Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Herrick the Divine

For me and for most readers, Herrick is the poet of an elegant sensuality heightened by the transience of things. This tone, reminiscent of ancient Greek lyric, is unforgettably expressed in several of the most-anthologized lyrics in the English canon: "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," “Delight in Disorder,” “To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good verses,” and a few others. We think first of the “blossoms, birds and bowers” of his “Argument,” though he later includes hell and, more puzzlingly, “times trans-shifting“ among his themes. His metrical facility is admirable, lending captivating music to his words, and, apart from his masterful handling of complex forms, he undertook fruitful experiments such as shape poetry and the use of iambic monometer.

Herrick’s small collection of religious poems Noble Numbers has received comparatively little attention, and, indeed, to most commentators while the poems may be noble, they are neither as graceful nor as powerful as what he labeled his “jocund” pieces, his “unbaptized rhymes.” (“His Prayer for Absolution”) [1] The fact that two of the poems in the group are pieces for royal performances suggests that political as well as religious gain may have motivated the author. [2] Yet the charms of Herrick’s masterful prosody are no less evident in Noble Numbers; his experimentation has free rein (as in the concrete poem "This crosstree here”). “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour” is an entire chamber concerto in sound effects. Further, the spiritual sentiments of this rural vicar little deserve condemnation or excuse as partisan works. Approached with a sympathy similar to that readers bring to Donne’s religious work undeterred by the “licentious” poems composed in his youth before he converted to the Established Church and became a prominent preacher, Herrick’s Noble Numbers will imply a perfectly coherent religious view as well as rewarding the reader aesthetically .

The collection begins with a “His Confession,” apologizing for his earlier work in a way reminiscent of Chaucer’s “Retraction.” As if this opening were insufficient to guarantee his sincerity , the second poem (“His Prayer for Absolution”) repeats the theme, asking God to blot out each line that falls short of the divine. One might be uncertain whether he (and Chaucer, Andreas Capellanus, and others who employ the same convention) had experienced a change of heart or were simply trying to better their eternal odds by recording such pious sentiments. In either case these poems gracefully indicate an ambivalence that must be universal.

Having thus made the transition from secular to holy, Herrick begins grandly with a tour de force of metaphor.

by Robert Herrick

WEIGH me the fire ; or canst thou find
A way to measure out the wind ;
Distinguish all those floods that are
Mix'd in that watery theatre ;
And taste thou them as saltless there
As in their channel first they were.
Tell me the people that do keep
Within the kingdoms of the deep ;
Or fetch me back that cloud again,
Beshiver'd into seeds of rain ;
Tell me the motes, dust, sands, and spears
Of corn, when summer shakes his ears ;
Show me that world of stars, and whence
They noiseless spill their influence :
This if thou canst, then show me Him
That rides the glorious cherubim.

In “To Find God” Herrick spins out a series of images for impossibility reminiscent of those in Donne’s celebrated “Song” (“Goe and catche a falling starre”). Here, however, rather than the fruitless search for a woman both “faire” and “true,” the poet’s object is the Godhead. When this spiritual theme becomes explicit in the final line, it is with a surge of fancy analogous to cinematic special effects as one is asked to visualize the ineffable mounted atop a cherub, like Vishnu riding Garuda. The shift from glorious elaboration of the futility of words to the emphatic closing affirmation which stretches faith to its limit (or beyond) is could hardly be more dramatic.

Similarly, even for Christians accustomed to the eucharist, Herrick’s imagination may seem to strain with “To his Saviour. The New Year’s Gift.” In which he presents Christ with his bleeding heart as though his god were Huitzilopochtli, and then expects in return a piece of bloody foreskin. In “To Keep a True Lent” he recommends that the Christian “circumcise thy life.” It is as concrete and physical a faith as Crashaw’s sensibility. Yet while Crashaw was hyperemotional, Herrick is cool and measured even while deploying daring imagery. His use of mistletoe, for instance, in “To God” as an image of dependence is original but wholly orthodox and coherent, gaining added weight as a revision of the plant’s pre-Christian associations. It is as though he dares doubt by using extravagant language.

