Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly, eds., The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick
by Graham Parry

The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly, eds. Oxford: Oxford University P, 2013. Vol I. xxv + 504 pp. ISBN: 978-0199212842. $150.00 cloth.

The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly, eds. Oxford: Oxford University P, 2013. Vol II. xix + 803 pp. ISBN: 978-0199212859. $150.00 cloth.


Robert Herrick’s sole volume of poetry, Hesperides, was published in 1648, an injudicious time to launch a book of strongly royalist verse into the world, as King Charles was a captive and the royalist cause was in terminal decline. Herrick’s ‘Poems’ had been entered for publication back in April 1640, when their evocations of pastoral pleasures and Cavalier gallantry would have resonated with a society still unfractured, but they did not appear. When they finally came out, England had been transformed by civil war, and they seemed like an elegy for a lost age. Hesperides was not reprinted, and in the Restoration period, Herrick’s name faded away. He died in 1674, having become an almost forgotten man.

Although Herrick’s reputation revived in the twentieth century, and has grown stronger in the last three decades, as critical attention has concentrated more on the literature of Charles’s reign and the Civil War, his place in the literary record has been insecure. One reason for this is the lack of a detailed biography; another is the difficulty of dating so many of his poems. The editors of this splendid new edition from OUP very sensibly begin with that great desideratum, a well-researched biography. Now we learn of the dense ramification of his family in Leicestershire and London, and of the presumed suicide of his father when Robert was an infant. Nicholas Herrick, a prosperous goldsmith, apparently threw himself out of a window at the top of his house on Cheapside. Prominent friends managed to obscure the circumstances and get him a rapid burial in St Vedast’s. Robert’s poetry would show an uncommon concern with the proper rites of burial, with an attention to the need for order, decorum and grace in the ceremonies, as if he could never enough console the shade of the father he never knew. (The editors return several times to the poem “To the reverend shade of his religious Father”—Hesperides 82—as a deeply significant expression of his distress). Adopted by his relatives, he was brought up amid the mercantile elite of London, in a Calvinist household, apprenticed as a goldsmith, but then broke his indenture and went to Cambridge instead. He must already have felt poetic aspirations as a young man in London, for that seems to have been the most likely time for him to have been drawn into the convivial meetings of Ben Jonson’s circle, meetings that seem to have been the happiest incidents of his life. He went to Cambridge late, entering St John’s as a fellow-commoner when he was twenty-two, in 1613. He managed to stretch out his time at Cambridge to ten years, evidently enjoying the leisurely academic life of which we all dream, and moving after a while to Trinity Hall where the cost of living was cheaper and where he could take up the study of civil law. During these years he made many of the friendships that sparkle in the titles of his poems, most notably with Mildmay Fane, Clipseby Crewe, John Weekes and Simeon Steward. In many Cambridge chapels he would have encountered the ceremonial mode of worship that was steadily gaining ground there, and to which he became particularly responsive.

Herrick abandoned thoughts of a career in law, and took holy orders instead, possibly as an insurance policy. It’s not clear what he did after leaving Cambridge; perhaps he took a post as a private chaplain. A document testifies to his participation as a chaplain in Buckingham’s disastrous expedition to La Rochelle in 1627, an episode that left no mark at all on his poetry. Then, in 1629, he was presented to the living of Dean Prior in Devon, by what agency we know not. There he remained, until ejected in the Civil War, only to return at the Restoration, serving there until his death in 1674.

All who are interested in seventeenth-century poetry must be grateful to Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly for restoring Herrick’s biography in sufficient detail for us to understand the network of friends and family in which he lived and wrote. This very well-documented life enables us to appreciate that the constructed persona of the poet in Hesperides differs in many ways from the man who lived through difficult times and many personal losses, and with no clear vocation—other than poetry. “To live merrily, and to trust to Good Verses” might have been his credo, but it was a distinct fiction (Hesperides 201). He was tossed here and there by circumstance, and at many points in his life, he had to trust to Good Old-Fashioned Patronage to keep afloat. As Cain and Connolly point out, Herrick “invites us to read his poetry as autobiography … as projecting a coherent character, playful, generous, self-mocking, modest, and occasionally pious” (I.lviii). The more one knows about his life, however, the more one can appreciate the artifice of his poetic persona.

