Robert Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” straddles many genres of poetry. It is generally classified as a carpe diem poem, but it also invokes other traditions; Rollin proclaims it: “an original, dramatic, and specifically English conflation of the aubade and the pastoral invitation of love.” (145). It embodies many traditions because of the unusual, challenging holiday it invokes, the Mayday. It invokes the carpe diem tradition in its urgent admonitions to Corinna to enjoy the Mayday and live and love before “All love, all liking, all delight/ Lies drowned with us in endless night.” (Herrick 150). The poet also cleverly uses the aubade tradition, as he reprimands Corinna for being in bed while the sun is rising. But the poem remains firmly in the carpe diem tradition; Herrick invokes the Mayday to sharpen the call. The poet of “Corinna” often sings of maypoles and revelry but also of death. We need not ask which Herrick is “real,”although, for some critics the delicacy of his verse is only redeemed by its sober recognition of every human fate. Gilbert sums up Herrick’s reputation: “…the prevailing impression is that Herrick is chiefly a fairy poet” (61). However, in the face of the political realities of time, Mayday itself is a serious subject. The rise of Calvinism gave birth to the puritan spirit in England and ignited a cultural war that soon became an actual Civil War. The puritans sought to tear down the maypoles throughout the countryside; Herrick, in addition to his main focus on the high season of life and the sadness of death, is taking up poetic arms to defend a dearly loved tradition and an innocent spirit of rural life. The poet presents us with a dichotomy of Mayday and death; he wears two masks, one of revelry, and one of tragedy, and reminds us to live life to the fullest.
The origins of Mayday lie shrouded in British prehistory, but the holiday survived into the Christian era. Originally, the celebrations had some religious significance; “…May dances were vestiges of Celtic paganism” (Smuts 224). But by the seventeenth century, whatever had been pagan in the holiday was diluted by Christianity, and would soon fade into quaintness and memory. Herrick, one of the few to chronicle Mayday, immortalizes many of the Mayday traditions. The practice of greeting the sunrise on this holiday explains the speaker’s urgency to wake Corinna. Stanza three illustrates an English village decked out for Mayday: “Devotion gives each house a bough,/Or branch.” (31-32). But Herrick omits the most vivid Mayday tradition of all: dancing ’round the maypole. Maypoles are, naturally, phallic symbols; it is curious that a poem in the carpe diem tradition, so commonly concerned with seducing coy mistresses, would censor this aspect of Mayday. Smuts argues that, as a cavalier poet, Herrick writes “of erotic passion as an airy, spiritual quality” (197) and, like other critics, sees in Herrick a fairy poet, one that interprets carpe diem in “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” in language “so tactful” and imagery “so delicate that it seems neither bawdy nor especially morbid” (198). The “cooler shades of love” (36) refers as much to Herrick’s restrained eroticism as it does to the greenery and whitehorn bedecking the houses. Green pervades the poem; Corinna and the persona are surrounded by greenery, and Corinna is instructed to “Rise; and put on your foliage” (15); her gems are leaves and her pearls are dew-drops. Corinna’s beauty is natural and its best setting is a pastoral one; the poet’s passion is one of languid serenity. Herrick does not invoke the maypole quite consciously; he revels in a restrained Mayday. Yet even in this seemingly innocent revelry lies hints of the sexuality in the Mayday love games, and possibly of danger: “Many a jest told of the keys’ betraying/ This night, and locks picked, yet we’re not a-maying” (55-56). Herrick brings to mind the sexual vulnerability of young women, whose “locks” may not defend them, but diffuses his bomb by calling it merely a jest. Perhaps the persona means to warn Corinna that she is perhaps safer with a lover of her own choosing. A glimpse of the poet’s worldliness and experience appears beneath the innocent pastoral revelry.
But to many of Herrick’s day, Mayday was hardly innocent. Puritans sought to snuff out all previous belief systems in England; Smuts contends that “in many districts remnants of the cult of saints and the encrustation of medieval folk beliefs that had grown around the gospels remained more influential than Reformation theology” (222). Mayday became an unfortunate casualty of the Calvinist world view of strict Protestant orthodoxy. Miner reports that by the time “Corinna” was written, May Day was “null and void…..’the sad times’ or the ‘bad season’ as it is variously termed by the Cavaliers had come, and the Maypoles were put away”(126). Herrick takes issue with the Puritan’s ban on the holiday and challenges their logic in such a stance (Hammond, 243). It is “profanation to keep in”(Herrick 148) protests the poet. Herrick’s choice of a legally extinct holiday as a venue for a seize-the-day sentiment adds layers of poignancy. Yet the ban had not ended the pleasures of May throughout the countryside. Herrick knew that while Puritans could put away Maypoles, they could not put away the “fresh-quilted colours through the air” (Herrick 148), nor sweep away all of the Cavalier feeling. We can understand the urgency to savor Mayday in the poem when its very memory was being threatened by Puritan revisionism.
Mayday also proved a rich source of imagery. Herrick populates his first stanza with a cornucopia of birds, flowers, herbs, and sunlight.. The morning arrives in tantalizing swiftness; Aurora “throws her fresh-quilted colours threw the air” (3); “the blooming morn” presents the sun in mid-flight, “upon her wings”(1). Each sunrise reminds us to literally seize the day; its fleeting parade of beauty is too often missed by most of us, who, like Corinna, stay in bed. “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” provides us with color and spectacle, driving home the carpe diem message. The rejuvenation offered on this day is tantalizingly brief; its rich, green sensuality symbolically ending at the May Day sunset. While most of the young people of Corinna’s village had greeted the sunrise (according to tradition), the “sweet-slug-a-bed” (Herrick, 148), Corinna, enjoyed her slumbers, forsaking the May Day. Herrick persuades his sleepy mistress and his readers of the value of this much maligned holiday. May becomes an idiom for life itself and an opposing force to the silent enemy in all carpe diem poetry, Time and the “endless night” of death.