Such figurative language is a natural consequence of the attempt to describe what the poet has already characterized as indescribable, unlike any other entity. The unique category occupied by Christ in which all usual assumptions may be overturned is implied by his exceedingly brief lyric “On Christ’s Birth.” Thus not only the apocalyptic reversals (the lowly made high, death is life) occur, but even worldly categories are turned upside down. Herrick the aesthete celebrates the humble, the low, and the common in “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” “A Thanksgiving to God, for his House,” “The New-Year's Gift,” and “His Wish to God.” In the last he wishes he might live in an almshouse possessionless so that he might more rigorously focus on Jesus. Surely poverty would be the appropriate penance for a lover of the pleasurable and the beautiful.

These thoughts occur only within the orthodox teachings and practice of the church. Herrick would not venture to speculate on the divine. “To Find God,” however, goes further and positively asserts his unknowability. Now, of course, the negative characterization of deity is a sophisticated and world-wide form of theology. Called apophatic in the Christian tradition or associated with the term via negative it has played a role, often closely associated with mysticism and the direct experience of the divine since the earliest times. The Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Johannes Scotus Eriugena are among the most influential Christian thinkers in this tradition, but similar thoughts appear in many other systems, including Maimonides’ Judaism and the Hinduism associated with the phrase “neti neti.” Far from associated Herrick with these names as a religious thinker, it seems that he simply judged God to be beyond the reach of language, perhaps beyond the limits of his imagination as well, and thus concluded that it was best to simply accept the mores of his own timed and place rather than trying to develop his own notions about a topic fundamentally imponderable. His acceptance of the Established Church led to the loss of his living during the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate which implies something beyond opportunism. [3]

Yet, as with thorough-going skepticism, the believer in a deity that can in no significant way be described might be at a loss as to what to do next. Herrick did not hesitate. He simply assented to what his society accepted as religious truth. The triple rhymes of “His Litany to the Holy Spirit,“ the ringing rhymes of the carols to the king, the satisfying stanzas of “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” each ending in a snap, these musical effects remain the reason we read Herrick, but we have as much reason to read the Noble Numbers as the rest of his most melodic verses.

1. Leah Sinanoglou Marcus Herrick ‘s “Noble Numbers and the Politics of Playfulness” in English Literary Renaissance no. 1, 1977, 1-8-126 provides a good summary of such negative judgments and proceeds to justify Herrick’s religious poems on the grounds of both his defense of the Established Church and his pastoral care for a remote and largely uneducated congregation. My own interest is more toward the aesthetic and, unlikely as it may sound, the mystic potential of Herrick’s religious writing.
2. “A Christmas Carol Sung to the King in the Presence at Whitehall” and “The Star-Song : A Carol to the King Sung at White-Hall.”
3. The same cannot be said for Donne’s convenient conversion.

A Mixed Bag of German Translations

These move basically back in history. Most have brief historical notes attached which in some cases have only the most tenuous reference to the poem that follows.

1. During the Soviet era, Uwe Kolbe published a poem in a government-sanctioned anthology which contained an acrostic undetected by censors: "EUREM HELDENTUM WIDME ICH EINEN ORGASMUS / EUCH MÄCHTIGE GREISE ZERFETZE DIE TÄGLICHE REVOLUTION" ("To your heroism I dedicate an orgasm/ you powerful greybeards the daily revolution shall slash").

Museum Day in Sofia

The poet’s holiest parts
were preserved in a vitrine:
pale organs between two panes.
How my heart beat when I saw his
in the glass, and how my mind
confronted his! until . . .
all at once I found myself
old and at peace and ready to die.

2. Joachim Ringelnatz (the pen name of Hans Bötticher) was condemned by the Nazis already in 1933 as a degenerate artist.


They’ve got them in the shop
in an intimate tank.
There they may bathe
outwardly a bit frazzled, a little raggedy,
but innardly they seem
ever so much alive.
They murmur magic-worker’s spells
(as though they could thereby clean their water).
Quiet they masticate mayonnaise in their muzzles
and dream of being shaved against the grain,
and then cleaned and killed and heated and garnished
on a silver dish.
They end up in rich men’s bellies,
where the funniest of their bones
may go down the wrong way.
Their souls, I think,
are just like wood-lice
doing deep knee bends.
Yes and in Kassel there was very little else
either to excite or trouble me.

