Thursday, November 27, 2014

Herrick parting, Donne valedicting

Herrick sends a tear downstream

I was scrolling through the text of Hesperides one day – there’s a first sentence that sounds like an academic’s awful version of the famous old-time music hall song – when I came across Herrick’s poem, ‘The parting Verse, or charge to his supposed Wife when he travelled’. As I am currently teaching my special author course on John Donne, I thought I might write a little about this poem, so clearly inspired by Donne. I will quote the whole poem, with some comments.

As Herrick’s title reveals, to a charming or artless effect, this is a completely gratuitous composition. Herrick did not have a wife to write a poem of valediction to (nor do I imagine him ever getting out of Devon), but Herrick liked writing poems, and he is aware that there’s this sub-genre, attractive to him as being both intimate and reflective, which Donne has re-created in a contemporary way. So he wants a part of the action, and gamely offers what he would say, if he were married, and if he were parting from his wife for lengthy travels.

It’s interesting that Herrick clearly understands Donne to be personally present in the Valedictions, writing them to his wife. This is how Izaak Walton read the famous ‘Valediction: forbidding mourning’, and really, all said and done, he was probably right. Robin Robbins, whose scholarship I am inclined to revere, dates the more famous poems of valediction to 1605, when Donne was setting off abroad and leaving Ann. Robbins’ amazing effort to date the ‘Valediction: Of my Name in the Window’ to late August-early September 1599 deserves to be right too.

I’m not sure that Robbins does note anywhere that ‘Valediction’ looks likely to be a word with Donne’s stamp on it. The OED has it from 1614, when Donne thought to print his poems as his “valediction to the world, before I take Orders”. But Donne probably invented the word in 1599 or 1605 (he later uses it a lot in sermons too). It was rapidly taken up, and we can imagine it propelled into usage by Donne’s superlative poems, which I believe Donne did call 'Valedictions'. EEBO finds it first, antedating the OED, in a sermon of 1607 by Robert Crakanthorp. Poems with ‘Valediction’ as their title or part title follow from the usual mob of Caroline gentlemen who wrote with ease: Sir Robert Ayton, Charles Cotton, William Cartwright.

But this is a digression: Herrick wasn’t willing to measure up quite so directly to Donne, and so he goes for the unpretentious ‘Parting Verse’. Memories of Donne fill his opening couplet (especially Donne’s simpler poems, his songs):

Go hence, and with this parting kisse, 
Which joyns two souls, remember this; 

So, what does Herrick want his imaginary wife to remember? First of all, that ‘she’ is ‘married’ to him. It seems to me typical that Herrick then wants to write about her erotic power. This imagined addressee, this fantasy young wife, could have thousands of lovers pursuing her, at the smallest effort. Herrick likes this thought, with the proviso that her desire remains confined to him. In a Donne-derived thought (I mean, of ‘all’ quickly becoming nothing), the very multiplicity of these potential admirers cancels them all out:

Though thou beest young, kind, soft, and faire, 
And may'st draw thousands with a haire: 
Yet let these glib temptations be 
Furies to others, Friends to me. 
Looke upon all; and though on fire 
Thou set'st their hearts, yet chaste desire 
Steere Thee to me; and thinke (me gone) 
In having all, that thou hast none. 

Herrick continues, though, in a kind of mental dialogue with Donne’s prior poems. They clearly seem to him to border on sequestering the beloved, once she has been so reluctantly left. Herrick, pleasing himself with the thought of all that frustrated desire aroused by his ‘wife’, is happy to imagine her out and about, setting hearts on fire, but then, returning to the Donne mode, wants to direct her thoughts: think of him, see him in her thoughts.

Nor so immured wo'd I have 
Thee live, as dead and in thy grave; 
But walke abroad, yet wisely well 
Stand for my comming, Sentinell.
And think (as thou do'st walke the street) 
Me, or my shadow thou do'st meet. 

Her returns now to reflections on how she must deal with all her admirers. Once can see the example of Penelope hoving into view well before the inevitable allusion is made:

I know a thousand greedy eyes 
Will on thy Feature tirannize, 
In my short absence; yet behold 
Them like some Picture, or some Mould 
Fashion'd like Thee; which though' tave eares 
And eyes, it neither sees or heares. 
Gifts will be sent, and Letters, which 
Are the expressions of that itch, 
And salt, which frets thy Suters; fly 
Both, lest thou lose thy liberty: 
For that once lost, thou't fall to one, 
Then prostrate to a million. 
But if they wooe thee, do thou say, 
(As that chaste Queen of Ithaca 
Did to her suitors) this web done 
(Undone as oft as done) I'm wonne; 

Herrick imagines the imaginary wife he is addressing to be both alluring, and young, and wise enough to see through the flattery that will come her way, know it for what it really intends. He makes room for a very standard reflection on how jealousy and mistrust are the worst ways to secure fidelity:

I will not urge Thee, for I know, 
Though thou art young, thou canst say no, 
And no again, and so deny, 
Those thy Lust-burning Incubi. 
Let them enstile Thee Fairest fair, 
The Pearle of Princes, yet despaire 
That so thou art, because thou must 
Believe, Love speaks it not, but Lust; 
And this their Flatt'rie do’s commend 
Thee chiefly for their pleasures end. 
I am not jealous of thy Faith, 
Or will be; for the Axiome saith, 
He that doth suspect, do’s haste 
A gentle mind to be unchaste. 

