And take the harmless folly of the time.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun;
And as a vapour, or a drop of rain,
Once lost, can ne'er be found again,
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drown'd with us in endless night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.” — Robert Herrick, “Corinna’s Going a Maying,” in Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine (1648)
Poet Robert Herrick, born on this date in 1591, was among the least prolific but most curious figures in British literature. His entire reputation rests on a single volume, Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine. That slim output may have resulted from his sharp midlife turn, at age 39, when he accepted an appointment as a country parson.
This appointment meant more than a change in address, or even title; it also represented a change in his circle. Because his father had committed suicide when Robert was only 14 months old and his mother did not remarry, the aspiring poet found a surrogate patriarch in playwright-poet Ben Jonson.
Taking its cue from Jonson, the “Sons of Ben” were a worldly bunch, immersing themselves in classical literature and often meeting him for “refreshments” in taverns. You get a sense of this in the frank seductive tone of much of “Corinna’s Going a Maying.”
Like Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” this is a poem that, for all its sexual imagery, is filled with heavy overtones of impermanence and death. Both were common to the 17th century in which these poets lived.
Indeed, the greatest link between impermanence and death in this time was politics. Herrick’s own pastoral idyll was interrupted when he was ousted from his country vicarage by supporters of Oliver Cromwell because of his royalist sympathies. It would be 13 years before he would be restored to his old post. Unfortunately, the “folly” of his time was far from “harmless.”
No wonder he would write, “Our life is short, and our days run/As fast away as does the sun.” He had long left any wild days and nights behind for his life in the Anglican Church, but surely he could not have foreseen that what he had accepted as his new work would itself be threatened by the larger world.