3. Georg Trakl’s poem about a site of slaughter takes a place by Wilfred Owens’ horrifying WWI poems. After attending the soldiers in Grodek, Trakl tried to shoot himself. Though he was prevented, he died shortly thereafter from a cocaine overdose.


Evenings, the autumn forests ring
with the death-guns’ sound, the golden meadows
and blue lakes over which the sun
darkly passes, till night embraces
the dying fighters, the mad moans
of their lacerated mouths.
But in silence! over the cow-pasture!
a red cloud gathers, wherein dwells a furious god.
The spilt blood itself. The coolness of moonshine.
Every street is turning to black putrefaction!
Under the golden branches of the night and stars
her sister’s shadow shimmies through the silent grove
to greet the spirits, the heroes, the bloody heads,
and faintly the reed’s tones, autumn’s darkling flute.
O proud mourning! For the altars you once had
the hot flame of the mind feeds today a monstrous pain,
the descendants yet unborn.

4. Carl Zuckmayer was a WWI veteran, who came to the US as an exile and returned to Europe in the fifties.

To the red wine stains on the tablecloth of a French restaurant

I look at you with gravity and joy,
and push the plate aside that tried to hide
you and toast with my first drink
the man that dined before me in this seat.

From the wine’s furthest lilac reach
your soft daydreamy drinker’s gaze looks out;
the shape’s a silhouette of a place abroad,
Madagascar maybe, or Mozambique.

My place is strewn with golden crumbs
of bread he mindfully broke and ate.
You land of lovely sounds and Burgundy’s bouquet,
are you still like that kingdom that once was,
whose people paid their tax in kegs of wine?

You land of latter days whose evening sun slips low
whose light breaks bright through a ripe tongue’s prism!
Where geniuses and shamans and customs men make art,
till god himself forgets where heaven is.

I saw you stuck with steel and dripping blood,
I lay against your body in fear and pain –
It may have been this amiable overweight sommelier
that tried so hard to shoot me.

Did I not drink at your fountain of tears?
I underwent with you pain unto death.
Sister land, I kneel down at your door,
and kiss each stain of blood and wine.

He pours me more. It glitters at the bottle’s mouth.
So, drink, tablecloth! Drink up this offering!
A foreigner salutes this charming hour,
and then heads off northward, toward the fog.

5. From the immortal Christian Morgenstern.

A Knee

A lone knee through the landscape went.
It’s just one knee and nothing else!
It’s not a tree! It’s not a tent!
It’s just one knee and nothing else!

In war one time a man was shot,
shot up from toe to face.
The knee alone remained unhurt –
as if it were a sign of grace.

And then through all the world it went
It’s just one knee and nothing else!
It’s not a tree! It’s not a tent!
It’s just one knee and nothing else!

6. Heinrich Heine published several poems, including Die schlesischen Weber, in Karl Marx's journal Vorwärts.


The lovely sun
has sunk in peace into the sea;
the water’s waves have only the hue
of the dark night,
though sunset strews yet
some golden sparks,
and the roar of tidal force
pushes white waves to the shore.
They frisk so happy and so fast
like woolly herds of lambs
driven home at night
by a shepherd boy with a song.

“The sun, it is so fine!”
So said my friend after standing silent long,
the one that walked the beach with me,
and half-laughing and half-sad,
he insisted this was so: “The sun,” he said,
“is a lovely lady. She married the old sea-god
for convenience’ sake.
She wanders every day in joy
through heaven’s heights, resplendent in purple,
glittering with diamonds,
beloved by all, admired by every
creature of the earth,
for all earth’s creatures love
the glory, the warmth of her gaze,
though at night, depressed and driven,
she enters again
the wet house, the barren arms
of her aged spouse.”

