Marriage, Celibacy, and Ritual in Robert Herrick's 'Hesperides.'

By Swann, Marjorie | Philological Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview
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Marriage, Celibacy, and Ritual in Robert Herrick's 'Hesperides.'

Swann, Marjorie, Philological Quarterly

Over the past two decades, Robert Herrick's relationship to

Stuart culture has been steadily reassessed. Literary scholars have

firmly refuted the notion that Herrick was a jolly naif who

frolicked about Devon oblivious to the turmoil of the 1640s, and

we now understand Hesperides as a deeply politicized work.

Claude J. Summers has observed that ideologically charged

epigrams, verses to the King and his family, and occasional poems

on the Civil War express Herrick's "extreme royalist attitude."(1)

Leah S. Marcus has demonstrated how Herrick's poems of rural

festivity participated in a Laudian Anglican program of "cultural

revival": communal holidays, constructed as "extensions of sacramental

worship," were intended to affirm the authority of the

Church within a hierarchical society governed by the `King.(2)

Likewise, through his celebrations of childlike obedience, Anglican

doctrine, and prohibited religious ceremonies, Herrick presents

in Noble Numbers poems which are "resolutely and combatively

Laudian."(3) This understanding of Herrick's political stance

has been fruitfully complicated by Ann Baynes Coiro, who insists

that the poet "goes beyond royalist propaganda" to engage in an

"ironic questioning of Stuart ideals."(4) Thus we now regard Hesperides

neither as a mindless "bale of butterflies,"(5) nor as a rote

exercise in religiopolitical conservatism.

Despite this new appreciation for the politics of Herrick's

poetry, assessments of Herrick's representation of women remain

surprisingly ahistorical. In his fine study of Herrick's classicism,

Gordon Braden has paid subtle, detailed attention to the eroticism

of Hesperides; some recent critics have taken Braden's work

as a point of departure, either building upon his analysis of

Herrick's "obstructed desire," or refuting his contention that

Herrick exhibits a "prepubescent sexuality."(6) Other scholars have

insisted that we recognize the gendered dynamics of power at

work in Herrick's amatory verse. Moira P. Baker has argued that

Herrick's fragmenting depictions of the female body participate

in "the cultural repression of women," while Bronwen Price finds

in Herrick's textual self-censorship, fetishism, and voyeurism "a

sexual politics bound up within an emerging bourgeois economy

and discourse of subjectivity."(7) Although implying historical process,

these feminist readings place Herrick's portrayals of women

in a realm abstracted from Stuart England: like the non-feminist

analyses of Herrick's eroticism, neither Baker's monolithic patriarchy

nor Price's Foucauldian subject seems to engage with the

religiopolitical struggle that informs much of Herrick's poetry.

We find the most satisfying attempt to historicize Herrick's

depiction of women in Heather Dubrow's illuminating study of

the seventeenth-century English epithalamium. Dubrow argues

that the epithalamium was an especially significant genre during

the social upheaval of the Stuart period: marriage was anxiously

viewed as "a source and a symbol of an orderly and harmonious

society,"(8) and the epithalamium allowed poets both to explore

and allay contemporary fears of social instability. Herrick's

epithalamia, Dubrow observes, are populated by reluctant brides, and

she argues that this antipathy toward consummation "destabilizes"

Herrick's marriage poems.'(9) Dubrow stops short, however,

of assessing the ideological significance of this distinctive feature

of Herrick's epithalamia. If Herrick poetically "destabilizes" a

ceremony designed to reinforce his society's gender divisions,

how should we characterize the politics of gender in Hesperides?

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