In his 1921 play Cromwell, John Drinkwater has Oliver Cromwell’s aged mother sitting in their Ely estate among friends and family and leafing through a book of poetry. She flicks from poem to poem, never reading the whole, in much the same way we might nowadays flick through a newspaper, or TV channels, or the internet for that matter. She is anxious because she is waiting for her son, who has been to London, opposing the King and his usurpation of the country’s laws; it is 1639 and Civil War is brewing.
For all her worries, she still manages to read some poetry out and pass comment. She says, ‘This Mr. Donne is a very good poet, but he’s rather hard to understand. I suppose that is being eighty, too. Mr. Herrick is very simple. John Hampden sent me some copies from a friend who knows Mr. Herrick. I like them better than John does.’ John Hampden is one of Cromwell’s Parliamentarian friends, famous in his own right as a challenger of the King’s overweening authority. He arrives with Cromwell with their younger ally, Henry Ireton. Hampden thinks Herrick not very serious, and prefers the work of George Herbert – this is natural enough, as Herbert’ poetry is moralistic and religious-minded, thus suitable reading material for a roundhead; Mrs Cromwell does not dislike Herbert, but insists, ‘Mr. Herrick is very serious indeed, only he isn’t always telling us of it.’
One of the extracts of poetry she quotes approvingly is the first eight lines of Herrick’s To Meadows. Here is the whole poem:
Ye have been fresh and green,
Ye have been fill’d with flowers;
And ye the walks have been
Where maids have spent their hours.
You have beheld how they
With wicker arks did come,
To kiss and bear away
The richer cowslips home.
You’ve heard them sweetly sing,
And seen them in a round;
Each virgin, like a spring,
With honeysuckles crown’d.
But now, we see none here,
Whose silvery feet did tread
And with dishevell’d hair
Adorn’d this smoother mead.
Like unthrifts, having spent
Your stock, and needy grown
You’re left here to lament
Your poor estates alone.
Herrick employs fairly simple pastoral language in short, sweet iambic trimeter. There is none of the trickier syntax of a Donne or Milton poem. Each stanza comprises a whole sentence whose apparent meaning is simple to digest. It is an enjoyable poem to read and it is right Mrs Cromwell thinks it easy. But what about it being, as she also insists, serious?
Herrick is addressing the meadow, now in a rueful state. What the meadow has lost, and Herrick imagines it to now be lamenting, is the pretty girls who once trod on its pastures. The imagery here is idyllic and sensual – these lovely young girls, kissing flowers, singing, dancing, bringing life and beauty to the meadow, and getting bare-footed and a little dishevelled in the process. Quite witty, isn’t it? Herrick is really talking to himself – it is not the meadow that misses female company, it is Herrick. Perhaps he wrote this during his ‘exile’, when he was sent to tend a parish in the West Country, far from his beloved London, and far from its lovely maidens (if ‘maiden’ be the right term). Herrick is one of a number of English poets (Skelton, Donne and the Anglo-Irish Swift are the others) who made their living as vicars, and perhaps didn’t take the rigours of their office as seriously as they took their poetry, or indeed their pleasures. Pleasure – the memory of pleasure, and the yearning for pleasure – is the motivating force of this poem. The poet misses kisses and song, singing and dancing, ‘silvery feet’ and ‘dishevelled hair.’ Herrick we remember likes the dishevelled sort of maiden, as he explained in his sonnet Delight in Disorder:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness
Philip Larkin,three centuries later, shared this proclivity and described it more bluntly, thus
And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up
Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.
That is from the poem Administration he was of course referring also to another kind of disorder. But I digress…
Herrick may have had his mind on young girls, but To Meadows also evinces a true appreciation of the meadow itself – it works as a pastoral poem. The ‘spring, / With honeysuckles crown’d’ is an image that evokes the beauty, vitality and fertility of nature, as well as of those virgins. Herrick is a great poet of simple pleasures – those of nature and those of life, which are, as Mrs Cromwell noted, serious business – especially when they are taken away.
Drinkwater’s play is unabashedly pro-Parliamentarian. He presents a rather partial account of Cromwell, as a kind of English George Washington, given to making noble speeches about freedom of conscience and worship, a reasonable, noble squire who loved ale and song but was inspired by love of freedom to do great things. This doesn’t sit well with what we know of the more brutal and weirder elements of Cromwell’s character. Drinkwater makes no mention of Cromwell’s bloodthirsty antipathy to Catholics, or his sometimes indiscriminate slaughter in Ireland, nor some of the more fanatical policies pursued under his protectorate, such as the banning of Christmas and of Morris dancing. Drinkwater’s idealisation of Cromwell sits strangely with his admiration for Herrick.
Herrick was after all a loyal Royalist. He was one of a number of vicars removed from their posts under Cromwell’s protectorate, for Royalist or Laudian sympathies. For Herrick, this was quite welcome: cast out of his Devon parish, he returned to London, the occasion of that joyous bit of poetry we quoted last week. No doubt he caught up with a few of those maidens he had so pined for. Though Drinkwater’s history is strictly Roundhead (or, arguably, Whiggish), he plainly has more affection for Herrick than the Puritan poets. But then Drinkwater was a poet himself, and in the best of his poetry he too can capture the beauty of the small and the simple. A description of apples sitting in a loft might be the kind of thing a modern day Hampden would dismiss as not serious, but The Moonlit Apples (though not faultless) is a quite beautiful poem, lyrical, pleasurable and sensuous, if not – as in Herrick – sensual. I like the third stanza best:
They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
And quiet is the steep stair under.
Picture credit: http://www.olivercromwell.org/where_did_he_come_from.htm