“Believe me,” added then my friend,
and laughed and sighed and laughed again,
“they have down there the tenderest of marriages.
They’re sleeping there or else they squabble,
So that the sea must bubble up on top,
And the seaman hears in the sounds of the waves
The old one shouting at his wife:
‘You big fat cosmic whore,
beaming bitch,
the whole day-long you’re bright for all the rest,
and at night for me, you’re cold and dropping with fatigue.’
And after such a talking-to,
you’ll understand, that proud sun
breaks into tears, and she laments her wretchedness,
and she laments so loud and long, the sea-god
gives up all hope, jumps from his bed,
swims swiftly up to ocean’s top,
some air and maybe sense as well to grab.”

“Last night I caught a sight of him myself,
emerged from the sea down to his breast.
He wore a yellow flannel jacket,
a lily-white night-cap,
and a wrinkled face.”

7. Edward Mörike was a leading Romantic who wrote lyrics so popular many were made into songs in both popular and concert hall stylings.

It’s here!

Spring lets loose its pennants of blue –
they fly again in the wind –
sweet and well-known scents drift too
suggestive on the land.
Violets in dreams are wound –
tomorrow their blooms will bring..
Listen! The far-off harper’s sound!
You’re it – o spring!
It’s you I hear!

The Question of Literary Value

I know of no satisfactory theory of literary (or indeed, any artistic) value. One might feel that the Divine Comedy is surely of greater value than an episode of Breaking Bad, but the proof of such discernment is elusive. For many years it was only too easy to blame the television fan for self-evident obtuseness while competing with other cognoscenti in appreciating the subtleties of Dante. In the past critics had no difficulty with the idea of the canon itself whatever negotiable differences they may have had over the exact list. The Romantics elevated Spenser, the Imagists liked Chinese lyric , and twentieth century found a worthy anticipation of metafiction in Tristram Shandy, but such adjustments occurred within a largely unquestioned structure. The critics of this bygone era were not wholly unlike religious scholars who, having settled on what to include in scripture, could then spend millennia commenting, interpreting, and interpreting the interpreters.

Though it worked well, this assumption was vulnerable. The acceptance of a canon was convenient, since the question of literary value seems ultimately like other matters of taste to lack much foundation apart from subjective impression. One may praise a wine with an elaborate flight of descriptors, while another finds the same taste unexciting. Two people may perceive the same characteristics and yet assign them different values. What may make a sauce seem elegant and subtle to one diner may be considered bland and boring to another. Tokay that once excited the highest praise from kings and popes now holds little interest for many drinkers. No one thinks that values in cuisine are nonexistent or wholly arbitrary, though food critics will differ among themselves after the broadest distinctions are made, and the more refined judgments may depend on extraordinary competence developed from experience. Criticism and comment are subsequent to impressions. Surely the situation is similar in literature.

Critics in the sense of the writers of reviews consider their primary responsibility to evaluate, to advise those who have found opportunity to read their remarks whether they would be well-advised to read the work under consideration. Such critics are necessarily free with value judgments, but their concern is not to present tightly reasoned proofs. This avoidance serves them well, since literary judgments,, like the first cause, are susceptible to the logical flaw of an infinite regress. [1] One may say a poem is great because of its concrete, specific imagery, yet whence comes the value of concreteness? Further, an ill-written poem may also passes the same sort of images, though clumsily phrased and ineptly utilized. A novel may be praised for its formal structure, yet use of analogous structure does not guarantee the success of another work of fiction. Surely the reader, no matter how knowledgeable, records a subjective impression and then cooks up a convincing basis for it.

One of the most acute critics of his generation, Northrup Frye came close to mystifying value with his emphatic statement: “The sense of value is an individual, unpredictable, variable, incommunicable, indemonstrable, and mainly intuitive reaction to literature.” [2]

Through history many critics have valued literature not so much for the aesthetic experience, the thrill of that “mainly intuitive reaction,” as for its extrinsic benefits. Its readers are thought by some to enjoy salutary effects such as a closer approach to truth, greater moral sensitivity, heightened social conscience, or some sort of vague increase in humanity. These judgments are wholly innocent of supportive reasoning or data. It may well be that few incarcerated felons have read Paradise Lost, but no one would regard the association between ignorance of Milton and committing crimes to be simply causal. This is unsurprising, given the fact that writers are expert in nothing other than the effective use of language; they are not specialists in religion or morality or politics, nor are they predictably more humane than most people, and the same can be said for their readers. Having studied a thousand Elizabethan sonnets, one will be familiar with the poetic form, language, and images, but will not necessarily be in any degree a better lover for his acquaintance with the poetry.

