06 December 2011

Redefining Sexuality in the Poetry of Robert Herrick

Seth D. Clarke
ENG 401
Dr. Laam

Love, lust, sexuality, sensuality, the kiss, these are recurring themes in the poetry of Robert Herrick. But, often his poetry is held up against that of other poets of his era, such as Donne, and Carew, and Herrick's is seen lacking. In the words of J.B Broadbent, “all Herrick's sweets are the same, and too sweet, pretty lewdness is boring. People sense something wrong, a lack of genuine sexuality” (Draper et al 368). But this reading, of Herrick's poetry being mere lewdness empty of deeper meaning or lacking genuine, masculine sexuality, this is a shallow reading that misses much of the true thrust of Herrick's work. His poetry, I would argue, approaches sexuality and seduction from a different angle, with a different purpose. Where Donne was clever and witty, and Carew was deliberately graphic, Herrick expresses, not innocence, but a different kind of sexuality, one that is tangled up with the woman, with love, with poetry itself. Herrick seduces, in his poetry, but he does so on his own terms, using language itself, redefining the kiss. His poetry is aesthetic, not about sexuality for sexuality's sake than about expressing the beauty of the experience, the loveliness of the woman; he expresses this through his verse, which is deliberately crafted to have the most effect. Paul Jenkins, in “Rethinking What Moderation Means to Robert Herrick” writes: “The notion of being tasteful in art and amorous matters is central to Herrick's poems, with the metaphor's literal source in appetite clearly understood. (380)” The tastefulness itself, however, is a ploy, a tactic used to gain the most effect, as Jenkins further explains: “Moderation is invoked, not for ethical reasons, but for it's partial role in an aesthetic formula—careful carelessness—which Herrick believes will produce the most satisfying sensations...Herrick's desire to have artful satisfaction through artful restraint is partly an aesthetic commitment to fineness...” (380). Thus we see that Herrick is dedicated to artful, aesthetic poetry that invokes powerful physical and mental response, not through graphic—not to say gratuitous—language, but delicate and purposeful sensuality.

One of the most frequently examined poems by Herrick is “Upon Julia's Clothes,” and this poem has been discussed by critics beyond enumeration, most famously, perhaps, by C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard in a back-and-forth dispute in publication. Lewis, for example, discussed the idea of the poet's perception of silk itself in that poem, and the way in which the reader's sensitivities to the lustrous, sensuous qualities of silk are communicated through the poet's language, but this is tertiary to whether “the poet's character is part of my direct experience of the poem; or whether it is simply one of later and unpoetical results” (338). The poet's skill, Mr. Lewis is implying, and later in the essay directly stating, is seen in the reader's immediate grasp of the feel of silk against skin, and how sensual that experience is. We are at first unable to see the skill of the poet because we are taken up with the imagery and tactile sensations being communicated. “I see that 'liquefaction' is an admirably chosen word,” Lewis writes, “but only because I have already found myself seeing silk as I never saw it before...to account for the unusual vividness of that idea, I may then analyse the poem and conclude 'It is the word liquefaction that does the trick'...Perception of the poet's skill comes later, and could not come at all unless I had first and foremost apprehended the silk” (338). C. S. Lewis' idea here is of vital importance: the poet's skill is not always directly obvious, at first glance. But when we step back and look at the effect he has on our senses, on the idea that we are able to immediately conjure up tactile memories of silk against our own skin, visual memories of seeing a woman's body underneath silk, of the liquid manner of silk in the light...truly, the word liquefaction is the only appropriate word for it. This skill then becomes apparent, when we see how the poet has, in one single word, breathed so much of reality into his poem, and in so doing, created a very sensual image:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O, how that glittering taketh me! (Rumrich and Chaplin 214)

Each word is chosen for a specific poetic purpose, and that purpose is to communicate the poet's own rapturous delight in seeing Julia's body moving underneath the silks. We are given a glimpse at Julia through Herrick's eyes; the very visuality of the poem is a testimony to the skill of the poet. His poetry is not so libido-driven as Carew or Jonson or Milton, but it doesn't need to be, for Herrick's poetry operates according to his own ideals and aesthetics. Tillyard disagrees with Lewis, on several points. I need not enumerate the totality of their debate, for all that is salient to my purposes is Tillyard's statement:
What I cannot accept in Mr. Lewis's interpretation of the poem is the value he puts on 'things'. I do not say that the poem does not tell us something, but I do say that what it tells us about silk has a very subordinate share in the poem's total meaning. Silk may have considerable importance as a means, as an end it is negligible...for before the silk is made vivid to us, we are given through the excited repetition of the words 'then, then', the statement of the speaker's excitement at the sight of his Julia in motion. (Draper et. al. 339)
I do not believe it hypocritical or paradoxical to state that I agree with both authors' ideas. The importance of the 'things' in Lewis' interpretation is indeed central to the poem, for the subject is not so much Julia herself, directly, but Julia's clothes, so here Lewis is correct in his reading; Tillyard's point is also well-taken, however, in that the silk itself is only superficially the point of the poem. The silks are the means by which the speaker chooses to communicate a very complex visual experience: it is the liquid movement of the clothes themselves, as well as the vibration of the body beneath them—“perhaps moving in little horizontal eddies, and he is captivated,” (339) as Tillyard so eloquently puts it—that impels the poem, it is these elements working in harmony through the poet's deft pen-work that makes “Upon Julia's Clothes” so deliciously sensual.