This new edition has many outstanding qualities. The text of Hesperides is scrutinized with assiduous attention. All fifty-seven copies that are known to have survived (out of an estimated print run of 1500) have been examined, and their variants noted. It is remarkable that there should be so many variant details in the printing of one book, and the discrepancies can tell us much about the practices and resources of the printing house during a long run. The discoveries of the editors extend to the identity of the printer, now revealed to be John Grismond, a printer of many royalist tracts. The distinctive use of certain printers’ flowers gives him away. Matters like the preparation of copy, the choice of fonts, even the sourcing of paper are investigated.

The refinement of dating individual poems is most impressive. The editors are able to show that Herrick was adding new poems right up to the time of printing between November 1647 and March 1648. Several of these poems are addressed to the King, welcoming him to Hampton Court with ill-judged acclamation:  “Welcome Great Caesar … / To re-possess once more your long’d-for home. / A thousand Altars smoake; a thousand thighes / Of Beeves here ready stand for Sacrifice. / Enter and prosper” (961). But the King was entering into captivity, then trial and death. The poems added in the forties cast many shadows, filled as they often are with forlorn royalist hopefulness, with unhappiness as war encroaches on the countryside that was once so innocent, and with sadness at the death of friends. An unexpected late addition to the poems was a flurry of epigrams, some thirty and more, inspired by John Gregory’s Observations on Some Passages of Scripture, published in June 1646. Most of these epigrams appear in the Noble Numbers, Herrick’s devotional poetry that was published with Hesperides. It is clear that Herrick was writing verse right up to the deadline of publication—but after that, he wrote only one poem that has survived, an elegy for the Duke of Gloucester. Strange.

The format chosen for this edition is to print the poems and their publishing history in Volume I and the annotations in Volume II. This separation has a certain inconvenience, but it prevents the first volume from becoming unwieldy. It is in the second volume that the most innovative features of this edition appear, for here Cain and Connolly print the manuscript poems and the history of their transmission. This section is a model for the investigation of the manuscript culture of poetry in the seventeenth century. Where was Herrick’s poetry before 1648? It was circulating in manuscript. It enjoyed a succès d’estime among the connoisseurs, and was much copied and passed on. Poetry is a private pleasure, after all, and something to be shared with friends. So Hesperides was only the public appearance of poems that had been privately enjoyed for a generation, much read, sometimes answered in verse, and frequently set to music. Cain and Connolly extend the exploration of this hidden world of manuscript collections and commonplace books, which was pioneered by Harold Love, Don McKenzie, Mary Hobbs, Arthur Marotti and others, to show how Herrick’s reputation grew and spread. Here we find who the readers of poetry were, and how they collected and exchanged the pieces they admired.

The coteries of the manuscript world were Herrick’s natural milieu. To read and discuss poetry among friends and with glass and pipe to hand was true felicity. It still is. For Herrick, it was a profound pleasure to produce poetry angled at friends, reflecting shared interests or a passing fashion, to adapt the sociable poets of Rome to the circumstances of modern London or the customs of the classical countryside to rural England. His poetic sessions with Ben Jonson were the height of the good life; they gave him memories that would last a lifetime. But such sessions could not have been frequent. More commonly, it would have been with friends at Cambridge, or at the Inns of Court, and later with educated neighbors in the shires that he would have found the conviviality he sought. All such people were part of the transmission network for verse in manuscript. This manuscript culture was at its height in the decades from 1620 to 1650, and from its surviving papers the editors have recovered much valuable evidence that throws light on the social role of Herrick’s poetry, and also on “the mechanics of scribal publication and the culture of reading, writing and performing poetry and music in early modern England” (II.5). 

