The Coming of Good Luck
By ROBERT HERRICK (1591–1674)
So Good-Luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night;
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams, tickled by degrees.
Robert Herrick was a 17th-century English lyric poet and cleric. He is best known for Hesperides, a book of poems. This includes the carpe diem poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, with the first line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. Wikipedia
Born in Cheapside, London, Robert Herrick was the seventh child and fourth son of Julia Stone and Nicholas Herrick, a prosperous goldsmith. He was named after an uncle, Robert Herrick (or Heyrick), a prosperous Member of Parliament (MP) for Leicester, who had bought the land Greyfriars Abbey stood on after Henry VIII’s dissolution in the mid-16th century. Nicholas Herrick died in a fall from a fourth-floor window in November 1592, when Robert was a year old (whether this was suicide remains unclear).
The tradition that Herrick received his education at Westminster is based on the words “beloved Westminster” in his poem “Tears to Thamesis”, but the allusion is to the city, not the school. It is more likely that he, like his uncle’s children, attended The Merchant Taylors’ School. In 1607 he became apprenticed to his other uncle, Sir William Herrick, a goldsmith and jeweller to the king. The apprenticeship ended after only six years, when Herrick, aged 22, gained admission at St John’s College, Cambridge. He later migrated to Trinity Hall, graduating in 1617. Herrick became a member of the Sons of Ben, a group centred on an admiration for the works of Ben Jonson, to whom he wrote at least five poems. Herrick was ordained into the Church of England in 1623 and in 1629 became the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire.
Herrick wrote over 2,500 poems, about half of which appear in his major work, Hesperides. Hesperides also includes the much shorter Noble Numbers, his first book of spiritual works, first published in 1648. He is well known for his style, and in his earlier works for frequent references to lovemaking and the female body. His later poetry was of a more spiritual and philosophical nature. Among his most famous short poetical sayings are the unique monometers, such as number 475, “Thus I / Pass by / And die,/ As one / Unknown / And gone.”
Herrick sets out his subject-matter in the poem he printed at the beginning of his collection, “The Argument of his Book”. He dealt with English country life and its seasons, village customs, complimentary poems to various ladies and his friends, themes taken from classical writings, and a solid bedrock of Christian faith, not intellectualized but underpinning the rest. It has been said of Herrick’s style that “his directness of speech with clear and simple presentation of thought, a fine artist working with conscious knowledge of his art, of an England of his youth in which he lives and moves and loves, clearly assigns him to the first place as a lyrical poet in the strict and pure sense of the phrase.”
Herrick never married and none of his love poems seems to connect directly with any one woman. He loved the richness of sensuality and the variety of life. This appears vividly in such poems as “Cherry-ripe”, “Delight in Disorder” and “Upon Julia’s Clothes”.
The overriding message in Herrick’s work is that life is short, the world beautiful and love splendid. We must use the short time we have to make the most of it. This message is clear in “To the Virgins, to make much of Time”, “To Daffodils”, “To Blossoms” and “Corinna’s Going A Maying”, where the warmth and exuberance of what seems to have been a kindly and jovial personality comes over.
Gather Ye rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse, (1909)
The opening stanza in one of his more famous poems, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, runs:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
This is an example of the carpe diem genre, which the popularity of Herrick’s poems helped to revive.
His poems were not immediately popular on publication. His style was influenced by Ben Jonson, by the classical Roman writers, and by poems of the late Elizabethan era, which must have seemed old-fashioned to an audience whose tastes were tuned to the complexities of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell. His works were rediscovered in the early 19th century and have been regularly printed ever since.
The Victorian poet Swinburne described Herrick as “the greatest song writer ever born of English race”. Despite his use of classical allusions and names, Herrick’s poems are easier for modern readers to understand than those of many of his contemporaries.
Robert Herrick is the subject of James Branch Cabell’s “Concerning Corrina”, published in Cabell’s 1916 short story volume The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poëtes. The story more than suggests that the poet was an adept of the dark arts. Though technically a mystery-horror story, it is best categorized as a philosophical comedy.
Robert Herrick is a major character in Rose Macaulay’s 1932 historical novel They Were Defeated.
In Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, the character Winnie quotes from Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time”.
In Ken Bruen’s debut novel Rilke on Black, Herrick’s two-line poem “Dreams” is a favorite of the protagonist Nick. Robert Herrick is one of many historical characters in the alternate history series 1632. The dedication in Thomas Burnett Swann’s Will-o-the-Wisp (1976, ISBN 9780552103589) is “A novel suggested by the life of Robert Herrick, poet, vicar, and pagan”. Herrick was referred to by the character Clement in HBO’s ‘Industry’ (December 2020), in view of a candle on a birthday cake representing the passing of precious time.
The first composers to set Herrick to music were his near contemporaries: at least 40 settings of 31 poems are to be found in the manuscript and printed song books from 1624 to 1683, by Henry and William Lawes, John Wilson, Robert Ramsey and others. It is clear from evidence within Hesperides that many other settings were composed but have not survived.
However, it was the early 20th Century that his verse became popular with a wide range of composers. Of them, Fritz Hart was by far the most prolific, with more than 120 settings composed throughout his life, mostly collected in Fourteen Songs, Op. 10 (1912), Twenty-One Songs, Op. 23 (1916), Twenty Five Songs in five sets, Opp. 50-54 (1922), Nine Sets of Four Songs Each, Opp. 82-90 (1930), Three Sets of Five Songs, Opp. 148-150 (1941), and Two Sets of Five Songs, Opp. 166-7 (1948).
Other settings from this period include:
Arnold Bax: To daffodils; Eternity.
Lennox Berkeley: How love came in.
Havergal Brian: The mad maid’s song; Why dost thou wound, and break my heart?; The night piece.
Frank Bridge: The primrose; The hag; Fair daffodils.
Benjamin Britten: To violets (Spring Symphony); Five Flower Songs (To daffodils; The succession of the four sweet months).
Benjamin Burrows: Upon love; the olive branch; The wounded Cupid; To music.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The guest (scena).
Walford Davies: Eternity; Noble Numbers, Op. 28 (Weigh me the fire; God’s dwelling; Grace for a child; What sweeter music).
Frederick Delius To daffodils.
George Dyson: To music.
John Foulds: To music.
Ivor Gurney: To violets; Lullaby.
Joseph Holbrooke: To Dianeme.
Herbert Howells: Here she lies, a pretty bud.
Peter Hurford: Litany to the Holy Spirit.
Hubert Parry: Julia.
Roger Quilter: To Julia, Op. 8 (‘The bracelet; The maiden blush; To daises; The night piece; Julia’s hair; Cherry ripe). To Electra; Tulips.
Alan Rawsthorne: To daffodils.
Charles Villiers Stanford: To carnations; To the rose; A welcome song; To music.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: To daffodils (two settings).
Peter Warlock: Two Short Songs (I held love’s head; Thou gav’st me leave to kiss).
WE&P by: EZorrilla