On Robert Herrick

Posted on February 9th, by nicholas in contributors, creativity, paul willis, poets, review, rumination, theology, vocation, writing. No Comments

On Robert Herrick

{Poet, Paul Willis reflects on To Blossoms by Robert Herrick}

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile,
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight,
And so to bid good-night?
‘Twas pity nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’er so brave;
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while, they glide
Into the grave.

—Robert Herrick (1591-1674)


Robert Herrick may not be as spiritually sincere a poet as George Herbert, but he awakens me to the beauty and pathos of nature as few other writers do.  For the wistful spirit of carpe diem, he is unsurpassable.  “To Blossoms” is one of his many poems about flowers that fade.  He addresses the fading flowers so simply, so sweetly, and so sadly that I find myself reading this poem over and over.

In the first stanza, he personifies the blossoms as girls that blush and smile, much as he does with those rosebud-gatherers in “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”  In the third stanza, their leaves become leaves of a book in which we read our destiny.  In the end, like the flowers, all of us “glide / Into the grave,” resting at last in that poignantly shortened final line.

The American poet Stanley Kunitz dated his beginning as a writer to the moment when, at age fourteen, upon hearing a teacher read Herrick’s poem “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” he put up his hand and said that he liked the word “liquefaction.”  

In “To Blossoms,” I would put up my hand for the word “glide.”  There it sits, gliding off the end of the line, willing for its vowel to soar far and wide for as long as we like.

 Wordsworth makes the point in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that poets use common terms, but use them in uncommon ways, giving them weight and wonder by where exactly they are placed.  And so here.  In a sense the entire poem serves as a set-up for this one word—“glide”—that is uncommonly situated.

What I also notice about this poem is the way in which the blossoms are directly and intimately addressed.  Flipping through my own poems, many of which are “about nature,” I see that I also sometimes do this.   I’ll title a poem with a species name, even adding the scientific name in parentheses, and then speak to the plant as if it can hear.  In the poem “Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis),” for example, I begin, “Your clustered berries, dusky blue, / offer themselves to the sun again / in the twisted reach of your close- / pressed leaves.”  Do trees have standing?  This was a famous legal question raised a generation ago.  If you can talk to them in person, I suppose they do.


Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and the current poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California.  His chapbook The Deep and Secret Color of Ice was selected by Jane Hirshfield for publication by the Small Poetry Press in 2003.  His two subsequent volumes of poetry are Visiting Home (Pecan Grove Press, 2008) and Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009).

With David Starkey of Santa Barbara City College, he has edited the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press, 2005).  His essays are collected in Bright Shoots of Everlastingness (WordFarm, 2005), and his eco-fantasy novels are collected in The Alpine Tales (WordFarm, 2010).

His poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Image, and Wilderness, and have also been included inThe Best American Poetry 1996 (Scribner’s), The Best Spiritual Writing 1999 (HarperSanFrancisco),The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin), and The Best Christian Writing 2006(Jossey-Bass). More recently his poems have been presented online in Verse Daily and on NPR by Garrison Keillor.


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