Well over four hundred transcriptions of poems by or attributed to Herrick survive in manuscript sources, a modest tally in comparison with Donne or Carew, the favorites for private collection, but enough to put him on a level with Thomas Randolph, Crashaw and Katherine Philips. Cain records “The Curse” as his most popular poem, with some seventy transcriptions. This is an eight-line poem uttered by an abandoned mistress to her faithless lover, a subject that readily lent itself to musical settings. Many other poems were set to music, so this edition helpfully prints the scores that survive, with the avowed hope of restoring Herrick to the repertoire of modern performance of early Stuart music. Henry Lawes, William Lawes, Nicholas Lanier and Robert Ramsey all set his lyrics to music, and the editors suggest that the declamatory style in vogue in the thirties could have suited the poems very well. From the manuscript sources that have so far been located, many unpublished poems have been recovered, and many variant versions of printed poems. We learn too how some of the poems prompted replies by friends and contemporaries: some of the fairy poems, for example, were written in friendly competition with Simeon Steward and Thomas Shapcott, as part of a current whimsy for delicate, miniaturist topics.

The close study of the transcription and transmission of collections of poems from reader to reader in manuscript—in almost all cases the name of the compiler is known—gives us helpful information about reading communities in the 1620s-1640s. We get an understanding of taste and fashion, the pleasures of private, almost secret communication, and the gratification of making an anthology of personally selected poems. For some compilers, the poems they transcribed must have been an aid and stimulus to composition on their own part. Sharing poetry of a certain character was a sure bond of friendship.

Much detective work has gone into the identification of owners and of handwriting styles. A number of unattributed poems in early to mid-seventeenth century manuscripts have been assigned to Herrick in this edition, with substantial reasons. It is surprising to learn that only one poem survives in Herrick’s own hand: an elegy for a Fellow of Gonville & Caius who died in 1619. This single sheet, in the British Library, has a tiny hole in one corner, so it may well have been pinned to the hearse of the deceased in the college chapel. As we are made aware of the extensive currency of Herrick’s verse in intimate communities, circulating below the public domain of print, and as the scale of Herrick’s coterie reputation is made evident in this edition, so we understand how his poetry received its most intensive appreciation in well-educated, interconnected social groups long before it appeared in book form in 1648. Indeed, it was almost approaching its sell-by date when it saw the light of day; it was still lingering in the bookseller’s catalogue in 1659. One is tempted to invert Ben Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare and declare that “Herrick was for an age, and not for all time.”

In sum, this is an edition of a new kind. It combines conventional literary scholarship with advanced techniques of socio-literary investigation. The scrupulous editing and annotating of Hesperides and the provision of a biography are what we might expect, but Cain and Connolly here go much further. The thorough searching of archives here and in North America for manuscript traces of Herrick’s verse persuades one that nothing has been overlooked in this vast international trawl, facilitated no doubt by the internet. The reconstruction of the poet’s friendship circles, on the evidence of the poems and the manuscripts, gives the context for his readership. The musical settings add a new dimension. Study of the patterns of transmission for the manuscripts introduces advanced techniques of textual scholarship. The account of the printing and publishing of Hesperides provides a paradigm for Early Modern book history.

I would like to express disappointment at OUP’s decision to use a relatively small font size—ten point I think—for the printing of the poems. I know that this is an edition for scholars, who are not likely to be reading the poems for pleasure, but “The Works both Humane and Divine” are the center of the edition, and they ought to be more spaciously presented in so expensive a book. I look at my 1965 edition (price one pound) and derive immediate pleasure from Herrick more spaciously set out. It would also have been helpful if the second volume had been provided with an index. I noticed only one error in this immensely detailed work, and that was the description of Texas A&M University as Texas Ancient and Modern, instead of Agriculture and Mining. That slip does not compromise the fact that the University Library owns a copy of Hesperides. Be in no doubt though, that this new edition of Herrick’s Works is a monumental enterprise, brilliantly carried off.


Graham Parry
University of York


  • Brian Vickers 8 years, 2 months ago

    Please correct the mis-spelled name in the review's title.

    Link / Reply
    • David Lee Miller 8 years, 2 months ago

      Done--thanks for the correction!

      Link / Reply
  • Website Designer 6 months ago

    Identification of owners and handwriting types has required much sleuthing.

    Link / Reply

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Graham Parry, "Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly, eds., The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick," Spenser Review 45.3.6 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
Not logged in or