The Yellow Dormitory: A 1914 inscription and Robert Herrick’s Hesperides

I was really taken with this inscription in the opening pages of an early 20th-century copy of Herrick’s Hesperides, which I found tucked away in a second-hand bookshop in Rochester.

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It’s bound in wrinkled leather.  The dedication is dated 7th April 1914–roughly three and a half months before the outbreak of the First World War. Innocence of the impending crisis, permanently inscribed into the inside page, adds a certain pathos to its vague sentimentality and mysterious “yellow Dormitory.” It’s a delightful found poem:

To Dear Gladys,

                 with love from

                                the yellow Dormitory.

April 7th, 1914.

Herrick’s Hesperides itself is a form of “war poetry.” It’s often praised for its lyricism and the poems are partly concerned with holiday and tradition and a distorted nostalgia for “merry old England.” It contains much celebration of ritual, ceremony, and festival:

The Argument of his Book.

I sing of Brooks, of BlossomesBirdes, and Bowers:

Of AprilMay, of June, and July-Flowers.

I sing of May-polesHock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,

Of Bride-groomsBrides, and of their Bridall-cakes.

I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse

By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.

[. . . ]

Yet the collection is born out of the English Civil War. Herrick was a former Anglican clergyman in Devon, but parliamentary success in a largely royalist county eventually swept him from office.  Festival and Mayday celebrations were politically charged in the seventeenth century, and very broadly speaking they are a reaction against puritan opposition to old English customs; as poetic themes they are generally associated with “Cavalier” royalist politics (albeit a broad and possibly unhelpful term). The carpe diem sentiments sometimes belie a desire for withdrawal from the day’s all-encompassing political and military conflict while remaining defiantly anti-puritan:

 

. . . sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.
(from Corinna’s going a Maying 42-3)

 

 

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
 Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
 To morrow will be dying.
(from To the Virgins, to make much of Time1-4)

 

 

While most of the poems remain undatable, the collection was first published in 1648, and Herrick offers a number of rejoinders to the “festival” sentiment.  The couplet “Things of choice” breaks the bucolic mood to acknowledge directly the horrors of Civil War experienced in the previous years and to pray for a more joyous future:

 

Things of choice, long a comming.

We pray ‘gainst Warre, yet we enjoy no Peace;

Desire deferr’d is, that it may encrease.

 

The dedication to Gladys on the eve of the First World War offers a sad and haunting inversion of this couplet, with England’s “Peace” soon to end again.

The maypoles, blossoms, and birds of Hesperides mark it as a collection that brims with eroticism and love of the natural world as much as with politics, religion, and war.  Herrick frequently insists that inevitable and possibly imminent doom, death, and destruction can be offset by poetry. The eternality of verse is a common poetic conceit (one only need think of Shakespeare’s sonnets), but in light of the collection’s implicit war weariness, it speaks to the poets we now most popularly associate with war–Great War writers like Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Rosenberg, Brooke, all of whom are studied in schools and whose harrowing verse, once read, is rarely forgotten.  Herrick writes:

Poetry perpetuates the Poet.

Here I my selfe might likewise die,

And utterly forgotten lye,

But that eternall Poetrie

Repullulation gives me here

Unto the thirtieth thousand yeere,

When all now dead shall re-appeare.

Poetry from the First World War remains one of our most powerful reminders of the atrocity of battle and its waste of human life. The poets who conveyed that suffering are undoubtedly “perpetuated” by their verse.  “Repullulation” is the continual re-budding of a plant; in a roundabout way, Herrick’s image oddly and grotesquely presages the millions of lost lives whom we now commemorate through “poppies” (and John McRae’s “In Flanders Fields,” one of the most quoted and memorised war poems, “perpetuates” the dead through the image of the flowering plant).

Poetry is often accorded an abstract immortality, but in the final poem of Hesperides, it appears as a physical structure:

The pillar of Fame.

Fames pillar here, at last we set,

Out-during Marble, Brasse, or Jet,

Charm’d and enchanted so,

As to withstand the blow

Of overthrow:

Nor shall the seas,

Or OUTRAGES

Of storms orebear

What we up-rear

Tho Kingdoms fal,

This pillar never shall

Decline or waste at all;

But stand for ever by his owne

Firme and well fixt foundation.

Such a conceit is deeply ironic–not least its incarnation in a shape poem (and in the the original Quarto printing the layout much more visibly resembles a pillar).  While the poem itself, as verse, will “out-dure” earthly materials like marble and jet, it nonetheless conceives of itself as a physical structure–a pillar.  Poetry is more commonly placed in opposition to architectural structures, something poignantly expressed by Antonio’s lines in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614): “But all things have their end; / Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men / Must have like death that we have” (5.3.19-21).  Herrick’s shape poem therefore presents a curious paradox–a pillar of poetry whose supposed immortality is defined in the language of temporal earthly structures: “set,” “foundation,” “pillar.”

That tension can also offer a readers, especially 21st century readers, a more optimistic view.  Material texts can be exciting, powerful, resonant things.  Anybody who has held a copy of Herrick’s 1648 Hesperides can attest to its force as an object as well as to the power of its “immaterial” poetry.  Objects and structures may well have a poetic significance of their own; Antonio’s lines in Malfi are spoken in “the ruins of an ancient abbey” (5.3.1) and throughout the scene they are echoed back at him in the voice of his murdered wife: “ECHO. Like death that we have” (5.3.22).  These “foundations,” churches, and cities seemingly live beyond their end to perpetuate “eternall Poetrie.”

The 1914 copy of Hesperides that left Doris Rice’s yellow dormitory may have become a “Firme and well fixt foundation” over the following years for Gladys and for the nine other readers who signed their names on its opening page. In a fitting echo of their own, the names on the inscription mirror the closing poem in the collection; they too form a visual pillar that bookends worlds of war and desires for peace.

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