The fact is that literary value is dependent on the encounter of the individual reader with the text. No text can invariably produce a certain reaction in all readers, but such reactions are nonetheless quite real. A work will be called good or great if one is taken with its beauty (or, on the lower peaks of the Parnassian range, if one is amused or moved or entertained or thrilled or titillated). Over the centuries certain works have accumulated a record of admirers that reasonably suggest a new reader might likely be rewarded as predecessors have been. [3] When I left a performance of King Lear with tears in my eyes, my reaction was similar to countless viewers before me, though it may not have been shared by the person in the next seat. Thus literary value may be most rationally assigned, as indeed it has often been, by a consensus of competent consumers. Reasons may be detailed, but the judgment rests on the initial subjective reaction. The process is dynamic with minority opinion and idiosyncratic reactions always lobbying and jockeying like politicians for higher poll numbers.

As critics comment on a text, its significance grows. Eliot famously reminded readers of how comment can change the meaning of a work for the future and then his point was illustrated by his successful championing of the Metaphysicals. His appreciation for Donne gave new value to poems that had long been neglected. The Bible, an almost random miscellany of texts written over a long period of time, offers an example of a work which has gained value due to being closely read for millennia, resulting in richly developed interconnections and implications. What is more, they have yielded an immense hermeneutic harvest while being read (albeit only by Christians) as a unified work. The value is clearly constituted in the consumption.

The issue of value has a particular value in the present era since “cultural criticism” and the like have largely exiled considerations of value from the academy. [4] Yet who can read without value judgments? From my youth until today, my study was motivated by the intention to spend my time in contemplation of the best writing (and the second-best). Something of the same motive must be common to virtually all devotees of literature. The fact that the basis for such distinctions may be elusive and that estimates of worth may never elicit unanimous agreement does not invalidate them.
The chief difference between taste in poetry and in other areas is that art is so subtle a carrier of meaning, so dense a pattern of signification, that it conveys far more precise and detailed a record of human consciousness than can taste in food or clothing or home décor. Apart from fabulous complexity, different works may have widely varying aims. For one author human psychology is the focus, while another may aim to present lovely landscapes lushly sketched; a third may seek to convey some insight into lived experience, a fourth to pipe the most captivating melody, the fifth to evoke laughter, and on and on. Each must be judged by its aims, but none is inherently superior or inferior to others. Each presents a separate case and can only be evaluated on the basis of the encounter of an author and reader, each unique but sharing much as well. While judgments of taste can never be proven, they are nonetheless the starting point of literary studies. Just as the Greeks considered praise and blame the very basis of considering people’s lives, literary value is at once the motive (in prospect) and the end (in experience) of considering the literature people produce.

1. The general philosophical problem is well-formulated by Sextus Empiricus, part of Agrippa’s trilemma according to Diogenes Laertius.

2. From “On Value-Judgments,” Contemporary Literature Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer, 1968, 311-318. The essay was later reprinted in The Stubborn Structure 1970. Frye’s direct engagement of the issue and his forthright statement exemplify his practice. He was a pioneer in the systematic analysis of literature, and his Anatomy of Criticism earns its title. Apart from theory, his work is full of brilliant specific comments. Frye is uneasy here, however, and he hedges this apparently unqualified characterization of literary value by saying in the same essay that greater knowledge can produce more accurate judgments. But what is the standard of accuracy?

3. This strikes me as similar to the way physicists tell us physical reality is best considered “a wave of probability.”

4. For an energetic response see James Seaton’s Literary Criticism from Plato to Post-Modernism: The Humanistic Alternative. My review “On the Proper Ends of Literary Study” appears on this site.