Julia D. Chaffe
"Robert Herrick’s ‘The Vine’ is full of imagery representing sexual repression, domination, and control over the mind and body." So says Mary McCarrick in her poem analysis published on Western Michigan University's English 640 website. McCarrick gives a fair assessment of the poem, even though she carries with her all the excess weight of a post-Freudian culture where everyone secretly desires his mother and hides some embarrassing fetish or fixation. However, McCarrick fails entirely to consider the insistence of the poet that the ultimate object of his poetry is to " sing... / Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all" ("Argument", ll. 13-14). If Herrick’s purpose in "The Vine" is to exploit the object of his affection, it becomes difficult to reconcile the circumstance of the poem with his assertion that he presents us with poetry that is wholly innocent in its images. The critical issue arises: how can Herrick hope to have heaven by playing the role of the lecherous man? In attempting to reconcile this paradox, the reader comes away from Herrick with a furrowed brow, a splitting headache, and the sneaking suspicion that Herrick is playing with the language. Naturally, the inquiring mind turns to the critics.
Unfortunately, the bulk of critical analysis available on Herrick leaves the reader no more enlightened than when she began. Many of the available critical texts focus on biographical incidences in Herrick’s life that supposedly figure in his works. Frederic Moorman* traces a shift in the 17th century mindset begun by Jonson and Donne’s critiques of Petrarchan sonneteers, and the subsequent impact this had on Herrick’s poetry (155-264). Others, such as Graydon Regenos*, George Scott*, and Leah Marcus*, delve into the classical roots of Herrick’s work and the apparent infatuation Herrick had for the likes of Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Catullus, and Martial. Taken as a body of information, these biographical criticisms are interesting, but they fail to reveal the essence of Herrick’s poetry. Equally interesting is L. E. Semler’s* topical examination of the Mannerist aesthetic in Herrick’s work. However, Semler’s account also fails to offer illumination into Herrick’s artistry. Suffering from the vague impression that T. S. Eliot is somehow responsible for the lack of cohesion in Herrick’s critics, the despairing reader stumbles into Hesperides by way of the hieroglyph.
The concept of the hieroglyph is the central binding force that joins the seemingly disparate and disorderly array of poems contained in Hesperides. According to Joseph Summers* and the New English Dictionary, the hieroglyph is "a figure, device, or sign having some hidden meaning; a secret or enigmatical symbol; an emblem" (256). The word evolved from the Greek hieros, meaning "sacred", and glyphein, meaning "to carve out". Thus, a hieroglyph translates as "sacred carving". Ronald Berman* astutely points out in "Herrick’s Secular Poetry" that the 20th century mindset often misreads Herrick’s sensual poems as mere eroticism and not as the complex emblematic structure that he intended (530). He goes on to assert, "In all of the Hesperides there is a highly intellectual opposition or tension between the sensual life and the Christian view of that life. . .[Herrick] is. . .very much concerned with the play of values between eternal and earthly love" (531). Berman illustrates this point by discussing the hieroglyph of a kiss in Herrick’s poetry. Not only is the kiss depicting the fallen condition of humanity, but it conversely hearkens back to the innocent sensuality of the Garden prior to the fall (533). What Berman neglects to explain in his article is the hieroglyph of overtly sexual material and gruesome depictions of death contained in Hesperides, and how these tie into Herrick’s images as hieroglyphics of a deeper meaning and understanding.
