9.30.2005

Of what worth is Robert Herrick?

That's the question on the table for my poetry class as we read through the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

I took the liberty of rewriting Herrick since I felt he took too many lines to say what he had to say:


"The Argument of His Book" [original]

Through lyric schmaltz and poems so cheeze ball,
I write of Hell ; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

***

"To the Sour Reader" [original]

If you don't like my crappy muck
of po'tic fluff, then you must suck!
The extreme scab take thee and thine for me.

***

"The Sour Reader to Robert Herrick" [this is the original]

Of all the dreck that you have writ,
I hope this is the worst of it.

I actually liked his ode to a sour reader--that's me! Every poet needs to write one of these (You don't like my stuff? That's because you suck!).

Like all poets of any stature, Robert Herrick is a dirty old man (isn't that why so many girls like poetry?). The best of his poems, "The Vine," has a last line worth including in the anthology. The rest of it is pretty good soft core.

Herrick's main strength appears to be closure, demonstrating William Butler Yeat's [and Donald Hall's] call for the finished poem to click like the lid on a perfectly made box. The concluding lines gain an originality over the rest--maybe Herrick suddenly pushed himself. His most famous work, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," might have been better served by chucking the luscious banality and getting as close as possible to "having lost but once your prime, / You may forever tarry," which carries the poem beyond itself. Perhaps he could have used the ending to launch into a better beginning, or stuck with something trim and neat.

Speaking of trimming and rewriting, while it changes the meaning utterly, wouldn't an Epicurean version of "To His Conscience" be at least more surprising if not so predictably reassuring?

Can I not sin, but thou wilt be
My private protonotary?
And wilt not thou with gold, be tied
To lay thy pen and ink aside?
So in the murk and tongueless night, now
Wanton I may be and make this vow:
I will not fear the judge or thee.
While I'm not trying to make Herrick heretical, I am trying to make him interesting. Maybe he could move from there, back to his original intent. He seems not willing to write himself into corners to discover daring methods of escape. (Can't you hear him turning in his grave? Upon his coffin, he scrapes with a finger bone, "Lord, make the sour bastard's scar extreme indeed!")

"Delight in Disorder" is something of an improvement over the progenitor "Still to Be Neat" by his most admired master, Ben Jonson. I liked "To Find God" as part of a series "impossible"-themed poems--even if inferior to John Donne's "Go and Catch a Falling Star" and especially to Andrew "Captain" Marvell's superb "To His Coy Mistress."