In Vino-Et in Amore-Veritas: Transformational Animation in Herrick's "Sack" Poems

By Johnson, William C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

In Vino-Et in Amore-Veritas: Transformational Animation in Herrick's "Sack" Poems


Johnson, William C., Papers on Language & Literature


Upon his 1633 promotion to Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, initially in conjunction with Charles I, introduced a new form of Anglo-centric orthodoxy, designed in part to separate the English Church from the confessional and political tempests on the Continent and in part to assert the Church's departure from earlier Protestantism. Theoretical and theological issues fed the already-simmering flames of controversy. Stimulating much heated debate were such issues as ecclesiastical authority, loyalty to Scripture, the "rights of reason" and of tradition, the origins of the English Church, the relationship of church and state, lay spiritual autonomy and institutional authority, religious diversity and toleration, and the precise nature and extent of the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper.

In the midst of the controversies, Laud exercised his considerable power to enforce his priorities--theological, ecclesiastical, and political. Designed to reflect images of order and conformity, Laud's policies were projected as manifestations of the "beauty of holiness" as exhibited in a mundane world mirroring divine patterning. The resulting tensions were explosive, with Puritans being outraged by Laud's commissions to move communion tables to the site of traditional altars, withhold ecclesiastical toleration, insist on the sanctity of ceremony and sacred objects in matters of salvation and church order, implement the priority of the visible church in its sacraments and festivals--and, in rural areas, to prohibit the customary use of churchyards as pastures. Laud's intoleration was met with an equally intolerant Puritan populace that not only decried his upholding of worldly beauty as representative of anything but debased and fallen humanity, but that became increasingly dogmatic and repressive about such matters as idolatry, sexuality, "fictional representation," blasphemy, the taking of vows, and ecclesiastical imposition on matters considered to be spiritually autonomous. Laud's visitations were inclusive, from cathedrals to small rural parishes, dividing many congregations from England's north to its south, east to west.

Yet at the same time, seemingly removed from all the turbulence, and in a remote, small West-country village, lived Robert Herrick. With political, social, and religious turmoil raging only miles away, he created in his poetry a lively and animated world in which he sings of may-poles yielding to hock-carts that, in turn, make way for wassails and wakes. It is a world in which people, things, and times commingle, in which Christian and pagan, classical and current, co-exist in harmonious contemporality, a dynamic world in which red roses not only suggest other things but actually do become white cheeks. It is an environment where anything, at any time, may trans-form, blend, or shift to something else. It is in and about his microcosmic corner of England that Herrick sings of "Times trans-shifting," an important term that suggests the poet's concerns with such matters as optical illusion, paradox, word play, and metaphysical interconnection.

Despite its bucolic setting in which the activities of city and court hardly seem to intrude on rustic simplicity and quietness, Herrick's world is animated from inside and out by a spirit that pervades its people, places, and things. The sleepy village of Dean Prior, set in remote Devon, is in these poems energized and enlivened by participation in worlds larger than its inhabitants could ever have imagined--a world threatened by an advancing tide of restrictive and restraining Puritan dualism, against which Herrick's artistry provides a subversive, yet delightful, response.

In the midst of approaching chaos, Herrick, like his more famous contemporaries Hobbes and Milton, confronted incoherence; like them he sought to come to terms with it in his writing. Unlike them, his confronting the issues is not apparent on the surface, being safely and ambiguously woven into rural festivals, communal holidays, and celebrations of traditional Anglican holy days.

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