The kiss, in the poetry of Herrick's time, held a special place. It could be an innocent pleasure, or it could be a gateway, an open door to sex. Herrick's poems on kissing seem to bridge the two, as in “The Kiss. A Dialogue”:

I. Among thy fancies tell me this,
What is this thing we call a kiss?
2. I shall resolve ye what it is.
It is a creature born and bred
Between the lips (all cherry-red),
By love and warm desires fed.
Chor. And makes more soft the bridal bed. (1-7 www.luminarium.org)

In this poem, the kiss is defined as a “a creature born and bred,” a thing that needs feeding; kissing, here, is not a door, or an innocent pleasure, but a living being that must be taken care of, “by love and warm desires fed.” In the epigram “A Kiss” Herrick further elucidates his definition: “What is a kiss? Why this, as some approve:/The sure, sweet cement, glue, and lime of love” (www.luminarium.org).  In this little poem, a kiss is the very mortar of love itself. William Kerrigan, writing in Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick, says: “Kissing is consummation's supplement, differing from orgasm in its capacity for limitless increase,” (Rumrich and Chaplin 855). Herrick would agree with this summation, I think. This does not merely divorce kissing from the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short act of intercourse” (855), as Kerrigan puts it, but gives value to the kiss for its own sake, and does not in so doing devalue sex itself. The kiss is an exploration, a commune of souls through the economy of lip to lip, and often flits away from lips to other places: “Then to the chin, the cheek, the ear,/It frisks and flies, now here, now there,” (“The Kiss. A Dialogue” 12-13 www.luminarium.org). Herrick's poem “To Anathea (III)” perhaps most openly beckons his mistress to bed for amatory purposes:

Let's kiss afresh, as when we first begun.
But yet, though love likes well such scenes as these,
There is an act that will more fully please:
Kissing and glancing, soothing, all make way
But to the acting of this private play:
Name it I would ; but, being blushing red, The rest I'll speak when we meet both in bed. (8-14 www.luminarium.org)

And even here, directly speaking of the sexual act, Herrick forebears to directly name the act, to write it, but rather falls back on blushing tact. Their kissing is a portal to love-making, but they are not kissing as mere foreplay, for as the pair adds kiss upon kiss, “a thousand up a million” (6), then they “Treble that million” (7), and when they've shared a million kisses, the speaker invites Anathea to “kiss afresh, as when we first begun” (8); this is not the invitation to simply be done with the preamble and get to the sex, this is a poem celebrating the kiss for the kiss' sake. Sex is implied but explicitly not named—making sex itself sacred, not a fit subject for verse. The kiss, however, was a topic Herrick spent many lines defining and exploring and expressing. His definition flows easily between innocent pleasure and portal to sex; in moving so subtly between the two extremes, Herrick's view of kissing may be seen as enveloping both to create a third, and new definition, one in which the kiss is an entity of its own, not sexual, and not innocent, but both and neither at once.

All of this discussion of kissing and sensuality versus sexuality takes place within the context of Herrick's poetry. This is an important feature to remember, that this discussion of sexuality is the product of poetry. I would argue that perhaps poetry itself, the act of writing these poems was in itself an act of sexuality for Herrick. He didn't overtly discuss sex in the way that Carew did in “The Rapture,” nor did he cloak his sexuality in clever misdirection and intentional ambiguity in the way that Donne did, but sexuality was not lacking, for all of that. Achsah Guibbory writes: “For Herrick, poetry is the product of a heat which is almost sexual, and his poems themselves become objects of his love, capable of arousing a delightful excitement that is similar to sexual passion and possibly superior to it” (Draper et. al. 392). The poems themselves, in expressing through diction and subject Herrick's sensuality, hint at a more explicit sexuality, via methods as subtle as meter itself. Consider “The Night-piece, To Julia”:

