It is singular that the first great age of English lyric poetry should have been also the one great age of English dramatic poetry: but it is hardly less singular that the lyric school should have advanced as steadily as the dramatic school declined from the promise of its dawn. Born with Marlowe, it rose at once with Shakespeare to heights inaccessible before and since and for ever, to sink through bright gradations of glorious decline to its final and beautiful sunset in Shirley: but the lyrical record that begins with the author of “Euphues” and “Endymion” grows fuller if not brighter through a whole chain of constellations till it culminates in the crowning star of Herrick. Shakespeare’s last song, the exquisite and magnificent overture to “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” is hardly so limpid in its flow, so liquid in its melody, as the two great songs in “Valentinian”: but Herrick, our last poet of that incomparable age or generation, has matched them again and again. As a creative and inventive singer, he surpasses all his rivals in quantity of good work; in quality of spontaneous instinct and melodious inspiration he reminds us, by frequent and flawless evidence, who above all others must beyond all doubt have been his first master and his first model in lyric poetry — the author of “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”.
The last of his line, he is and will probably be always the first in rank and station of English song-writers. We have only to remember how rare it is to find a perfect song, good to read and good to sing, combining the merits of Coleridge and Shelley with the capabilities of Tommy Moore and Haynes Bayly, to appreciate the unique and unapproachable excellence of Herrick. The lyrist who wished to be a butterfly, the lyrist who fled or flew to a lone vale at the hour (whatever hour it may be) “when stars are weeping,” have left behind them such stuff as may be sung, but certainly cannot be read and endured by any one with an ear for verse. The author of the Ode on France and the author of the Ode to the West Wind have left us hardly more than a song a-piece which has been found fit for setting to music: and, lovely as they are, the fame of their authors does not mainly depend on the song of Glycine or the song of which Leigh Hunt so justly and so critically said that Beaumont and Fletcher never wrote anything of the kind more lovely. Herrick, of course, lives simply by virtue of his songs; his more ambitious or pretentious lyrics are merely magnified and prolonged and elaborated songs. Elegy or litany, epicede or epithalamium, his work is always a song-writer’s; nothing more, but nothing less, than the work of the greatest song-writer — as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist — ever born of English race. The apparent or external variety of his versification is, I should suppose, incomparable; but by some happy tact or instinct he was too naturally unambitious to attempt, like Jonson, a flight in the wake of Pindar. He knew what he could not do: a rare and invaluable gift. Born a blackbird or a thrush, he did not take himself (or try) to be a nightingale.
It has often been objected that he did mistake himself for a sacred poet: and it cannot be denied that his sacred verse at its worst is as offensive as his secular verse at its worst; nor can it be denied that no severer sentence of condemnation can be passed upon any poet’s work. But neither Herbert nor Crashaw could have bettered such a divinely beautiful triplet as this:—
“We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who with His sunshine and His showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers”.
That is worthy of Miss Rossetti herself: and praise of such work can go no higher.
But even such exquisite touches or tones of colour may be too often repeated in fainter shades or more glaring notes of assiduous and facile reiteration. The sturdy student who tackles his Herrick as a schoolboy is expected to tackle his Horace, in a spirit of pertinacious and stolid straightforwardness, will probably find himself before long so nauseated by the incessant inhalation of spices and flowers, condiments and kisses, that if a musk-rat had run over the page it could hardly be less endurable to the physical than it is to the spiritual stomach. The fantastic and the brutal blemishes which deform and deface the loveliness of his incomparable genius are hardly so damaging to his fame as his general monotony of matter and of manner. It was doubtless in order to relieve this saccharine and “mellisonant” monotony that he thought fit to intersperse these interminable droppings of natural or artificial perfume with others of the rankest and most intolerable odour: but a diet of alternate sweetmeats and emetics is for the average of eaters and drinkers no less unpalatable than unwholesome. It is useless and thankless to enlarge on such faults or such defects, as it would be useless and senseless to ignore. But how to enlarge, to expatiate, to insist on the charm of Herrick at his best — a charm so incomparable and so inimitable that even English poetry can boast of nothing quite like it or worthy to be named after it — the most appreciative reader will be the slowest to affirm or imagine that he can conjecture. This, however, he will hardly fail to remark: that Herrick, like most if not all other lyric poets, is not best known by his best work. If we may judge by frequency of quotation or of reference, the ballad of the ride from Ghent to Aix is a far more popular, more generally admired and accredited specimen of Mr. Browning’s work than “The Last Ride Together”— and “The Lost Leader” than “The Lost Mistress”. Yet the superiority of the less-popular poem is in either case beyond all question or comparison: in depth and in glow of spirit and of harmony, in truth and charm of thought and word, undeniable and indescribable. No two men of genius were ever more unlike than the authors of “Paracelsus” and “Hesperides”: and yet it is as true of Herrick as of Browning that his best is not always his best-known work. Everyone knows the song, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”; few, I fear, by comparison, know the yet sweeter and better song, “Ye have been fresh and green”. The general monotony of style and motive which fatigues and irritates his too-persevering reader is here and there relieved by a change of key which anticipates the note of a later and very different lyric school. The brilliant simplicity and pointed grace of the three stanzas to Œnone (“What conscience, say, is it in thee”) recall the lyrists of the Restoration in their cleanlier and happier mood. And in the very fine epigram headed by the words “Devotion makes the Deity” he has expressed for once a really high and deep thought in words of really noble and severe propriety. His “Mad Maid’s Song,” again, can only be compared with Blake’s; which has more of passionate imagination, if less of pathetic sincerity.
A. C. Swinburne.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55