Anglo-Catholic Pagan: St. Robert Herrick
Corn Doll by John Benjamin Stone, 19th c.
As far as I'm concerned, Robert Herrick is a saint. He may not be known for his piety or his sanctity, but, God love him, he may be the most human poet ever. If ever I could, I would gladly live in 17th century Devonshire as a member of his parish. So, in the spirit of All Saints Day, here is an excerpt from my chapter on Herrick and the community at Little Gidding that appears in my book The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy/Philosophical Essays on Poetry and Theology.
The critical history of Herrick’s folk religion embodies all of the problems of the religious nature of his verse. Is it Roman pagan? Nostalgically Catholic? Laudian Anglican? Does Herrick celebrate folk customs in his verse that he observed in his Devonshire parish? Or is he celebrating the Caroline court’s dilettantish and performative appropriation of all things pastoral? The real problem, I think, is in trying to pin Herrick down to a particular faction. His vision of Christianity is bigger than that—but it doesn’t include everyone. In particular, Herrick’s evocation of a communitarian spirit in his verse challenges the Puritan sourpusses who not only disliked feasting and frolic but wanted to—and eventually did— create laws that did their best to eradicate any and all delights connected to the Christian year. As Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch tells the pompous Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”1 Many precisians, indeed, attempted to curtail the enjoyment of cakes and ale connected with merrymaking. Upon coming into power they erased as much merriment from the English year as possible—including the removal of Christmas as a Christian feast and holy day, which ruined in its wake the merry season between Christmas and Twelfth Night and also brought down maypoles and church ales in a ghastly resurgence of the same ethos inherent to the Visitation of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century.2 Ultimately, “upon 10 June 1647 Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and all other Church feasts ceased to exist in England by both secular law and ecclesiastical ruling.”3 (It was in 1647, of course, that Herrick was ejected from his living at Dean Prior.) Puritans not only disliked these things because of their own anxieties about merriment: they especially hated them because they believed these observances to be “popish” and full of superstition.
Connecting merriment to Catholicism—and thereby to the worst sort of paganism—had become a pretty standard Puritan trope by the mid-seventeenth century. The Puritan controversialist Thomas Hall (1610–1665) plays on this theme in Funebria Floræ (published in three editions, 1660–1661). His zealous vitriol is patent:
“So that I would debauch a people, and draw them from God and his worship to superstition and Idolatry, I would take this course: I would open this gap to them, they should have Floralia and Saturnalia, they should have feast upon feast (as ’tis in Popery) they should have Wakes to prophane the Lords-day, they should have May-Games, and Christmas-revels, with dancing, drinking, whoring, potting, piping, gaming, till they were made dissolute, and fit to receive any superstition, and easily drawn to bee of any, or of no Religion: And this was the practice of the late Prelates, when they were bringing in Popery by the head and shoulders (as is made apparent to the world out of their own writings) they first caused the book of sports to bee read in all Churches for the prophaning of the Sabbath (a lesson that people can learn too fast without a book) that so they might fit the people the better for the swallowing of those superstitious innovations, which shortly after followed.”4
One can imagine the prelate Robert Herrick responding—enthusiastically— with “A toast!” This is precisely the function of his poetry.
Herrick’s poetry, of course, is widely acknowledged as celebrating the carnival aspects of folk and religious life, even to the point where some question his religious sincerity, as if Christianity were all about melancholy and self-abnegation and antithetical to fun and procreative activity.5 It may be for some, but not for everyone. Certainly not for Herrick. Indeed, many a critic exemplifies the early modern Puritan enthusiasm for a joy-killing Christianity even when that critic happens to be an agnostic or atheist.
But the central feature of Herrick’s festal tone rests in his reliance on ritual and its role in binding communities together. It is with this in mind that the ordered disorder of Hesperides needs to be considered. As the Tudor wholesale extermination of Catholicism had in the sixteenth century, during and after the Civil War the Puritan zeal for reforming the reform and abolishing even the least traces of what might be consider “popish” following Archbishop Laud’s partial retrieval of tradition was, in essence, a project dedicated to the disruption of community, a program devoted to the “divide and conquer and demoralize” methodology which modern states have ever since utilized as a template for “best practices.”
Many critics, of course, have already addressed Herrick’s interest in community, and none so comprehensively as Achsah Guibbory. Certainly, some have called her assessment into question—all interpretation is, after all, contingent—but her argument bears up remarkably well after almost twenty years. And while I don’t have much to add to Guibbory’s masterful contextualization of Herrick’s preoccupation with community, I do think it necessary to add a few thoughts in consideration of Herrick’s worldview in the light of communitarianism.
The term “communitarianism” is, admittedly, more than a trifle anachronistic when applied to Herrick’s historical moment. But, nonetheless, I think it an apt one. The social pressures applied by a mixture of a creeping nascent capitalism—which had concerned Thomas More in Utopia6 during the reign of Henry VIII—and what could be called a kind of “soft totalitarianism” (exemplified by both the Tudor reforms and the reforms imposed by Parliament during and after the Civil War) awakened in Herrick the desire to (re)affirm the sacredness—sublime at times, ridiculous at others—of what was being lost. In this, Herrick’s poetry has much to say to postmodern communitarianism.
