There has never been much in the assumption that poets are dreamy creatures, divorced from reality and the vulgar world of fleshly concerns. And the idea that the older the poetry the more decorous and subtle it will be about matters of the – shall we say – heart is dispelled immediately by a quick scanning of this little gem from Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674) called ‘Upon Julia’s Breasts’:
Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me
Behold that circummortal purity;
Between whose glories, there my lips I’ll lay,
Ravished in that fair Via Lactea.
Now the builder who shouts ‘Show us yer tits, love!’ from a scaffolding is not quite in Herrick’s league: such a man is unlikely to express himself in pentameter, or use Latin to drive the point home.
But certain similarities between Herrick and the average bawdy builder are nevertheless evident.
Both, for example, use the imperative mode (a sentence beginning with a verb): they do not request, they order. Herrick isn’t saying ‘Julia, my darling, if thou hast little at present to engage thyself in might I crave your indulgence in a certain matter…?’ Not a bit of it. This is Jacobean for ‘Get ’em off, darl!’ if ever I’ve heard it.
Admittedly Herrick softens the demand – but in a rather curious way. The word ‘circummortal’ is the poet’s own coining, and means (once we unpick the etymology) ‘around what is mortal’. A case of trying to impress the girls with his great big – er – vocabulary, perhaps? And surely the Latin ‘Via Lactea’ (‘Milky Way’) falls into this same category. Nothing gets the girls like a Classical Education.
Please don’t think me prudish here: I’m all for salaciousness in stanzaic form. But it’s hard not to do a double-take at such – well – naked intent.
Herrick was certainly more than usually interested in loosening the morals of the fairer sex (think ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ – ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,/Old time is still a flying…’), but it would be wronging the man not to show him in a more romantic, and less rapacious mood. Let us finish, then, with the sensational ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’:
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration, each way free,
O, how that glittering taketh me!