While death is not mentioned until the fifth stanza of the poem, its presence has permeated the entire piece. It is death’s lurking threat that bids the poet hurry Corinna out of bed, death that sounds a somber note even in the midst of May Day. In the allegory of the poem, death does not intrude upon nature; death is part of nature’s cycle. Martz concludes that Herrick “sadly accepts” death as part of the life-cycle (167). Love and beauty have their places in this cycle, too, of blooming, and of dying (Martz 167). The poet knits humanity strongly with all of nature; Corinna is dressed by nature and glimpses the cycle of life and her eventual fate in May’s splendor. Death is not perverse in “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” but he is waiting in the wings, pervasive through our lives. A hush and a hurry are Herrick’s responses to approaching death; hurry to love and play a part in the season of May.
Smuts accuses Herrick of too much delicacy in “Corinna,” and a view of death that is not too disturbing for casual readers. However, it is tact not delicacy which guides Herrick. One word, decaying, in the last stanza provides a particularly jarring note that cannot be called delicate: “Then, while time serves, and we are but decaying/ Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-maying.” (69-70) Here, on Mayday, in her green finery, in the height of her youth and in the midst of revelry, Herrick superimposes death, and bursts a balloon of vanity for all of us: we are already in the process of decay. The body was wound up once, and our time is already ticking. No matter how the perfume of beauty, youth, and high spirits works to conceal time, the stench of death cannot be concealed. Herrick is following a popular convention in carpe diem poetry: “Looking at a beautiful woman and being struck by thoughts of age and decay is the most obvious example of death superimposing itself upon life” (Smuts 205). The poet does not insult Corinna at the height of her beauty by reminding her of decay; he imparts wisdom.
Beneath the persona’s urgency to implore Corinna to take part in the Mayday festivities lies a terrible idea: because of life’s brevity, a life can be wasted and opportunities squandered. Death can catch up with us far too soon. Corinna misses part of a glorious sunrise at the poem’s beginning; she spends the rest of the poem trying catch up to the day. At the poem’s end, Corinna has yet to go a-maying, but has seen and heard of all the beauty to be had on Mayday. Herrick uses perspectives of time and space to illustrate the danger of squandering experience. The day arrives on rapid wings, but Corinna’s preparations for the day seem slow by comparison, with the poet imploring her to “….take no care/ For jewels for your gown and hair” (17-18) but to turn to nature to adorn her. The persona seems to be standing near, urging her to hurry. Stanzas four and five employ a larger, panoramic scale to speak of pastoral scenes and the revelry of the Mayday youth. Corinna has already squandered much of the day, unlike the other revelers: “There’s not a budding boy, or girl, this day,/But is got up, and gone to bring in may” (43-44). The open spaces of pastoral life contrast with the ultimate enclosure of death. The shared experiences of Mayday contrast with the loneliness of the coffin. Herrick accepts the inevitability of decay, but perhaps he can ward off death temporarily by reveling in the joys of life
“Corinna’s Going a-Maying” is firmly in the carpe diem tradition of seventeenth century poetry, but also employs many surprising outlooks on universal themes. Herrick more than justifies his love of a politically dangerous holiday; he turns the profane into the holy, the innocent, and the natural. Refusing the Mayday becomes a denial of nature and life itself. The poet acknowledges the place of death in the cycle of life and even in the midst of the Mayday, but he does not embrace death, nor does he balk at its existence. Instead he urges Corinna on to her place in the community and in nature. He flirts with the paganism and sexuality inherent in the Mayday tradition, but with a veiled delicacy that censors the maypole. Herrick celebrates Corinna and her beauty, a diamond in the setting Mayday. Nature itself dresses her in finery, proud of her as it is proud of its own foliage. She will flower on this Mayday, a woman in her prime. But Herrick knows all too well she will also wither and die. Because of the stark realities of life and death, Herrick fights to cherish Corinna in her bloom. He urges her towards an awareness of the transience not only of the day, but of life. She must the seize the day, lest death come too quickly while she has not experience the beauty and the love life can offer. Although he can smell the scent of decay in the Mayday air as well as the scent of flowers, Herrick lets neither overpower him. Life and revelry have their place in the cycle of life and all is heightened on the first day of May. He sings of May and death, a dichotomy, but two sides of a coin which is carpe diem. Gilbert offers his view of Herrick’s twin nature: “….he is….aided by two muses, one jocund, the other diviner, inspiring him to sing of death accursed, and of victory over death.”(68).
Whether or not one muse is diviner, or if Herrick achieves victory over death, he ultimately persuades us to take in May greedily, making the most of our experience. Like manna from heaven, nature’s gifts are showered bountifully upon us but for a moment, while the thieves that are death and time stand ready to punish those who squander life on the first day of May.
Gilbert, Allan H. “Robert Herrick on Death.” MLQ, V (1944), 61-68.
Hammond, Gerald. Fleeting Things: English Poets and Poems, 1616-1660. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1990.
Herrick, Robert. “Corinna’s Going a-Maying.” Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Robert Cummings. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Martz, Louis L. The Wit of Love. Notre Dame, Indiana: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
Miner, Earl. The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Rollin, Roger B. “Witty By Design: Robert Herrick’s Hesperides.” The Wit of Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pewbworth. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Smuts, R. Malcolm. Court Culture and the Origins of a Royalist Tradition in Early Stuart England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.