Then, Julia, let me woo thee,
Thus, thus to come unto me ;
And when I shall meet
Thy silv'ry feet,
My soul I'll pour into thee. (16-20)

These lines nowhere suggest even so physical an act as kissing, but there is a sensuality to them, nonetheless, found in the rhythm of the lines, in the staggered meter of the lines, in the repetition of “thus, thus” (17), a pulling of Julia towards himself. There is a kind of thrusting rhythm to these lines that suggests sex (to my ears): it is in the simple words—no word is more than two syllables—that pelt the ear in soft, lilting waves, rushing on and on, slowly and methodically; there are no jarring words, no harsh consonants, suggesting a susurrus, a sighing in Julia's ear. I have applied this reading to only the last stanza, but it lays neatly over the whole; look at lines 6-8: “No will-o'-the-wisp mis-light thee;/Nor snake or slow-worm bite thee:/But on, on thy way.” There it is again, the soft, sibilant words, the repetition of “on, on” in line 8. The fabric of the poem itself is the sexuality, and unlike the act of sex, the poem lasts forever. Guibbory again: “Good poetry is like an eternally youthful woman: she never loses her vital powers, and she offers to her lovers a very special opportunity to transcend the ruins of time” (Draper et. al. 394). This positioning of the sexuality within the poem itself, rather than the more obvious subject matter, is a direct choice on Herrick's part. By subsuming the sexuality into the structure and form of the poem, Herrick is choosing to elevate aesthetics over tradition, or custom. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a lecture on Herrick's poetry wrote: “He delights in this victory of genius over custom. He delights to show the muse is not nice or squeamish, but can tread with firm and elastic step in sordid places and take no more pollution than the sun-beam which shines alike in the carrion and the violet” (313). Emerson is stating more eloquently than I have thus far, that Herrick's poetry eschews the tradition of other poets, classical and contemporary (to himself) and instead uses language, uses poetry to shine a light into his own sexuality without being polluted by too-graphically depicting the process. He is not “nice or squeamish” but he is honest and unafraid to delve into the deepest pools of his nature. “[Herrick's] talent lies in his mastery of all the strength and lighter graces of language,” Emerson continues, “so that his verse is all music, and, what he writes in the indulgence of the most exquisite fancy is at the same time expressed with as perfect simplicity as the language of conversation” (313). Herrick does not use exaggerated technique to dredge up this expressive sensualism, but relies on his broad command of language to do the work for him.

Kerrigan says, in the opening to his essay, Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick that, “in a tradition stretching from Edmund Gosse to Gorden Braden...something major and male is absent from Herrick's erotic verse” (Draper et. al. 851), and further quotes F.W. Moorman as complaining of a lack of true fire and passion in Herrick's poetry. There may be something to these complaints, in that, as explored above, Herrick doesn't discuss sex in openly erotic terms in the way sexual poetry from the seventeenth century usually did; but consider the words of Thomas Bailey Aldritch:

Of passion, in the deeper sense, Herrick has little or none, Here are no 'tears from from the depths of some divine despair,' no probings into the tragic heart of man, no insight that goes much farther than the pathos of a cowslip on a maiden's grave. The tendrils of his verse reach up to the light, and love the warmer side of the garden wall. But the reader who does not detect the seriousness under the lightness misreads Herrick...He must be accepted on his own terms. (324)

Aldritch's words convey a basic truth about Herrick's poetry that his detractors may have missed: it does not grasp for weighty metaphysical truths of the universe, nor is it burdened by maudlin maunderings on tragic love affairs. He may place a clutch of flowers on a lover's grave after she is gone, Aldritch implies, but he won't waste a hundred stanzas decrying the epic nature of their fateful love. Herrick's poetry, rather, vividly portrays simple subjects in quick, still-life vignettes, such as these verses, “The Vision to Electra:”

I dreamed we both were in a bed
Of roses, almost smothered:
The warmth and sweetness had me there
Made lovingly familiar;
But that I heard thy sweet breath say,
Faults done by night will blush by day;
I kissed thee, panting, and I call
Night to the record! that was all.
But, ah! if empty dreams so please,
Love, give me more such nights as these. (www.luminarium.org)

Ten lines, containing no clever conceits or epic similes, but they convey a scene with elegant economy. The poem describes a dream, a vision, and the speaker is communicating it to Electra, and in so doing inviting her with subtle force to join him in bed and recreate the vision. They are musical, like a song, or a magic spell conjuring in a mirror a scene from the speaker's memory or fantasy. In the words of Richard J. Ross: “The lyricist's musicianship, his mastery of suggestion in the mere rhythm of sounds, brings into play the instinctive feeling always accompanying objective recognition to re-create an experience in depth...But depth in a poem, even a simple one, comes from more than musical moods, it comes from a perfect wedding...of insinuating moods and intentional tones...” (Draper et. al. 370). The power of Herrick's poetry is not in what he says, but in what he suggests: “overtly he describes beautiful silks vibrantly becoming to a lively woman,” Ross says, in discussing “Upon Julia's Clothes,” “Very subtly he also suggests the discarding of silks...His explicit thought is of art clothing the natural” (370).

