Thursday, 8 August 2013

Short measures (v): Robert Herrick’s Old Wives

     Holy-Rood come forth and shield
     Us i' th' Citie and the Field :
     Safely guard us, now and aye,
     From the blast that burns by day;
     And those sounds that us affright
     In the dead of dampish night.
     Drive all hurtfull Feinds us fro,
     By the Time the Cocks first crow.

I came across this poem only recently, and rather to my surprise: I thought I knew Herrick’s work better than that. What I actually came across were the first two lines, inscribed in a panel of stained glass in an hotel on the south coast. I didn’t recognize them, and had no idea who had written them or why they were there. ‘Who?’ is easily answered; ‘Why?’ perhaps more difficult.

The poem is one of the more than 2,500 that go to make up Robert Herrick’s Hesperides, published in 1648. Herrick reminds me of Betjeman: like Sir John, he misses the old days; he casts an unashamedly lustful eye on girls he fancies; he has a rather ambiguous relationship with the Church of England (Herrick was a country parson, but has none of the angst or fervour of his contemporaries Donne and Herbert); above all, perhaps, he writes poetry which must have seemed out of date to his contemporaries, excited as they were by the experiments of the Metaphysical Poets – just as Betjeman persisted in writing poetry as if he’d never heard of Modernism.

Indeed, there’s something wilfully, almost radically, out of date about this poem. It’s called ‘The Old Wives’ Prayer’, the very title suggesting something old fashioned, far-fetched, not to be taken seriously. The title warns us that the words are those of the Old Wives, but one guesses Herrick enjoyed putting them on paper. With its first word invoking the ‘Holy-Rood’, the poem turns its back on the poet’s own Anglicanism: by the 1640s the Church of England was firmly in the grip of Puritan iconoclasts such as William Dowsing, who were stripping churches of any remaining vestiges of superstitious images – of which the Cross was deemed to be the worst. So to offer a prayer to the Cross, seeking its protection from ‘all hurtfull Feinds’, must have seemed like asking for trouble.  Which is indeed what Herrick got: in 1647 he was ejected from his west country parish (and not reinstated until after the Restoration of Charles II).

The poem seems quite unselfconsciously to turn a prayer into a spell: with its short seven-syllable lines, its insistent rhythm (Dum-di dum-di dum-di dum) and still more insistent rhyming couplets, it combines the language of the prayer book (‘now and aye’ – now and for ever) with the incantation of a nursery rhyme - ‘By the time the cocks first crow’.  It works, as short poems so often do (see Short measures (i): William Blake and Eternity’s sunrise) by juxtaposing opposites. In the first line, ‘come forth’ signals attack, while ‘shield’ suggests defence.  Next, town and country - the city and the field - appear side by side.  After that, ‘the blast that burns by day’ is set against ‘the dead of dampish night’.

I was puzzled at first by ‘blast’. Poetically, this word usually suggests cold, not heat. Shakespeare, in The Rape of Lucrece, refers to the ‘northern blast’, and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land has that chilly echo of Andrew Marvell (who was Herrick’s contemporary):

But at my back, in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of dry bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

However, I have just come across a very modern use of ‘blast’ in the Herrick sense. It’s in ‘Composition’, a poem by Jo Shapcott:

And I sat among the dust motes, my pencil
(blue) sounding loud on the page, and
a blast of sun hit a puddle

and a distant radio told the news.

(You can find this poem in Jo Shapcott’s latest collection, Of Mutability, a title of which Herrick would have approved heartily.)

Herrick’s last line has, for me at least, a clear echo of the ghost in Hamlet, which ‘faded on the crowing of the cock’, and indeed the whole poem repeatedly conjures Shakespeare:

… it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it. (Twelfth Night)

Not only that, but the seven-syllable lines of the poem exactly match Puck’s final speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Now until the break of day
Through this house each fairy stray…

which in turn mimics the speech patterns of Oberon, the fairy king:

We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wand’ring moon.

None of this is coincidence. Herrick belonged, by temperament if not by time, to the great age of English fairy writing, the age that encompassed Spenser, Drayton, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (Herrick’s hero, and the author of The Masque of Oberon); he was its last survivor. Indeed, Edmund Gosse, who did much to re-establish Herrick’s reputation in the 19th century, described him as the ‘last laureate’ of Fairyland.

If this all sounds not just fanciful but fey, it’s worth remembering that writers of the Enlightenment took what Dryden called ‘the Fairy Way of Writing’ entirely seriously. Here is Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (No. 419; 1712):

There is a very odd turn of thought required for this sort of writing, and it is impossible for a poet to succeed in it, who has not a particular cast of fancy, and an imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious. Besides this, he ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humour those notions which we have imbibed in our infancy.

By the time Addison wrote this, Herrick was long dead and even longer out of fashion, but I think the essayist has here described exactly the character both of Herrick and of ‘The Old Wives’ Prayer’, a poem I am glad to have stumbled on by chance in a New Forest hotel, inscribed in stained glass, no doubt as a good luck charm.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: late 19th century stained glass by Oscar Paterson, in The Beach House Hotel, Milford; photo © the author

Short measures is a very occasional series in which I discuss a short poem (no more than twelve lines - shorter than a sonnet, therefore). Alas, for copyright reasons I can rarely publish a complete 20th. century poem or one by a living author. Suggestions for future poems to include in the series are always welcome.

I have blogged once before about Herrick: World and time: To Sycamores

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