Communitarianism asserts a strong critique of modernity, a modernity in its infancy when Herrick lived. And the poet was amazingly prescient in seeing where it would lead and what was in danger of being lost:
“Lost to moderns are the manifest answers to existential questions provided by embeddedness with kin, culture, and place. Lost are pre-modern certainties of everyday rituals and known obligations. Lost is the intrinsic value of work, the sacredness of object and place, the natural rhythms of day and season. Lost also are the intimacy and trust generated from repeated face-to-face interactions in a society in which relationships are dense and multi-stranded.”7
These are the things Herrick simultaneously celebrates and mourns in his verse, as he does in the melancholy strains that complete the otherwise celebratory “Corinna’s going a Maying” (H-178):
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’er be found againe:
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying. (lines 63–70)
Herrick’s uses of carpe diem, then, are not only warnings about a lost moment, but of a lost age.
Charles Taylor, for one, has emphasized the importance of communitas as an element of human flourishing seriously compromised by the various reform movements, by the Enlightenment, and by all that goes by the name of “modernity.” Communitas is found in the sacred (liturgy, preaching, communal prayer, pilgrimage), in the profane (carnival in all of its manifestations) and where both meet and coalesce in the life of the parish: in religious festivals, the “good magic” of blessings and sacramentals, and in the myriad ways in which the Church year intersects with the progression of the seasons and the agricultural cycle. Communitas, furthermore,
“is the intuition we all share that, beyond the way we relate to each other through our diversified coded roles, we also are a community of many-sided human beings, fundamentally equal, who are associated together. It is this underlying community which breaks out in moments of reversal or transgression, and which gives legitimacy to the power of the weak.” 8
Communitas, then, seeing that it encapsulates not only the variety of human affiliations in the living of life as well as in the liturgical and agricultural cycles, is a thoroughly cosmological reality. Though certainly not the intent, the Protestant Reformation effectively destroyed any integral communitas:
“Reform comes to be seen as a serious business, brooking no alternatives. There is no more separate sphere of the ‘spiritual’ where one may go to pursue a life of prayer outside the saeculum; and nor is there the other alternative, between order and anti-order, which Carnival represented. There is just this one relentless order of right thought and action, which must occupy all social and personal space.”9
This is exactly what transpired during the Civil War and the zeal of such reform no doubt contributed significantly to Herrick’s ejection from Dean Prior. He was not alone in being harmed by a rage for reformation. As Michael Walzer has observed, “Calvinist saintliness, after all, has scarred us all.”10
Communitas is, more than obviously, central to Herrick’s religion as well as his poetry. This is why his collection is such a mélange composed of acerbic epigrams, poems celebrating love and fertility, religious verse, poems of self-parody, epithalamion, eulogy, prayer. His collection is a body of work that, by his own admission, represents a “mixt Religion…. Part Pagan, part Papisticall,”11 comprised of Laudian Anglicanism, pre-Reformation English Catholicism, folk and fairy traditions, and pagan Rome: these are things that characterize communitas, what Taylor has called a “multi-speed religion” characteristic of pre-Reformation Catholicism. Communitas is not univocal, but multifarious, messy, teaming with life and variety. This is what Herrick represents and why his verse, both Hesperides and Noble Numbers, stands as such an achievement. This is also why his collection’s disordered order could be arranged in no other way, and why he prefaces it with
The Argument of his Book
I Sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-Flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,
Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.
I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse
By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.
I sing of Dewes, of Raines, and piece by piece
Of Balme, of Oyle, of Spice, and Amber-gris.
I sing of Time’s trans-shifting; and I write
How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.
I write of Groves, of Twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all. (H-1)
Michael's latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1 From The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 2.3.115–16.
2 Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 205–12.
3 Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, 212.
4 Thomas Hall, Funebria Floræ, the Downfall of May-Games… 3rd edition, corrected (London, 1661), 13–14.
5 This is the case with much earlier criticism, as with Swardson, for example, who writes of the poet that “we are dealing with a Christian poet who felt the sense of opposition between his poetry and his religion, as so many poets of Herrick’s century did” (Swardson, Poetry and the Fountain of Light, 42). Such an assessment would probably have moved the poet to respond with an acerbic epigram. Creaser is in general agreement with Swardson. See his “Jocund his Muse was,” 45ff.
6 “…even some abbots though otherwise holy men, are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury, without doing any good to society, no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive evil. For they leave no land free for the plow: they enclose every acre for pasture; they destroy houses and abolish towns, keeping only the churches, and those for sheep barns…. So your island, which seemed especially fortunate in this matter, will be ruined by the crass avarice of a few.” Thomas More, Utopia, trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams, revised, 2nd ed. Norton Critical Editions in the History of Ideas (New York: W.W. Norton & Company1992), 12–13.
7 Charles Heying, “Autonomy vs. Solidarity: Liberal, Totalitarian and Communitarian Traditions,” Administrative Theory & Praxis 21, no. 1 (March 1999): 39–50, at 40.
8 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard/Belknap Press, 2007), 49.
9 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 266.
10 Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), vii.
11 “The Fairie Temple: or, Oberons Chappell. Dedicated to Master John Merifield, Counsellor at Law” (H-223), lines 23 and 25.