The next three couplets are all over the place: she is to live to herself, but this falls far short of doing what she pleases. He wants her thoughts, and her bed, to be cold. The bed becomes a Donne-like sphere, and she might wake up to find him – what do you expect? – rather bathetically sleeping by her side. Imagined partners come to bedsides in Donne, and it is all tension and drama. Imaginary Mistress Herrick wakes up, and finds her Robert reassuringly asleep at her side (it’s easy to imagine Herrick snoring with sonority through his magnificence nose, as seen in that portrait of the poet in profile):

No, live thee to thy selfe, and keep 
Thy thoughts as cold, as is thy sleep: 
And let thy dreames be only fed 
With this, that I am in thy bed.
And thou then turning in that Sphere, 
Waking shalt find me sleeping there. 
At this point, the poem wanders off into some very surprising lines. He now thinks to advise her on what she mustn’t do if the very worst thing happens. Suppose that there is some terrible breakdown of domestic security or misplacement of trust, and she is forced into having sex? Herrick does not want imaginary Mistress Herrick to follow the Lucrece route, and kill herself:

But yet if boundlesse Lust must skaile 
Thy Fortress, and will needs prevaile; 
And wildly force a passage in, 
Banish consent, and 'tis no sinne 
Of Thine; so Lucrece fell, and the 
Chaste Syracusian Cyane. 
So Medullina fell, yet none 
Of these had imputation 
For the least trespasse; 'cause the mind 
Here was not with the act combin'd. 
The body sins not, 'tis the Will 
That makes the Action, good, or ill. 
And if thy fall sho'd this way come, 
Triumph in such a Martirdome. 

Herrick has pursued his reverie into imagining these melodramatic circumstances. Really, it’s all rather strange. He wants his imaginary life-partner to be as provoking as possible, of general or even of dangerous desire, provided that she consents to nothing. The only way this invented woman might have sex would be if she were forced, but if that case did somehow arise, she must not take the Lucrece route out of an intolerable life. The poem is, in the end, a signal instance of that tendency in Donne for telling a woman (as the imagined or real recipient of his poem) what to think. Herrick dreams her up, to admonish her. The poem becomes a charm, even an instrument of control. It is like a compressed version of a sermon to her:

I will not over-long enlarge 
To thee, this my religious charge. 
Take this compression,

But it also seems, mysteriously, to have some occult power to inform him whether the next kisses she will give him, at his return, are not mentally directed elsewhere, and really meant for another.

so by this 
Means I shall know what other kisse 
Is mixt with mine; and truly know, 
Returning, if't be mine or no: 
Keepe it till then;

I’m not sure how this works. In Massinger’s play, The Picture, a portrait has the power to indicate the fidelity of the person depicted, and maybe Herrick was impressed by that fanciful idea of the art object as an infallible informant. His poem ends with a gesture to that Donne topic of the beloved having some power of destiny over her lover/husband. In his return, he hopes to prove that indeed, somewhere lives a woman true and fair (it’s this imaginary wife he has in his head):

and now my Spouse, 
For my wisht safety pay thy vowes, 
And prayers to Venus; if it please 
The Great-blew-ruler of the Seas; 
Not many full-fac't-moons shall waine, 
Lean-horn'd, before I come again 
As one triumphant; when I find 
In thee, all faith of Woman-kind. 

And finally, Herrick, dreaming over Donne, seems to have absorbed a notion that your laudatory poem might end most effectively with a bit of a barb. The fantasy wife must not imagine that she herself has virtue: all she can hope for is to have assimilated virtue, from ‘Virtue’ itself as an exterior embodiment of good, or from the ‘virtue’ that’s in him:

Nor wo'd I have thee thinke, that Thou 
Had'st power thy selfe to keep this vow; 
But having scapt temptations shelfe, 
Know vertue taught thee, not thy selfe. 

So, Robert Herrick, dressing himself up poetically to resemble John Donne, and discovering in himself as husband a capacity to be wise about everything a husband might have to be wise about, broad-minded up to a point, and gravely appreciative of a young woman’s power over other men. To say nothing of him assigning a subordinate nature to women: in the end, he is essentially aligning himself (after all this instruction) with virtue.

My image, which I found slipped into my text of Herrick, was drawn years ago to accompany a facetious article I had written about Staines, Middlesex (latterly, ‘Staines-upon-Thames’) as it features in literature. Staines is not a romantic town. But this did not deter Herrick from seeing its potential as a site for erotic mourning:

The Tear sent to her from Staines
Glide, gentle streams, and bear
   Along with you my tear
      To that coy Girl;
      Who smiles, yet slays
      Me with delays;
   And strings my tears as Pearle.

   See! See! she's yonder set,
   Making a Carcanet
      Of Maiden-flowers!
      There, there present
      This Orient,
   And Pendant Pearle of ours.

  Then say, I've sent one more
   Gem to enrich her store;
      And that is all
      Which I can send,
      Or vainly spend,
   For tears no more will fall.

   Nor will I seek supply
   Of them, the spring's once dry;
      But I’ll devise,
      (Among the rest)
      A way that's best
   How I may save mine eyes. 
   Yet say; sho’d she condemn
   Me to surrender them;
      Then say; my part
      Must be to weep
      Out them, to keep
   A poor, yet loving heart.
   Say too, She wo’d have this;
   She shall: Then my hope is,
     That when I'm poor,
      And nothing have
      To send, or save;
   I'm sure she'll ask no more. 

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