Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

10 April 2020: Poet’s Day 2

Poet’s Day continues with three poems by Robert Herrick. I had planned to choose poems about Easter but on reflection, the poems I found all seemed to be very religious in nature and didn’t inspire me, so I abandoned the idea.

I chose the first of today’s poems because daffodils are a spring flower and Wordsworth’s thoughts on the daffodil are so well-known that another view might be welcome. The second and third came because I had not thought of Herrick for a while, though I like his verse. I had no idea he was so prolific, though—I could do Poet’s Day for 50 years before I run out of his poems.

Next week, I will be choosing poems about children in honour of my new nephew, and for those of my friends who are juggling their jobs, their children and their home life in these difficult times.

This week’s poems are:

Poem 4. To Daffodils

“We have short time to stay, as you, we have as short a spring”

Robert Herrick (1591—1674)

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

I chose this poem because it made a change from Wordsworth’s well-known verse on the same subject. Herrick reminds us that we are transitory, like the daffodil and summer rain—once we have had our day, there will be no one like us again.

Herrick was an English poet and the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire until 1647 when he refused the Solemn League and Covenant, a treaty that adopted the Scottish system of church government in England in exchange for the Scots’ promise to support the Parliamentary army against the Royalists who were courting the idea of mustering Irish Catholic troops.

As a result, he lost his living in Devon and only regained it after the Restoration. In the meantime, he returned to Westminster and lived frugally on the charity of his friends and family. He was a prolific poet with over 2,500 poems to his name, including verses celebrating the births of Charles II and James II before the Civil War. When Charles was restored to the throne, he accepted Herrick’s petition to return to his vicarage in 1662 and Herrick died there in 1674, the same year as Milton.

Milton and Herrick were on opposite sides of the Civil War and it is interesting to consider their characters: Milton was a committed Parliamentarian, while Herrick was perhaps somewhat luke-warm in his support for the King and his cause, preferring to write on the beauties of nature, the shortness of life, and the need to make the most of both. He never married but often wrote rather sensual verse.

Poem 5. To Anthea, Who May Command Him Anything

“Thou art my life, my love, my heart, the very eyes of me; and hast command of every part, to live and die for thee.”

Robert Herrick (1591—1674)

Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free,
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I’ll give to thee.

Bid that heart stay, and it will stay,
To honour thy decree;
Or bid it languish quite away,
And ‘t shall do so for thee.

Bid me to weep, and I will weep,
While I have eyes to see;
And having none, yet I will keep
A heart to weep for thee.

Bid me despair, and I’ll despair,
Under that cypress tree;
Or bid me die, and I will dare
E’en death, to die for thee.

Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me;
And hast command of every part,
To live and die for thee.

I haven’t read this poem in some time, but I recognised it as soon as I came across it

The reference to “thy protestant” is interesting given the times in which Herrick lived and his adherence to the Royalist cause; perhaps he is showing the intensity of his feelings—he’d even become a Protestant if his lady bade him do it.

“Thou art my life, my love, my heart, the very eyes of me; and hast command of every part, to live and die for thee.” For a man who never married, he expresses deep love beautifully, though it occurs to me that he may possibly have been expressing his love for, and bond with, the Catholic Church rather than a member of the female sex. Even so, it is still a beautiful sentiment.

Poem 6. To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, old Time is still a flying”

Robert Herrick (1591—1674)

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a getting;
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best, which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

This is perhaps Herrick’s best-known poem in which he exhorts his young friends to make the most of their youth and strength while they have them. The message is much the same as Poem 4, and is perhaps best expressed by John Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society when he starts to encourage his students to think for themselves. Keating singles out this poem and links its message with the Latin phrase “Carpe diem” (meaning “Seize the day”). He shows his class the display of students of yesteryear:

“Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it?… Carpe… Hear it?… Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

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