Of the lives of many poets we know too much; of some few too little. Lovers of Herrick are almost ideally fortunate. Just such a bare outline of his life has come down to us as is sufficient to explain the allusions in his poems, and, on the other hand, there is no temptation to substitute chatter about his relations with Julia and Dianeme for enjoyment of his delightful verse. The recital of the bare outline need detain us but a few minutes: only the least imaginative of readers will have any difficulty in filling it in from the poems themselves.
From early in the fourteenth century onwards we hear of the family of Eyrick or Herrick at Stretton, in Leicestershire. At the beginning of the sixteenth century we find a branch of it settled in Leicester itself, where John Eyrick, the poet’s grandfather, was admitted a freeman in 1535, and afterwards acted as Mayor. This John’s second son, Nicholas, migrated to London, became a goldsmith in Wood Street, Cheapside, and, according to a licence issued by the Bishop of London, December 8, 1582, married Julian, daughter of William Stone, sister of Anne, wife of Sir Stephen Soame, Lord Mayor of London in 1598. The marriage was not unfruitful. A William* Herrick was baptized at St. Vedast’s, Foster Lane, November 24, 1585; Martha, January 22, 1586; Mercy, December 22, 1586; Thomas, May 7, 1588; Nicholas, April 22, 1589; Anne, July 26, 1590; and Robert himself, August 24, 1591.
* A second William is said to have been born, posthumously, in “Harry Campion’s house at Hampton,” in 1593.
Fifteen months after the poet’s birth, on November 7, 1592, Nicholas Herrick made his will, estimating his property as worth £3000, and devising it, as to one-third to his wife, and as to the other two-thirds to his children in equal shares. In the will he described himself as “of perfect memorye in sowle, but sicke in bodye”. Two days after its execution he was buried, having died, not from disease, but from a fall from an upper window. His death had so much the appearance of self-destruction that £220 had to be paid to the High Almoner, Dr. Fletcher, Bishop of Bristol, in satisfaction of his official claim to the goods and chattels of suicides. Herrick’s biographers have not failed to vituperate the Bishop for his avarice, but dues allowed by law are hardly to be abandoned because a baby of fifteen months is destined to become a brilliant poet, and no other exceptional circumstances are alleged. The estate of Nicholas Herrick could the better afford the fine inasmuch as it realized £2000 more than was expected.
By the will Robert and William Herrick were appointed “overseers,” or trustees for the children. The former was the poet’s godfather, and in his will of 1617 left him £5. To William Herrick, then recently knighted for his services as goldsmith, jeweller, and moneylender to James I., the young Robert was apprenticed for ten years, September 25, 1607. An allusion to “beloved Westminster,” in his Tears to Thamesis, has been taken to refer to Westminster school, and alleged as proof that he was educated there. Dr. Grosart even presses the mention of Richmond, Kingston, and Hampton Court to support a conjecture that Herrick may have travelled up and down to school from Hampton. If so, one wonders what his headmaster had to say to the “soft-smooth virgins, for our chaste disport” by whom he was accompanied. But the references in the poem are surely to his courtier-life in London, and after his father’s death the apprenticeship to his uncle in 1607 is the first fact in his life of which we can be sure.
In 1607, Herrick was fifteen, and, even if we conjecture that he may have been allowed to remain at school some little time after his apprenticeship nominally began, he must have served his uncle for five or six years. Sir William had himself been bound apprentice in a similar way to the poet’s father, and we have no evidence that he exacted any premium. At any rate, when in 1614, his nephew, then of age, desired to leave the business and go to Cambridge, the ten years’ apprenticeship did not stand in his way, and he entered as a Fellow Commoner at St. John’s. His uncle plainly still managed his affairs, for an amusing series of fourteen letters has been preserved at Beaumanor, until lately the seat of Sir William’s descendants, in which the poet asks sometimes for payment of a quarterly stipend of £10, sometimes for a formal loan, sometimes for the help of his avuncular Mæcenas. It seems a fair inference from this variety of requests that, since Herrick’s share of his father’s property could hardly have yielded a yearly income of £40, he was allowed to draw on his capital for this sum, but that his uncle and Lady Herrick occasionally made him small presents, which may account for his tone of dependence.