Although much has been said about the significance of "The Argument of His Book," Herrick enthusiasts agree that one cannot read Hesperides without keeping the tenets of his "Argument" ever present in one’s mind. The first four lines of the "Argument" establish Herrick’s participation in the pastoral tradition. Beyond singing simply of "brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers", however, Herrick utilizes pastoral as a device for inversion or, as William Empson states, as a means of "putting the complex into the simple" (Holman,* 345-6). The beauteous components of nature (especially women) compose his depictions of the divine or near imitations of the divine. Herrick does not limit his scope to the political circumstances of his time, as some biographical critics suggest. These critics claim Herrick employs the pastoral to beat his tin drum for the royalist cause by presenting the pagan rites of "Merry Old England" as endemic to the Anglican Church (Marcus* 130-132). This interpretation only scratches the surface of the poem. In essence, Herrick moves between two worlds in "times trans-shifting" (line 9): the prelapsarian innocence of the garden is recurrently fused with the world after the fall where existence is transitory. Emblematically, "times trans-shifting" allow the artist to depict brief glimpses into a state of grace in a world full of the best and worst of everything. He masterfully creates in his poems what the Mannerists called "the elegant split second of movement" (Semler* 3). In the 'captured' moments of the "Julia" poems, such as "The Silken Snake" or "Julia’s Petticoat", ordinary experiences (such as the sudden movement of an unknown object thrown in one’s direction, or the sound of a woman’s petticoats as she moves through her day) are draped in the artistry of Herrick’s language. Even when Herrick unabashedly heaps praise "Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast" one does not detect a tone of bawdiness—no "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" of the burlesque—in his verse. The subject of his poem serves as another beautiful thing in the world enhanced by his artistry. This is an example of the "cleanly wantonness" Herrick refers to in line 6 of "The Argument".
Achsah Guibbory expounds upon Herrick’s use of sexuality in his poems. In discussing Herrick’s numerous mistresses, Guibbory comments:
Guibbory goes on to postulate that Herrick’s ideal mistress manifests both the artistic form and the poetic form (83). The mistress functions not only as an inspiration to the poet but embodies the poem itself, serving as its animating principle. The hieroglyph of sexuality in Herrick’s secular poetry equates the creative process with ‘lust’. The symbol of ‘lust’, when used to mean both ‘a sexual appetite’ and ‘vigor’, enables the poet to create his progeny in an ideal form which results from his coupling with the natural beauty around him. His progeny, the poem, represents an ecstatic state of worship for both the speaker and the reader as it sings of the crystalline embodiment of the mistress. By virtue of her beauty enhanced by the artistry of language, the crystalline image of the mistress initiates the process once more, by arousing the poetic desire all over again (Guibbory 79). The sexuality of Herrick’s poems points to the higher matter of art, not the carnal appetites of the flesh.
The grim depictions of "The Vine" and "Upon Love," by comparison, seem antithetical to Herrick’s overall purpose of attaining Heavenly images. Essentially, they are antithetical to the divine design of Herrick’s poetry. Nonetheless, they remain integrally bound to his treatise. In the "Argument" he states outright, "I write of Hell. . ." (line 13). These two poems are prime examples of Herrick’s hell in that they occur in an absence of light, they are devoid of an aesthetic principle governing the poem and they both represent a failed poetic vision.
A cursory reading of the "The Vine" leaves the reader with the indelible impression that the speaker is a lewd and lecherous person, no doubt about it. By imparting the first person narrative voice to the speaker, Herrick forces the reader to participate in the binding of Lucia with the vine animated by his unbridled arousal. The circumstance of the poem occurs in the uncertain world of dreams, where the vision of the poet is obscured because there is an absence of light. In the whole of the poem Lucia’s reaction to the constricting animus of the vine is left uncertain. The diction is deliberately ambiguous about her reaction in lines 5 and 6. The speaker ‘thinks’ the "tendrils" of his vine "surprise" her as he winds his way up her legs and thighs. Considering the intimacy involved, "surprise" seems rather neutral. Is she alarmed or pleased? It does not seem to concern the speaker as evidenced by the breach of rhyme in the pairing of lines three and four. Even if her plight does concern him, he cannot seem to stop himself. The double denotation of the word "Enthralled" as the process of enslaving or captivating serves to maintain the ambiguity of Lucia’s reaction.
