Herrick Window, Church of St. George the Martyr, Dean Prior
Church of St. George the Martyr, Dean Prior
 
Window, Church of St. George the Martyr, Dean Prior
Robert Herrick

London-born, Cambridge-educated, one of the riotous young poets gathered around Ben Jonson in the London taverns in the 1620s, Robert Herrick abandoned city life for the remote parish of Dean Prior in south Devon.  Herrick served as vicar of The Church of St. George the Martyr, Dean Prior, from 1629 until his death in 1674, with his tenure temporarily suspended for his Royalist sympathies during Cromwell’s reign.  Deep in the countryside on the southern edge of Dartmoor five days’ hard journey from London and thirty miles from Exeter, the cosmopolitan vicar found his parishioners “A People currish; churlish as the seas.”

 

Herrick complained most famously of his exile in “the loathed west” in “Discontents in Devon”:    

                  

More discontents I never had

                                       Since I was born, than here;

                                Where I have been, and still am, sad,

                                       In this dull Devonshire.

                                 Yet justly too I must confess

                                       I ne’er invented such

                                 Ennobled numbers for the press,

                                       Than where I loath’d so much.

 

Bored he may have been by the long winter nights in Dean Prior, but he was certainly productive, and Herrick acknowledged this irony by titling his collected verse Hesperides (1648)–or “west”.   Over time, he seems to have become an unabashed enthusiast for the pastoral beauty of rural Devon and the vigor of its folkways, as in his well-known celebration of spring fertility rituals, “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”:

                                   

                        There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,

                        But is got up and gone to bring in May.

                                    A deale of Youth, ere this, is come

                                    Back, and with White-thorn laden home.

 

Another Devon custom, the offering of a libation to the orchard trees to ensure their abundance in the coming year, inspired “The Wassaile”:

                       

                        Give way, give way ye Gates, and win

                        An easie blessing to your Bin,

                        And Basket, by our entering in.

 

                        May both with manchet stand repleat;

 

The late nineteenth-century novelist Eden Phillpotts describes Christmas Eve revellers from Chagford on Dartmoor reviving the “venerable rite and sacrifice” of wassailing by singing one of Herrick’s song as they pour  “three o’ the biggest cloam pitchers [of cider] us a got” on the apple roots whilst drinking their share (Children of the Mist).

 

Buried in an unmarked grave in Dean Prior churchyard, Herrick is memorialized in a stone marker there as well as by a stained glass window in the church.  

 

 

Herrick, Robert.  The Poems of Robert Herrick. L.C. Martin ed.  London:  Oxford UP, 1965.

Reed, Mark L.  “Herrick Among the Maypoles:  Dean Prior and the Hesperides.”  Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol 5, No 1, The English Renaissance (Winter 1965): 133-150.

Scott, George Walton.  Robert Herrick 1591-1674.  London:  Sidgwick and Jackson, 1974.

 

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007