Herrick's poetry is undeniably sensual. Critics, in the sense of detractors, have said that he lacked masculinity, or passion for woman but rather for the act, or for voyeurism. Robert Southey said, “Of all our poets this man appears to have had the coarsest mind. Without being intentionally obscene, he is thoroughly filthy...” (314). So either he was not filthy enough, or too much so. Somewhere between these contradictions is the truth: Herrick was neither. He balanced on a fine line between them, expressing sexuality and sensuality both, never crossing the line into graphic depictions of sex but rather conveying his passion for a woman's beauty and his desire for her through unexpected channels. The best poetry, a teacher once told me, portrays something old in a new way. A kiss is just a kiss, but in the hands of Herrick, a kiss becomes more. It takes on a life of its own, grows to be a distinct entity separate from foreplay or sex, but inextricably linked to both. He can weave a spell around the reader with simple language, using meter and rhythm and diction to lull and pacify while suggesting the rhythms of sex. He can make a poem about the silks that cling to his lover's body express his lustful admiration for her as a woman and his desire to consummate that passion. Herrick's poetry does more than describe a kiss, or a breast, it redefines sexuality in poetry, it shows how words themselves can be sexual without being lewd, how tastefulness can be masculine.

Annotated Bibliography

Draper, James P., and James E. Person, Jr., ED. Literature and Criticism from 1400-1800, vol. 13, pp. 308-412. Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1990
This publication contains criticism on every poet during the time frame listed in the title. The critical essays are in chronological order of publication, from the poet's contemporaries to modern critics. Most of the essays in the volume are excerpts from longer works, either articles in journals or stand-alone books. Each essay contains a one- or two-sentence abstract summing the main thesis of the article, so that the essays can be quickly scanned for suitability of subject and then later perused at leisure.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Ben Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Wotton,” Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1833-1836, vol. 1, ed. Stephen Whicher and Robert Spiller, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1959, pp. 337-55.

Aldritch, Thomas Bailey. “Robert Herrick: the Man and the Poet” in The Century, vol. LIX, no. 5, March 1900, pp 678-88.

Southey, Robert. “Collections for History of English Literature and Poetry,” Southey's Common-Place Book, Vol. 4, ed. John Wood Warter, Reeves, and Turner, 1876, pp. 259-351

Lewis, C. S. “Chapter 1,” The Personal Heresy: A Controversy, E. M. W. Tillyard and C. S. Lewis, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, pp. 31-48.
In this excerpt from Lewis and Tillyard's debate, Lewis argues that Herrick's poetry is simple and sensuous, that the poetry must be read on a surface level to appreciate the deeper skill behind it. He discusses the usage of words such as 'clothes' and 'liquefaction' and their context within the poem. He also explicates the idea of the silk itself in “Upon Julia's Clothes,” which is the subject of this essay and the response by Tillyard. Lewis' primary argument is one of perception being the primary requirement useful in understanding Herrick's poetry, and that the person of the poet must be absent from the poem.

Tillyard, E. M. W. “Chapter II,” The Personal Heresy: A Controversy, E. M. W. Tillyard and C. S. Lewis, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, pp 31-48
This response to Lewis' argument warns that it would be too easy, in using Lewis' interpretation, to oversimplify the case. Tillyard suggests that the value of the silks, the description of which Lewis claims to be the the heart and force of the poem, is, for Tillyard, less important than the use of the description to convey a more complex theme. The speaker is excited, for Tillyard, in a way that Lewis misses. There is a personality in the poem, which Lewis claims there is not.

Ross, Richard J. “Herrick's Julia in Silks,” Essays in Criticism, vol. XV, no. 2, April 1965, pp. 171-80.

Broadbent, J. B. “The Metaphysical in Decadence” Poetic Love,” Chatto and Windus, 1964, pp. 238- 65.

Jenkins, Paul R. “Rethinking What Moderation Means Robert Herrick,” ELH, vol. 39, no. 1, March 1972, pp. 49-65.

Guibbory, Achsah. “ 'No Lust Theres to Like to Poetry,' ” “Trust to Good Verses,” Herrick Tercentenary Verses, ed. Roger B. Rollin and J. Max Patrick, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978, pp.79-87

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