The poem is presented in a rhyme scheme reminiscent of heroic couplets. With proverbial tongue planted in cheek, Herrick uses the epic couplet to describe the conquest of a woman. Still with tongue firmly in cheek, he falls just short of the heroic, both in his failed conquest (it is just a dream!), and in his formulation of the traditional heroic form in iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter. The triplet presented in lines 9-11 signals the conflict in the poem:
The speaker’s meaning becomes completely muddled for the reader as the speaker loses himself in the wriggling and writhing of his ‘vine’ on her body. The analogue of Lucia with "young Bacchus" in the next pairing allows the reader to glean meaning from the triplet. As the vine approaches Lucia’s head, the speaker hesitates because a cluster of grapes among the leaves of the vine is suspended next to her temples. The image of her with grapes crowning her head reminds the speaker of the story of the ship of fools told by Acetes to Pentheus. Like the sailors on the ship, the speaker realizes too late that he is exhibiting hubris. Furthermore, his crime outstrips the sailors because it is as if he used Bacchus’ own vine to tie him up in an act of retaliation. Herein lies the crux of the hieroglyph.
Bacchus not only represents the god of wine, but he also stands for fertility and vigor. For Herrick, then, the gifts of Bacchus provide the means for him to tap into the heat of his imagination. A comparison is provided by the following lines from "His Farewell to Sack":
Herrick sees a direct parallel between the effects of wine and the effects of the imagination, and the "sacred madnesse" easily corresponds with the ‘lust’ of the poet. Obviously, the engorging vine of the speaker’s imagination has grown beyond the bounds of decency. Borrowing from Gibbory’s interpretation of sexuality as the drive to produce poetry, here the driving force of the desire to produce poetry is choking out the artistry of the poet's work, namely Lucia. The continuous form of the poem reinforces the conception of the uncontrolled growth of the vine. Despite his realization that he is guilty of using the gift of the gods to ‘ravish’ Lucia, he is unable to prevent himself the pleasure of "Those parts which maids keep unespied" (line 19).
The conceit of the vine translates itself to the idea that the poetic imagination has succumbed to the urge without undergoing a process of refining. The imaginative principle behind the poem, i.e. the vine, represents wine at its most rudimentary development. The speaker of the poem has placed all of his energies in the misplaced growth of the vine, rather than waiting for the fermentation process to enhance the natural state of the grapes. Consequently, he begins with an erection and ends with the same erection, and the poem does not bear fruit. Herrick cleverly presents a progression of rhymes until the last two lines, where he echoes the beginning of the poem further indicating that the poem does not transcend to a higher vision. Herrick alludes to an evil presence in the poem by juxtaposing Classical referents with the Christian motif of the snake in the Garden. The parenthetical phrase "hid among / the leaves" (lines 10-11) is strategically placed to cause the reader to question what is hidden among the leaves—the snake-like vine or the clusters of grapes? The sight rhyme contained in lines 20 and 21 further substantiates the fact that the speaker has presented a false vision of succumbing to temptation. The sin committed in the poem, according to Herrick’s schema, is that the runaway imagination of the speaker does not allow for the time needed to temper itself with the genuine beauty of the good embodied in Lucia.
Herrick presents another false vision in "Upon Love". Here again the circumstance of the poem occurs in the uncertain world of dreams, although the reader remains unaware of this fact until the end of the poem. Paralleling the absence of light in "The Vine", Herrick depicts the dim lighting of a "Grove" (line 1). The poem is composed of alternating lines of tetrameter followed by trimeter. This creates the hypnotic effect of a soothing song which serves as a counterpoint to the jarring effect of the hanging bodies in the tree. One easily associates the Sirens’ song of antiquity with the depiction of Love in Herrick’s poem in that Love nearly seduces the speaker to the madness of suicide.
The unsettling nature of the vision is subtly heightened by the repetition of sight rhyme in the poem. Within the narrative of the first 12 lines of the poem, sight rhyme occurs in the first and third lines of each quatrain. Once the speaker wakes in the final quatrain, the lines contain two sets of sight rhyme. Although the rhyme scheme suggests formal stanzaic breaks (abab / cbcb / dede / fgfg), the poem is published in the Martin edition in a continuous form. The jarring effect of the speaker’s waking is reinforced by the sudden shift in rhyme scheme. Taken as a whole the very meter and structure of the poem lend itself to the interpretation that our vision is skewed.
