The Mourning After

The effervescent poetry of Herrick’s hangovers

Literature Wine
A harvest at once English, Biblical, and clasiscal: "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May" (1909) by John William Waterhouse, inspired by Robert Herrick's poem "To The Virgins, Make Much Of Time"

In “The Hock-cart”, the fine poem he wrote to celebrate the gathering in of the harvest, Robert Herrick begins by praising the agricultural labourers whose sweat has produced such plenty. (The harvest ceremony itself was a moment of social inversion or levelling, so it is entirely appropriate for Herrick to speak first of the labourers, and to leave the lord of the estate until last.) 

The poem magnifies these swains into mythological figures, the “Sons of Summer”:

                                 by whose toile,
We are the Lords of Wine and Oile:
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crown’d with the eares of corne, now come,
And, to the Pipe, sing Harvest home.

If we are to imagine this pagan scene as taking place near Herrick’s parish on the southern edge of Dartmoor, it becomes difficult to take “Wine and Oile” literally (although in another poem Herrick confessed that “I . . . love to have my Beard / With Wine and Oile besmear’d”).  In “The Hock-cart”, however, the phrase “Wine and Oile” works in a different way, bringing this very English harvest scene — we later read that the harvest feast included “stout Beere” and

                Fat Beefe:
With Upper Stories, Mutton, Veale
And Bacon, (which makes full the meale)
With sev’rall dishes standing by,
As here a Custard, there a Pie,
And here all tempting Frumentie.

— into contact with Biblical and classical predecessors. In Deuteronomy God promises that if the Israelites truly love and serve him “I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.” In the opening lines of one of his elegies Tibullus calls on Bacchus and Ceres to be present at the Roman ceremony of the purification of the crops and fields that his poem describes.  The world of “The Hock-cart” is at once English, Biblical, and classical. Herrick gave the name Hesperides to the collection in which the poem was published. Like that mythological garden, the covers of Herrick’s book are a sanctuary in which to protect mundane things from the touch of time, and thereby to discover what is timeless within them. Wine, as a transformation of the fragile and transient into something more permanent, is a natural image and example of the “Times trans-shifting” that Herrick takes for his subject in Hesperides.

Herrick wrote about wine in a variety of registers. Some of his apparently slighter poems read as if they are nothing more than the versified jottings of a crapulous morning — for instance, “A Hymne to Bacchus”:

Bacchus, let me drink no more;
Wild are Seas, that want a shore.
When our drinking has no stint,
There is no one pleasure in’t.
I have drunk up for to please
Thee, that great cup of Hercules:
Urge no more; and there shall be
Daffadills g’en up to Thee.

We’ve all felt like that from time to time, although probably few of us have had the skill to give our remorse such a sly and gracious form. Alexander the Great was supposed to have killed himself by emptying the cup of Hercules at a single draught. The trace of self-burlesquing in the allusion to that moment of fabulous history is matched by the implication of wry self-knowledge in the gift of daffodils that Herrick’s abstinence will be very temporary; for in some traditions Bacchus is crowned with daffodils. So in the future Herrick will still be offering tributes to the god of wine, although he may for a while have the good sense not to follow Alexander in trying to drink like a god. 

The wisdom of the morning after, Herrick knew, needed always to be challenged and qualified by another kind of wisdom:

Born I was to be old,
And for to die here:
After that, in the mould
        Long for to lye here.
But before that day comes,
        Still I be Bousing;
For I know, in the Tombs
        There’s no Carousing.

The much longer and more elaborate “His fare-well to Sack” observes a similar balance. The poem begins with an apostrophe to wine, praising it with extraordinary tenderness and rapture:

Farewell thou Thing, time-past so knowne, so deare
To me, as blood to life and spirit: Neare,
Nay, thou more neare then kindred, friend, man, wife,
Male to the female, soule to body: Life
To quick action, or the warme soft side
Of the resigning, yet resisting Bride.

Yet Herrick knows he must “leave thee; and enforc’d, must say / To all thy witching beauties, Goe, Away.” The reason seems to be that he can no longer hold his wine as in the past:

        Nature bids thee goe, not I.
‘Tis her erroneous self has made a braine
Uncapable of such a Soveraigne.

From now on Herrick will stay on the sidelines like some disabled debauchee, admiring but not tasting — although a little later in Hesperides we find a companion poem, “The Welcome to Sacke”, in which it seems that he has returned to active service.

Perhaps Herrick’s most imaginatively teasing reference to wine comes in “His Winding-sheet”, a poem addressed to the sheet in which his corpse will be bound.  Once more the poem opens with an apostrophe:

Come thou, who art the Wine, and wit
        Of all I’ve writ:
The Grace, the Glorie, and the best
        Piece of the rest.
Thou art of what I did intend
        The All, and End.
And what was made, was made to meet
        Thee, thee my sheet.

Herrick is here using wine in its figurative sense of a purified essence, rather as Macbeth does in his exclamation after the discovery of Duncan’s murder that “The wine of life is drawn.” But in what sense is Herrick’s winding sheet the “wine” of all his writing?  It is only when we realise that the poem puns on the double-meaning of sheet, referring also to the paper on which Hesperides will be printed, that the wit and meaning of the poem appear. Just as Herrick’s winding sheet will protect his body until the resurrection, so the sheets of Hesperides will preserve the wine of his poems.