HERRICK’S ‘To the Rose. Song’ (no. 238 in Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq. (1648)) is a sort of disgraced twin to Waller’s much-admired ‘Song’ (‘Goe, lovely Rose—’). The poems share similar opening lines, the idea of the rose acting as messenger, and an initial tone of parlor gentility that is surprisingly undermined.1 In Waller’s ‘Song’, substantively a traditional version of carpe diem, the shift in tone occurs in line 16, when the rose is suddenly told to perish (‘Then die …’). In Herrick’s poem, the shift occurs in the second stanza’s description of a sadistic sexual fantasy. Here is ‘To the Rose. Song’ in full: Goe happy Rose, and enterwove With other Flowers, bind my Love. Tell her too, she must not be, Longer flowing, longer free, That so oft has fetter’d me. Say (if she’s fretfull) I have bands Of Pearle, and Gold, to bind her hands: Tell her, if she struggle still, I have Mirtle rods, (at will) For to tame, though not to kill. Take thou my blessing thus, and goe And tell her this, but doe not so, Lest a handsome anger flye, Like a Lightning, from her eye, And burn thee’up, as well as I.2 The second stanza makes explicit the pornographic implications latent in the first. This happens, in particular, with the image of the ‘Mirtle rods’ that the speaker will use to beat the beloved (ll. 9–10). The image continues the metaphor of imprisonment but is patently bizarre. Where the conceit whereby the ‘fretfull’ prisoner is to be tied up with jewelry is obviously playful, a beating is a beating, no matter what its instrument. The evergreen shrub called ‘mirtle’ was sacred to Venus and is noted for the perfume of its flowers. Its connotations are soft; but that does not mean that ‘rods’ of myrtle would be soft. Indeed, elsewhere Herrick seems to have recognized that rods are rods—and deal out harsh punishment if used to whip someone. The four-line ‘Upon Faunus’ (no. 986) describes the god Faunus whipping his wife to death with, again, a ‘Mirtle rod’ (l. 1). The poem ends, ‘The Rod (perhaps) was better’d by the name; / But had it been of Birch, the death’s the same’ (ll. 3–4).3 In ‘To the Rose. Song’, Herrick was likely drawn to the conceit of the ‘Mirtle rods’ (l. 9) for sake of the pun on Latin myrtus (‘myrtle’) and mortus (‘dead’); further confirmation is that the following line includes the phrase, ‘though not to kill’ (l. 10). On the other hand, everything about the second stanza may have been prompted by a wish to echo and to ring witty changes on particulars of Marlowe’s ‘Song’ (‘Come live with me, and be my love’). Marlowe’s poem does not, like Herrick’s, mention ‘pearl’, but it does offer the beloved ‘A cap of flowers, and a kirtle / Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle’ (ll. 11–12) and ‘Fair lined slippers for the cold, / With buckles of the purest gold’ (ll. 15–16). The ‘buckles’ in line 16 of Marlowe’s poem inherently suggest an idea of binding, of making fast; however, context neutralizes the suggestion and makes the ‘buckles’ only ornamental fasteners. The imprisoning potential of Marlowe’s other binding equipment—the ‘belt of straw’ (l. 17) and the ‘coral clasps’ (l. 18)—is similarly neutralized.4 Herrick’s conceit of actual bondage in ‘To the Rose. Song’ gets energy from the way it contrasts to the materials it pointedly echoes from Marlowe’s poem. After all, Herrick’s career-long interest in delivering (or, at least, attempting to deliver) tasteless images tastefully is well known.5 ‘Come live with me, and be my love’ is one of the most celebrated poems in English and was apparently already so in the mid-seventeenth century.6 Herrick may very well have thought that it would confer refracted glints of its achievement upon a particularly deviant descendant. Footnotes 1 The opening lines and idea of the rose acting as go-between are cribbed from Martial’s epigram vii. 89 (‘I, felix Rosa …’). 2 Robert Herrick, ‘To the Rose. Song’, in The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, ed. Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly, 2 vols (Oxford, 2013), I, 238. All subsequent references to Herrick’s poetry are to this edition, hereafter abbreviated to CPRH. 3 See CPRH, I, 291. The image of ‘myrtle rods’ (or of a ‘myrtle rod’, singular) shows up a few times in Herrick’s verse, although only in ‘To the Rose. Song’ does it appear in a context relating to sexual bondage. For a brief discussion of the image and its possible indebtedness to Anacreon’s ode 31, see David Campbell, ‘Herrick to Anacreon’, Cabinet of the Muses: Essays on Classical and Comparative Literature in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, ed. Mark Griffith and Donald Mastronarde (Atlanta, 1990), 335. 4 Christopher Marlowe, The Collected Poems of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Patrick Cheney and Brian J. Striar (Oxford, 2006), 157–8. 5 Herrick’s penchant for writing gay, pretty verses about carnality is obvious to anyone who reads his body of verse. Some find the penchant itself objectionable. Introducing F. R. Leavis’s negative assessment of Herrick as compared to Marvell, Darrell Hinchliffe notes that Herrick is ‘sometimes dismissed as a relatively flippant or even puerile celebrant of “cleanly wantonesse”, a Christian hedonist, keen on the pleasures of the flesh but all too painfully aware of its transience’. See ‘But Do Not So’: Herrick’s Ravishment and Lyric Address’, Modern Language Review, xcvi (2001), 307. 6 Of course, Raleigh responds to Marlowe’s poem directly in ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’. Other English Renaissance poets who responded to and/or imitated it include Donne (‘The Bait’), Shakespeare (The Merry Wives of Windsor III.i.8–35), Jonson (‘Song’ (‘Come, my Celia, let us prove’)), Crashaw (‘Out of Catullus’), Milton (‘L’Allegro’, ll. 33–40), and Cotton (‘An Invitation to Phillis’). Herrick, too, explicitly echoes the poem in ‘To Phillis. To Love, and Live with Him’ (no. 521). © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 7, 2018
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