Small Griefs

Older readers (if any) may remember that Robert Herrick, the cavalier clergyman and poet, made almost as many appearances in the early days of this blog as overnight sensation James Taylor.  As he (Herrick not Taylor) was, to the best of my knowledge, “outside cricket” he has rather faded from the scene recently, but I was reminded of him again when I came across a 1961 edition of “Selected Poems”, edited by John Hayward and published in the Penguin Poets series.

In particular the cover is rather lovely:




I’d suggest it would serve well as wallpaper (literal or virtual) or – with the festive season approaching – as wrapping paper or a slightly oblique greetings card.  As for the verse inside the card, how about this (some lines from Herrick’s “To his Mistresse objecting to him neither Toying or Talking“)?

Small griefs find tongues: Full Casques are ever found
To give (if any, yet) but little sound.
Deep waters noyse-lesse are; And this we know,
That chiding streams betray small depth below.

Not festive, perhaps, but possibly timely.

Now, Now, the Mirth Comes : Twelfth Night, with Robert Herrick

Tonight (or tomorrow – opinions vary) is Twelfth Night.  Today many of us will have been back at work since Tuesday (if we’re lucky) and glumly enacting our own seasonal routines (haruspicating over the last quarter’s figures, for instance).  If Twelfth Night means anything to us it is reluctantly (in my case) taking down the Christmas decorations, believing it to be bad luck to leave them up.  Not so in the seventeenth century, when decorations were left up (as I’ve pointed out before) until Candlemas (February 2nd) and on Twelfth Night the party would still have been in full swing, as described in this poem by Robert Herrick.

A King and Queen of Misrule were chosen for the evening, according to who found the bean and pea concealed in a plum pudding (a custom perhaps preserved in the way we conceal a sixpence (or equivalent in new money) in our Christmas puddings).

Twelfth Night, or King and Queen

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Beside, we must know
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night, as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelve-day queen for the night here!

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurged will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here!

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool,
And sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale, too;
And this ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen, wassailing,
And though with ale ye be wet here,
Yet part ye from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.


It might be a little late, if you were planning to celebrate Twelfth Night tonight, but here is a recipe for “gentle lamb’s wool” (so-called because of its white and fluffy appearance), taken from Richard Cook’s Oxford Night Caps of 1835 –

Recipe. Mix the pulp of half a dozen roasted apples with some raw sugar, a grated nutmeg, and a small quantity of ginger. Add one quart of strong ale made moderately warm. Stir the whole well together, and, if sweet enough, it is fit for use.

Good health!


Asking for Roses, by Robert Frost

Time, I think,  for another snap of my garden – this time the back yard.  One sense the internet isn’t very good at satisfying yet is that of smell – if Mr. Jobs could devise an Application that could reproduce the scent of these blooms at the prod of a button I’d consider saving up for one of his iPhones, though that would, in truth, take me a very long time.  


June Roses

Seaching for a poem to go with them, I discover that there is fairly general agreement among the poets on the subject of roses.  They are not long (the days of wine and roses), they (the buds in particular) need to be gathered while we may, they are generally very prone to canker and worms (invisble or otherwise) and deliquesce too quickly.  They do, though, have the advantage that they and their perfume linger long in the memory.  All true, and all handy tips for the amateur gardener.  The largest blooms here were buds only a week ago, and the oldest have already had their time on earth.

This one is by Robert Frost, and contains a tip of the hat to my old favourite (and rose-specialist) Robert Herrick.  My house isn’t quite as untidy as the one in the poem.

Asking for Roses, by Robert Frost

A house that lacks, seemingly, mistress and master,
With doors that none but the wind ever closes,
Its floor all littered with glass and with plaster;
It stands in a garden of old-fashioned roses.

I pass by that way in the gloaming with Mary;
‘I wonder,’ I say, ‘who the owner of those is.’
‘Oh, no one you know,’ she answers me airy,
‘But one we must ask if we want any roses.’

So we must join hands in the dew coming coldly
There in the hush of the wood that reposes,
And turn and go up to the open door boldly,
And knock to the echoes as beggars for roses.

‘Pray, are you within there, Mistress Who-were-you?’
‘Tis Mary that speaks and our errand discloses.
‘Pray, are you within there? Bestir you, bestir you!
‘Tis summer again; there’s two come for roses.

‘A word with you, that of the singer recalling–
Old Herrick: a saying that every maid knows is
A flower unplucked is but left to the falling,
And nothing is gained by not gathering roses.’

We do not loosen our hands’ intertwining
(Not caring so very much what she supposes),
There when she comes on us mistily shining
And grants us by silence the boon of her roses.


Mothering Sunday : a word from Robert Herrick

Today is Mothering Sunday, and I couldn’t let it go by without a quick word from Robert Herrick. 

 (I discovered the other day – parenthetically – that the codename for our current adventure in Afghanistan is Operation Herrick.  Why?)

