work that remains. Herrick has himself summed up, very correctly, the themes of his sylvan muse when he says:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers,
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides and of their bridal-cakes.
He saw the picturesqueness of English homely life as no one before him had seen it, and he described it in his verse with a certain purple glow of Arcadian romance over it, in tones of immortal vigor and freshness. His love poems are still more beautiful; the best of them have an ardor and tender sweetness which give them a place in the forefront of modern lyrical poetry, and remind us of what was best in Horace and in the poets of the Greek anthology.
After suffering complete extinction for more than a century, the fame of Herrick was revived by John Nichols, who introduced his poems to the readers of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1796 and 1797. Dr. Drake followed in 1798 with considerable enthusiasm. By 1810 interest had so far revived in the forgotten poet that Dr. Nott ventured to print a selection from his poems, which attracted the favorable notice of the Quarterly Review. In 1823 the Hesperides and the Noble Numbers were for the first time edited by Mr. T. Maitland, afterwards Lord Dundrennan. Since then the reprints of Herrick's have been too numerous to be mentioned here; there are few English poets of the 17th century whose writings are now more accessible.
High School: Westminster School
University: BA, St. John's College, Cambridge University (1617)
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