The quarterly stipend was paid through various booksellers, but irregularly, so that the poor poet was frequently reduced to great straits, though £40 a-year (£200 of our money) was no bad allowance. After two years he migrated from St. John’s to Trinity Hall, to study law and curtail his expenses. He took his Bachelor’s degree from there in January, 1617, and his Master’s in 1620. The fourteen letters show that he had prepared himself for University life by cultivating a very florid prose style which frequently runs into decasyllabics, perhaps a result of a study of the dramatists. Sir William Herrick is sometimes addressed in them as his most “careful” uncle, but at the time of his migration the poet speaks of his “ebbing estate,” and as late as 1629 he was still £10 16s. 9d. in debt to the College Steward. We can thus hardly imagine that he was possessed of any considerable private income when he returned to London, to live practically on his wits, and a study of his poems suggests that, the influence of the careful uncle removed, whatever capital he possessed was soon likely to vanish.* His verses to the Earl of Pembroke, to Endymion Porter and to others, show that he was glad of “pay” as well as “praise,” but the system of patronage brought no discredit with it, and though the absence of any poetical mention of his uncle suggests that the rich goldsmith was not well-pleased with his nephew, with the rest of his well-to-do relations Herrick seems to have remained on excellent terms.
* Yet in his Farewell to Poetry he distinctly says:—
“I’ve more to bear my charge than way to go”;
the line, however, is a translation from his favourite Seneca, Ep. 77.
Besides patrons, such as Pembroke, Westmoreland, Newark, Buckingham, Herrick had less distinguished friends at Court, Edward Norgate, Jack Crofts and others. He composed the words for two New Year anthems which were set to music by Henry Lawes, and he was probably personally known both to the King and Queen. Outside the Court he reckoned himself one of Ben Jonson’s disciples, “Sons of Ben” as they were called, had friends at the Inns of Court, knew the organist of Westminster Abbey and his pretty daughters, and had every temptation to live an amusing and expensive life. His poems were handed about in manuscript after the fashion of the time, and wherever music and poetry were loved he was sure to be a welcome guest.
Mr. Hazlitt’s conjecture that Herrick at this time may have held some small post in the Chapel at Whitehall is not unreasonable, but at what date he took Holy Orders is not known. In 1627 he obtained the post of chaplain to the unlucky expedition to the Isle of Rhé, and two years later (September 30, 1629) he was presented by the King to the Vicarage of Dean Prior, in Devonshire, which the promotion of its previous incumbent, Dr. Potter, to the Bishopric of Carlisle, had left in the royal gift. The annual value of the living was only £50 (£250 present value), no great prize, but the poem entitled Mr. Robert Hericke: his farwell unto Poetrie (not printed in Hesperides, but extant in more than one manuscript version) shows that the poet was not unaware of the responsibilities of his profession. “But unto me,” he says to his Muse:
“But unto me be only hoarse, since now
(Heaven and my soul bear record of my vow)
I my desires screw from thee and direct
Them and my thoughts to that sublime respect
And conscience unto priesthood. ’Tis not need
(The scarecrow unto mankind) that doth breed
Wiser conclusions in me, since I know
I’ve more to bear my charge than way to go;
Or had I not, I’d stop the spreading itch
Of craving more: so in conceit be rich;
But ’tis the God of nature who intends
And shapes my function for more glorious ends.”
Perhaps it was at this time too that Herrick wrote his Farewell to Sack, and although he returned both to sack and to poetry we should be wrong in imagining him as a “blind mouth,” using his office merely as a means of gain. He celebrated the births of Charles II and his brother in verse, perhaps with an eye to future royal favours, but no more than Chaucer’s good parson does he seem to have “run to London unto Seynte Poules” in search of the seventeenth century equivalent for a chauntry, and many of his poems show him living the life of a contented country clergyman, sharing the contents of bin and cruse with his poor parishioners, and jotting down sermon-notes in verse.
