To tell how night draws hence, I’ve none,
I have to sing how day draws on:
A maid, my Prue, by good luck sent,
That little, Fates me gave or lent.
I keep, which, creeking day by day,
She goes her long white egg to lay:
I have, which, with a jealous ear,
Her tongue, to tell what danger’s near.
I keep, tame, with my morsels fed,
An orphan left him, lately dead:
I keep, that plays about my house,
With eating many a miching mouse:
A Trasy I do keep, whereby
The more my rural privacy:
But toys, to give my heart some ease:–
None is, slight things do lightly please.
Herrick starts this poem by telling us what he has not got – what he has no need of in fact: a clock. There is a point to this. In the early seventeenth century clocks were all the rage, and clockmakers – or mechanics, held in high esteem. King James I (VI of Scotland), had his own clockmaker royal, a man, like himself, from Scotland, especially brought to the English court – he is a character in Walter Scott’s ‘The Fortunes of Nigel’, a novel set among the Scottish residents of James’s London. In not using a clock, Herrick seems to be eschewing the modern technology of London, and perhaps also the fripperies of the court for the simple life.
Herrick, however, didn’t always feel this way about the countryside. He starts his poem “His Return to London’ thus,
From the dull confines of the drooping west
To see the day spring from the pregnant east,
Ravish’d in spirit, I come, nay more, I fly
To thee, blest place of my nativity!
The countryside: ugh! He continues this encomium to London by listing much the same sort of benefits that people nowadays will extoll: a diverse, multicultural population (‘All nations, customs, kindreds, languages!’), culture, society, and so on. Presumably this was written after he had spent a good part of the sixteen-twenties living as a parson in the wilds of the West Country, and was sick to the back teeth of the simple life of the countryside. Fair enough: London was his home town after all, and poetry can be born of fleeting moods as much as deep, permanent feelings, especially lyric poetry as this – but we must recognise that Herrick’s point of view in this poem is rather a pose. The poem is a little like one of those ‘Country Diary’ type columns that periodically pop up in broadsheet newspapers, in which a city slicker journalist type retires to the countryside and sends reports on life there for the edification, or amusement, of his readers. Like such columns, this poem is really a kind of boast – unlike you unreformed metropolitan types, I have found a purer, more authentic mode of life, and this is what it is like.
There is another point to Herrick’s mention of the clock – the clock is mechanical, while Herrick’s ‘Private Wealth’, as the alternative title to the poem describes it, is living and breathing. The important things in Herrick’s life are animals and people, companions and not mere possessions. The contrast between the natural environment of the countryside and the artificial one of the city is one almost as old as civilisation itself, but the invention of moving, mechanical possessions that began to gain steam (or momentum at least) in Herrick’s time, sharpened the distinction. Herrick’s use of personal names emphasises further the individuality of his residents – his maid Prue, that is Prudence, and his spaniel, Trasy – though he jokingly treats this as a regular noun. I presume that this grange’s retinue was at least fairly typical of a man of Herrick’s position in the seventeenth century, and probably in earlier centuries too. The poem puts to bed this idea of the countryside as a haven from the noise of the city, whatever else it’s a haven from: Herrick’s house is as teeming with life as any London tavern.
From the tenor of his later poems, I think it likely that the ease and amusement that his companions brought him began to wear thin after a while. I must have a cruel streak, but I like to imagine Herrick sitting irately in his house in Devon, surrounded by his yapping spaniel, his hissing geese and prattling maid, thinking to himself, Lord, what I wouldn’t give for a drink with the lads in old London town!