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You may have been told to ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,’ but do you know who originally said it? Find out when you explore this lesson on the life and work of Robert Herrick – one of the most prolific but unrecognizable names in English poetry!

‘Son of Ben’: A Brief Biography of Robert Herrick

Have you ever felt that work you’ve done has gone unappreciated or maybe even entirely unnoticed? Even if it’s something as simple as washing the dishes, we like to feel our efforts are valued. So, think how Robert Herrick would feel to know that, until recently, his enormous body of work had been largely forgotten in English literature!

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Robert Herrick (1591-1674), prolific English poet and vicar
Sketch of Robert Herrick

We’re not even sure about the precise date for Herrick’s birth; however, we do know that Robert was baptized on 24 August 1591. Only 15 months later, his father, Nicholas, died with evidence suggesting suicide.

Two days before his death, Robert’s father had settled his will providing for his wife and seven children, and reportedly ‘fell’ from a high window in Cheapside, London.Nicholas – a goldsmith by trade – had also provided that Robert would be apprenticed to Nicholas’ brother, Sir William Herrick, goldsmith and jeweler to King James I. Robert was supposed to study with his uncle for ten years, but appears to have only been his apprentice for around six. For some reason, he left his post with Sir William and entered St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge in 1614; however, money troubles led him to the less expensive Trinity Hall, where Robert studied law and received his bachelor’s degree in 1617 and a master’s in 1620.Much of what happened beyond this point in Herrick’s life is speculation, but there are some things we know for sure.

After leaving Cambridge, he still struggled to make ends meet, but he nonetheless rubbed elbows with members at Court and those in London’s literary elite. Not least of these was Ben Jonson – one of the most prominent names in English poetry of the 17th century. Robert and Jonson’s other students (often referred to as ‘sons of Ben’) looked to their teacher as a father figure, but Herrick perhaps more than anyone else followed in his ‘father’s’ literary footsteps, which we’ll discuss more in the Poems section below.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637), widely influential English poet and playwright
Portrait of Ben Jonson

Despite his popularity among literary circles, Herrick still needed to make a living, and by 1627, when he was chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham, he had taken holy orders.

Around two years later, it’s recorded that Robert was given the post of vicar at Dean Prior, Devonshire. Some of Herrick’s own works suggest that life as a clergyman was too rigorous to allow much time for writing. Nevertheless, it afforded him a comfortable living that he was happy to earn for the rest of his life – except for the decade or so he was barred from the church after 1648 as an old supporter of King Charles I. After the monarchy was restored in England, Robert returned to his post at Dean Prior (c. 1660), where he resided until his death.

Robert Herrick was buried at Devonshire on 15 October 1674, but over the course of his life, was truly a prolific poet. And if you keep reading, you’ll get a peek at just a few of his over 1,200 individual pieces! Most of these poems are published in Hesperides, which is the only collection of poems that Herrick published.

Poems by Herrick

  • ‘His Prayer to Ben Jonson’

Have you ever heard someone who’s writing or trying to think of something ask someone like a Muse for help? At any rate, you’ve probably read poems and other literature whose authors have invoked these goddesses of inspiration at some point, and you might’ve even seen people refer to another person as their Muse. For Robert Herrick, his ‘father’ and mentor Ben Jonson was definitely such a person, and he used ‘His Prayer to Ben Jonson’ as a means of praising his ‘Muse.’With Jonson having died in 1637, Herrick also relied on the Christian notion of praying to departed souls who’ve been accepted into Heaven. Calling him ‘Saint Ben,’ Robert promised his old teacher that he and his teachings would live on forever – not just in the happiness of the Hereafter, but also through the unmistakable mark he left on his many readers and on writers like Herrick.

  • ‘Delight in Disorder’

One reason Robert Herrick has remained unheard of to many of us is that much of his work was heavily criticized by the generations following his death as being too vulgar. They’re talking of course about his many examples of erotic poetry, verse works focusing on sexual love. What’s funny, though, is that Herrick himself never married or even appeared to have pursued a romantic relationship at all. So, how could he have dreamed-up such steamy pieces as ‘Delight in Disorder?’In this poem, Herrick tells his ‘mistress’ that even the slightest hint of disarray in her appearance is enough to stir his sexual appetites. However, in doing so, he’s following Jonson’s teachings by following the example of ancient erotic poets like Anacreon or Ovid, whose works use sexual metaphors to explore the process of poetic creation.

  • ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time’

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the Latin phrase carpe diem (‘seize the day’) somewhere, as well as the English one, ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ Many of you might’ve thought that this English quotation came from a much more famous literary figure, but it’s actually the first line from Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time.’ On the other hand, though, carpe diem appears in the last line of Odes I.11 by the Roman poet, Horace.Once again, Robert is following Jonson’s lead by taking inspiration from ancient authors.

In his poem, Herrick warns the young maidens that time is always slipping by and encourages them to take advantage of the pleasures of their youth. Likewise in Horace’s ode, he advises young Leuconoe to ‘seize the day’ while she still has the opportunity.

Lesson Summary

Having taken holy orders sometime before 1627, Robert Herrick also worked as a clergyman in addition to his being one of the most prolific poets of his era. A student of the renowned Ben Jonson, Herrick produced over 1,200 individual pieces, including ‘His Prayer to Ben Jonson,’ ‘Delight in Disorder,’ and ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time.’ Many of these take their inspirations from the works of ancient authors like Anacreon, Ovid, or Horace, such as his pieces of erotic poetry, or verse works focusing on sexual love.

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