It is odd that in this poem the woman is entirely absent. Love is personified as male, and the first person narrator seems male. Love tempts the speaker with the trappings of things women use to adorn themselves, although the woman herself is missing. In keeping with Herrick’s "Art Above Nature," the male sensibilities are captivated precisely by the things women use to enhance their natural beauty. Consequently, it is only logical for a male speaker of Herrick’s imagination to be attracted by "silk and gold" (line 5), "dainty things" (line 8), and a "Neck-lace" (line 9). The central conflict of the poem is revealed as the speaker struggles with his own intense feeling of love, a love that hinders the production of poetry. One cannot adequately depict the beauty of a macrocosm when one is limited to the microcosmic perspective of the lover. As Semler points out, Herrick’s view of art is in keeping with the Mannerist theory:
The dream presented in "Upon Love" presents a speaker so caught up in the concept of love, that his poetic vision lacks the female aesthetic principle vital to the divine design overarching the Hesperides.
The central conceit of "Upon Love" operates differently than that of the vine. The hieroglyph of love in this poem symbolizes a false god that others have worshipped and "hang’d themselves for" (line 3). Herrick inverts the convention of love as a means to God. Most puzzling of all is the ending of the poem where the speaker states: "…but had I been / There really alone; / My desperate fears, in love, had seen / Mine Execution" (lines 13-16). The line indicates that some guiding principle prevented the horror of the dream from coming to its fruition. It is difficult to determine the how love has created the intense emotions of ‘desperation’ and ‘fear’, unless one assumes that Herrick operates on the premise that succumbing to the intense emotion of love has the same dire effects as succumbing to the unchecked passion for creating poetry. Overly intent on writing a ‘love poem,’ the artistry of the poem becomes twisted and devoid of the life-guiding principle for the poet. The reader of "Upon Love" witnesses a near death of the artistry of the poetic imagination. Furthermore, without the aesthetic principle of beauty, the poem is like a dead hanging body.
The guiding principle for glimpses into the divine in Herrick’s poetry is light. Both "The Vine" and "Upon Love" unravel as visions of hell in that they are virtually devoid of light and due to the playful refraction that this causes. The vivid colors present in most of Herrick’s poems are absent in these poems. The shadowy make-up of the two dreams has temporarily obscured the truth and beauty of the poet’s world, but significantly, it is the ‘light’ that prevails in both. Semler, in keeping with the Mannerist aesthetic, states the same idea in the following:
By presenting the two false visions as dreamscapes, the poet maintains the integrity of his garden. It stands to reason that in humanity’s fallen condition, one cannot frolic about the garden in ecstatic bliss unless some knowledge of the alternative is present in the psyche. The necessity of strife and malevolence is an idea that surfaces in the Christian mythos and Classical antiquity in the untested faith of Adam and Eve before the fateful bite in Paradise Lost and in the Phaiakians' utopian existence until the arrival of Odysseus. Although the awareness of evil in the world is necessary, Herrick does not condone living in a world dominated by the fear of hellfire and brimstone.
In the entirety of Hesperides, Herrick presents his reader with the praise of life and the divine gifts evident in the world. Anomalous poems like "The Vine" and "Upon Love" enhance the reader's appreciation for the abundance of beauty by reminding of the beguiling ways of sinfulness. There is no wide chasm between singing the virtues of a woman's beauty and the ravishing of her body. One false step and man has deviated from the Golden Mean. Similarly, intensity of love can dominate one's vision, disallowing the joyful pursuit of beauty and truth. Herrick offers the reader glimpses of heaven in a sudden movement refracted in the light, but if the reader chooses to live in the shadows of the vine and the grove, then who is the lewd person—Robert Herrick or the reader?
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Julia D. Chaffe is a
Master of Arts student
in English at the University of Dallas.
D. Chaffe. All Rights