The Argument of His Book
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers.
I sing of maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and, piece by piece,
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of time’s trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.
In May 2009, my blogpost about Robert Herrick’s poem To His Mistress, Objecting to his Neither Toying or Talking included, by way of introduction, four lines from The Argument of His Book. This week, that “Argument” takes the starring role as Poem of the Week, a little hock-cart of sunlit harvest to set us up for the autumn days.
It’s the opening poem of Herrick’s only collection, Hesperides, and summarises some of its topics. Argument signifies “theme” or “contents” and is not a defence. In a fine essay on the Poetry Foundation website, the author observes that “Hesperides is the only major collection of poetry in English to open with a versified table of contents.” I wonder if this is still the case, and would be interested to hear of any contemporary contenders setting out their poetic wares in this way, with or without rhyme and metre.
Herrick’s art here lies in the trimness of his selection (there were 1,400 poems, after all, in the original collection) and in its ordering, allowing various configurations of the list-as-narrative. There is harmony as well as contrast, and a satisfying arc is formed from line one’s spring blossoms to the final hope of Heaven’s largesse.
The alliteration fairly bubbles along in the opening line. It’s a playful, pretty string of nouns, and might seem somewhat random, so in the second line Herrick begins to build his calendar and show his pastoral credentials, separating the seasons and specifying July flowers as if to notice the different flora produced by the changing months. Then he moves us on to the larger celebrations in the rural and Christian year. “Hock-carts” are the decorated carts that bring home the harvest, “wassails” the toasts especially associated with Christmas and the new year. “Wakes” are not necessarily funereal vigils, but can be held for various celebratory purposes, such as the dedication of a church. My Everyman selection by Douglas Brooks-Davies (also the source of the current text) notes that a wake can also be a fair.
There’s the sense of an almost boyish appetite when the bridal cakes appear in the next line: the term offers a handy rhyme, of course, but it’s the sort of detail that brings a poem sharply alive. And yet Herrick is not always the delightfully simple literalist he first seems. For instance, there’s a metaphorical bride later in the collection. “To the King, Upon his Coming with his Army to the West” imagines “the west” transformed from drooping widowhood so that she “looks like a bride now, or a bed of flowers / newly refreshed both by the sun and showers”. Similarly, it’s possible that the reference to “rains” indicates a kingly pun, which isn’t to say Herrick disdains the primary meaning of flower-friendly cloudbursts.
So to love and that “cleanly wantonness” that might be considered his speciality. The Poetry Foundation essayist points out the shift from “I sing” to “I write” in line five, suggesting that it “may hint at the hundreds of epigrams on amatory themes and the other subjects that are scattered throughout Hesperides”. Perhaps it also denotes the respectability of translation and imitation, activities allowing Herrick access to the classical poets as his permissive muses.
That engaging oxymoron, “cleanly wantonness”, fluently carries us to a new place among the evocative, somewhat erotic moisturisers of lines seven and eight. Dew, a seemingly trivial phenomenon, appears in a number of poems. It fills primroses and resembles tears, and it adorns Julia’s hair with glittering radiance. There are frequent tears in the collection, and, in the poem called His Sailing from Julia, death is imagined as a lonely, uncertain sea voyage. But, in the Argument itself, no one overtly weeps, and if a voyage is distantly conjured, it brings a cargo of exotic luxuries such as spices and ambergris.
Large themes and the more trivial mingle in the last six lines: that resonant proclamation “I sing of time’s trans-shifting” may encode the major historical changes in England at the period, and the effects they had on Herrick personally but, perhaps wisely, they’re not spelled out, and charming if sentimental legends about roses and lilies replace them. There are romantic detours into “groves” and “twilights” and, finally, fairy-land, before the traveller gets serious – though not solemn – and entertains the prospects of Hell and a blissful Heaven, which will no doubt overflow with custards and curds, spices and cherries, and all the marigolds, roses and daffodils imaginable. Herrick’s collection included sacred poems, entitled Noble Numbers; or, His Pious Pieces, and a few of these are not far beneath George Herbert’s in quality.
A list poem this Argument may be, but at sonnet-length it has the sturdiness required to carry a weight of associations. Its slightly trundling metrical wheels are accompanied by some compelling melody. Of course, it was not intended to be read separately from Hesperides. Yet it amounts to more than a taster, and can be enjoyed as a solo the author sings in sheer celebration, both of the pastoral life and of the language that brings it, rich and shining, into our imaginations.