The great majority of Herrick’s poems cannot be dated, and it is idle to enquire which were written before his ordination and which afterwards. His conception of religion was medieval in its sensuousness, and he probably repeated the stages of sin, repentance and renewed assurance with some facility. He lived with an old servant, Prudence Baldwin, the “Prew” of many of his poems; kept a spaniel named Tracy, and, so says tradition, a tame pig. When his parishioners annoyed him he seems to have comforted himself with epigrams on them; when they slumbered during one of his sermons the manuscript was suddenly hurled at them with a curse for their inattention.
In the same year that Herrick was appointed to his country vicarage his mother died while living with her daughter, Mercy, the poet’s dearest sister (see 818), then for some time married to John Wingfield of Brantham in Suffolk (see 590), by whom she had three sons and a daughter, also called Mercy. His eldest brother, Thomas, had been placed with a Mr. Massam, a merchant, but as early as 1610 had retired to live a country life in Leicestershire (see 106). He appears to have married a wife named Elizabeth, whose loss Herrick laments (see 72). Nicholas, the next brother was more adventurous. He had become a merchant trading to the Levant, and in this capacity had visited the Holy Land (see 1100). To his wife Susanna, daughter of William Salter, Herrick addresses two poems (522 and 977). There were three sons and four daughters in this family, and Herrick wrote a poem to one of the daughters, Bridget (562), and an elegy on another, Elizabeth (376). When Mrs. Herrick died the bulk of her property was left to the Wingfields, but William Herrick received a legacy of £100, with ten pounds apiece to his two children, and a ring of twenty shillings to his wife. Nicholas and Robert were only left twenty-shilling rings, and the administration of the will was entrusted to William Herrick and the Wingfields. The will may have been the result of a family arrangement, and we have no reason to believe that the unequal division gave rise to any ill-feeling. Herrick’s address to “his dying brother, Master William Herrick” (186), shows abundant affection, and there is every reason to believe that it was addressed to the William who administered to Mrs. Herrick’s will.
While little nephews and nieces were springing up around him, Herrick remained unmarried, and frequently congratulates himself on his freedom from the yoke matrimonial. He imagined how he would bid farewell to his wife, if he had one (465), and wrote magnificent epithalamia for his friends, but lived and died a bachelor. When first civil troubles and then civil war cast a shadow over the land, it is not very easy to say how he viewed the contending parties. He was devoted to Charles and Henrietta Maria and the young Prince of Wales, and rejoiced at every Royalist success. Many also of his poems breathe the spirit of unquestioning loyalty, but in others he is less certain of kingly wisdom. Something, however, must be allowed for his evident habit of versifying any phrase or epigram which impressed him, and not all his poems need be regarded as expressions of his personal opinions. But with whatever doubts his loyalty was qualified, it was sufficiently obvious to procure his ejection from his living in 1648; and, making the best of his loss, he bade farewell to Dean Prior, shook the dust of “loathed Devonshire” off his feet, and returned gaily to London, where he appears to have discarded his clerical habit and to have been made abundantly welcome by his friends.
Free from the cares of his incumbency, and free also from the restraints it imposed, Herrick’s thoughts turned to the publication of his poems. As we have said, in his old Court-days these had found some circulation in manuscript, and in 1635 one of his fairy poems was printed, probably without his leave (see Appendix). In 1639 his poem (575) The Apparition of his Mistress calling him to Elysium was licensed at Stationers’ Hall under the title of His Mistress’ Shade, and it was included the next year in an edition of Shakespeare’s Poems (see Notes). On April 29, 1640, “The severall poems written by Master Robert Herrick,” were entered as to be published by Andrew Crook, but no trace of such a volume has been discovered, and it was only in 1648 that Hesperides at length appeared. Two years later upwards of eighty of the poems in it were printed in the 1650 edition of Witt’s Recreations, but a small number of these show considerable variations from the Hesperides versions, and it is probable that they were printed from the poet’s manuscript. Compilers of other miscellanies and song books laid Herrick under contribution, but, with the one exception of his contribution to the Lacrymæ Musarum in 1649, no fresh production of his pen has been preserved, and we know nothing further of his life save that he returned to Dean Prior after the Restoration (August 24, 1662), and that according to the parish register “Robert Herrick, Vicker, was buried ye 15th day October, 1674.”
Alfred W. Pollard
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55