Anyway, the precise origins of Mothering Sunday are disputed.  Many claim that it was originally celebrated in pre-Reformation England as a celebration of Mother Church.  Some, inevitably and plausibly, believe that this was an adaptation of an earlier pagan fertility festival.  Post-Reformation it became a day in the mid-point of Lent when those in service, in particular, were allowed a day off to visit their Mothers, and dietary restrictions were lifted to allow the baking of a Simnel Cake, which would often be presented to the Mother as a present.

Here is a picture of a Simnel Cake, that I pinched off Wikipedia  made earlier.  The eleven marzipan balls around the edge apparently represent the eleven true disciples : another marzipan ball  sometimes appears in the middle to represent Jesus, though in this case He seems to have been replaced by three fluffy chicks.  

A Simnel Cake

Herrick’s poem is of particular interest to folklorists, being one of the earliest references to the Post-Reformation celebration of this festival, which is thought to have had its origins in the West Country.  And here it is –

To Dianeme.  A Ceremonie in Glocester.

I’le to thee a Simnell bring,
Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me. 
Customs today are, of course, slightly different, and often involve the child making gifts to the Mother of costly oils and unguents …

A Simnel Cake!!! Do the words Jo Malone mean nothing to you?

Lenten thoughts, and some good advice from Robert Herrick

Now that we are in the season of Lent, I’m sure we are all thinking about what we can give up for the duration.  Chocolate?  Cigarettes?  Alcohol?  Here is what I think is some excellent advice from – who else? – Robert Herrick.  There may have been some particular significance for his parishioners at the time that he wrote it -perhaps that the proto-Cavalier (High Church) faction shouldn’t make too great a show of giving up meat then stuffing their faces with fish on the one hand – on the other that the Puritan faction shouldn’t be too ostentatious in their fasting and general misery-guttedness – but I think his general point remains valid.

I’m rather tempted to give up blogging and hand the whole thing over to Herrick – he does seem to have an appropriate poem for every occasion.

To Keep a True Lent

by Robert Herrick

IS this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean ?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep ?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish ?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour ?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent ;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

To his Valentine, on S. Valentine’s Day, by Robert Herrick

A poem for S. Valentine’s Day, inevitably.  For the sake of continuity I thought I’d go for another from Robert Herrick.  It’s got birds in it too. 


To his Valentine, on S. Valentines day.

Oft have I heard both Youths and Virgins say,
Birds chuse their Mates, and couple too, this day:
But by their flight I never can divine,
When shall I couple with my Valentine.

I had no idea that, although Robert Herrick was himself born near Cheapside (very close to where I work, in fact), his family were from Leicestershire – his father born in Leicester and his grandfather in Stretton -so he just about qualifies as a Local Author !!!

The full story, or a version of it, is here – Herricks in Leicestershire

Ceremonies for Candlemas Day : more tips from Robert Herrick

Now that we’ve all removed our holly, ivy and mistletoe let’s look at the necessary ritual for Candlemas itself, as described, again, by Robert Herrick.

The custom described here is the burning of the Yule log that had been brought into the house at Christmas and the retention of part of it in the house for the rest of the year to be used the next Christmas to light the next year’s log (and ward off the attentions of The Fiend in the meantime).  Incidentally, if anyone has any chocolate Yule log left in the house, please don’t attempt to burn it.  That would would be futile and wasteful.  If it is still edible, my advice is to eat it.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Day

 Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn;
Which quench’d then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.

It must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year;
And where ’tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve : some tips from Robert Herrick

A little early for this (Candlemas is on 2nd February), but I thought I’d slip it in while I’ve got the time.  It will also give you time to make any necessary preparations.

Candlemas is (or was) a festival that satisfied an obvious need in the communal psyche, but seemed to have only a tenuous connection with its ostensible religious purpose.  As my Idler’s diary for 2009 put it –

“Candlemas was the common name for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.  In the morning, many candles were lit in the church, symbolically driving out the dark.  In the afternoon, there was feasting all round, with much music.  Candlemas marked the formal end of winter.”  

It was also the day when people took down their Christmas decorations – the holly,  ivy and mistletoe they’d brought into the house at Christmas – and replaced them with other greenery that suggested the coming of spring.   I suppose the contemporary equivalent would be buying a bunch of daffodils and sticking them in a vase.  (My daffodils, which, as I noted on here, made an appearance as shoots in November seem to have woken up again after the snow and are making renewed efforts  to grow). 

A poem that gives some helpful tips on how to prepare for it is Robert Herrick’s “Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve”.  Herrick’s best-remembered poems are probably the gently erotic ones he wrote as a young man, which often had a carpe diem theme, but he also wrote also wrote in a not incompatible way about the changing seasons and the rhythms of rural and devotional life.  A clergyman, he was deprived of his living during the Protectorate for his Royalist sympathies (and possibly his saucy verses).  In his own day he seems to have been seen as unsophisticated as compared to the likes of Donne, but was enormously popular with the Victorians for the sweetness and simplicity of his verse (he had eight poems in the Golden Treasury, for instance, to Donne’s one).  I’ve always liked him, and am making a mental note to go back and read him properly.   



Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter-day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.

Then youthful box, which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

(This, incidentally, is what he looked like.  Perhaps a slight hint of Harry Enfield’s Scousers here?)

Calm down calm down