It is a blessing to those who live today that over the years men and women have written poetry. In some poetry have been words reminding those who read it of the wonderful world in which they breathe and the necessity to live life. One of the writers of such poetry was Robert Herrick. Herrick used a lyrical style, unappreciated in his day, to write poetry that captured the very essence of carpe diem-to seize the day. Many of his poems were published in a volume entitled Hesperides. The most famous of those poems, is To the Virgins, to make much of Time. By examining the work of Herrick-To the Virgins in particular, his life, and the times he lived in its possible to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of what he was writing about. Specifically the purpose is to examine how Herricks use of imagery with his words contributes to the lyricism of the poems.
And this same flower that smiles today
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
That age is best which is the first,
But being spent, the worse, and worst
For, having lost but once your prime,
To the Virgins, to make much of Time is a poem decidedly representative of the poetry of Herrick. In particular, notice the use of nouns heavy on imagery. Such as rosebud, a-flying, lamp of heaven, and setting sun. Each of these words and phrases bring to mind specific images.
This poem was one of the 1,130 in the collection that Herrick had published as part of Hesperides in 1648. To the Virgins is representative of many of Herricks best poetry. It uses extensive imagery, especially with flowers. What it is most representative of it is how it is lyrical. There is ample evidence that Herrick intended many of his poems to be set to music including To the Virgins. A. E. Gilmore wrote an essay on Herrick and the lyricism in his poetry. He points out, To the Virgins is written entirely in ballad form. One can attest to this virtue by singing To the Virgins or To Anthea to the tune of (Ben) Johnsons Drinke to me, onely, since that most popular of all seventeenth-century songs is also written in ballad measure.(68)
I sing of Times trans-shifting, and I write
How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.
The first poem in Hesperides is The Argument of his Book. This poem shows what Herrick is able to do with the imagery. With his words he is able to write about the idea of death. T.G.S. Cain points this out in the following quote taken from an essay he wrote dealing exclusively with the way Herrick continually brings the passage of time up in his poems. Of all the subjects to which he draws attention in the introductory poem to Hesperides, The Argument of his Book, none so dominates Herricks work as the one which he calls there Times trans-shifting. It is a subject to which he returns again and again in his attempt to come to terms with the inevitability of human transience and death.(103)
Again both of the poems-To the Virgins and The Argument of his Book-contain two common characteristics. They both use visual imagery in a way that references the idea of carpe diem, and are written in a lyrical form. That is to say that both of his poems-and most of the rest of poems in Hesperides-could be put to music and sung aloud. By writing about a subject of such importance-the passage of time, and doing so in a way that is both pleasing to a reader or a listener Herrick makes a significant contribution to the world of poetry.
An easy reaction to reading Herricks poetry is that it is short. Short being a relative term, but for the most part this is an accurate statement. Most likely this is the result of the ability to say a great deal-even about complex subjects-using powerful words that are strong in imagery. The brevity makes possible the lyricism since the words have to be put in a way that can be set to music.
It is worth noting that even in a poem the length of To the Virgins that each of the stanzas could legitimately hold up as individual poems.
It is no surprise that comparisons are made between the short verse that Herrick uses and the short poems that Japanese writers use in writing haiku. While having few words can be taken by some as lacking substance, the Japanese have always appreciated being able to use a few strong words to say a great deal. Shonosuke Ishii wrote an essay comparing Herricks poetry to that of Japanese haiku.
Ishii says, Herricks fewer words are often more pleasing to the Japanese sensibility than other poets eloquence or verbosity. Although even Herrick is considerably more loquacious than those Japanese poets who work with only seventeen or thirty-one syllables, to the Japanese he does seem to appreciate the virtues of modesty and restraint.(193-194) This can only be accomplished through selective word choice. Good examples in the poems previously mentioned are: times trans-shifting, and Old time still a-flying.
Herricks choice to write poems that could also be songs might have been a result of his life as a minister. He attended St. Johns College for boys where he was required to sing hymns daily. The choice of subject matter in the poems would be the result of the life experiences Herrick had growing up. According to the research of Sir Edmund Gosse, Herrick spent his early life by the river-side, going to bath in the summer with crowds of other youths and soft-smoothed virgins, up as far as Richmond.(Gosse 127). In 1607 Herrick was apprenticing as a goldsmith before going to St. Johnss. He was very poor and had to make requests of his rich uncle in order to pay for his books. His past is worth looking at because of the possibility of understanding where the words he uses are coming from. That is to say what the images are that he is writing about. The imagery of virgins bathing as seen by a young boy might be different than merely a random narrative voice.
J.B. Broadbent wrote in an essay for the Times Literary Supplement, the world of poetry can never forget the work of (Robert) Herrick. His use of visual imagery, in connection with ballads so central to his work, make him a figure of utmost importance.(p. 836). If the idea of less is more is correct then the numerous short poems of Herrick remain a significant contribution to everyone who reads poetry. In his words are the reminders to seize the day and to notice the beauty in life-such as the flowers and the colors. By using a style of lyricism made potent by sharp visual imagery, Herrick was able to say a great deal about the wonderful world in which he lived and breathed.
Times trans-shifting:Herrick in Meditation by T.G.S. Cain