Occasionally I get a bit of a painful meta-position on Being A Poet and wonder quite how tiresome we are as companions. Imagine going for a walk with us. I mean, can’t we just enjoy the first flowers of spring, for goodness’ sake? Wordsworth managed some pleasure and gratitude about the daffs (or was it Dorothy…?); Herrick, however, looks on daffs and thinks of death (a bit like Larkin and his trees, but we’ll get to that in May). I have to confess to having a fair dose of inner Herrick. I love his ‘To Daffodils’ a lot more than the Wordsworth; and, now I’ve said that, you can read the poem here while I sit back and wait to be struck down.
Herrick is probably best known for ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time‘ and, reading that along with ‘To Daffodils’, you get the sense that the painful shortness of life was very much to the forefront of his awareness. The poem is brief, neat and clear, without being stark, about the transitory nature of things floral and human. The pattern of the line length—8-6-8-6-2-6-2-6-8-6—has a sort of regular irregularity about it, the short lines serving to emphasise the key words ‘stay… run… die… away’. Meanwhile the abcbddceae rhyme scheme is working hard, as it were behind the scenes: it’s not at all obtrusive, despite its complexity; rather, the rhymes sound here and there, taking you by surprise but also, somehow, holding things together. The other word which sounds all through the poem is ‘we’, which Herrick uses 5 times. Making sure we know he means all of us, he involves us in this combination of pleasure (in the daffs and life) and lament (ditto). The poem is a modest, miniature jewel, unshowy but still catching the eye.
It catches composers’ eyes, too. It’s been set to music a lot, my favourite being this setting by Moeran (which is the last of a set of 7 songs: it’s a gorgeous set, do listen to the lot). Britten’s setting is perhaps better known, though. I’d be interested to know which one catches, for you, the spirit of Herrick’s text…?