Nora Sawyer: Herrick's "The Coming of Good Luck", from Nora Sawyer, 16 February 2013
The brilliant Nora, who obviously has a great knack for intuiting the significations of feline body language, has generously offered credit on this one to our pack of lovable furry slouches ("Cats inspired by Angelica and Tom Clark’s menagerie") -- as though, on top of all that continuous feeding and pampering, they deserved more favours still. And of course they do believe they do. In an unheated house in midwinter, once the food supply has been taken care of by the obedient minions, the #1 cat objective remains arranging the physique so as to absorb maximum warmth from whatever source. They are slinky geniuses at this essential skill: or ought one call it an actual art, the art of keeping the blood properly warmed?
Surely Robert Herrick (1591-1674), that master miniaturist, would have appreciated all this fine artistry, of cat and woman in equal measure. Trained from childhood in the arts of the very fine, Robert (or Robin, as he was called) was the son of a London goldsmith, Nicholas Herrick (who died mysteriously in the poet's infancy), and was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to another goldsmith in the family, his uncle William Herrick (the apprenticeship ended when Robert went up belatedly to Cambridge). From early on, the poet was plainly enchanted -- we have the evidence of all his life and work -- by those small and delicate nuances of the everyday phenomenal world which make it such a pleasant place to inhabit. Perhaps most specifically and particularly if you're a cat, being "tickel'd by degrees",
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the Sun-beams...
Last week's one deceptively springlike day had the gang of furs jockeying for window-position and draping themselves in proximity to, then basking with temporary satisfaction in, a few surprising and, at this time of year, unfamiliar solar rays, passing across their domain and trickling down through the bare branches. For them there is no tomorrow to worry about or feel contented in, only the eternal bliss of the mysterious apparition of the right-now, to be enjoyed... snore... by degrees. No one's told them the forecast warns of dramatically dipping temperatures, fierce thunderstorms, lightning strikes, small hail and... but they wouldn't be paying attention anyhow, not unless the fleas happened to be biting. They live in a world that is entirely physical. There are of course sometimes bad things in that world. But the good, well, here again Robin Herrick probably expressed it best, in a little poem called "Casualties":
Good things, that come of course, far lesse do please,
Then those, which come by sweet contingencies.
Reading Herrick I'm often put in mind of a diary note made by another great artist of the epiphanies of the contingent, the wonders of the subtle and the small, Joseph Cornell, who commented (9 December 1948, a Wednesday) on "the 'all over' feeling that makes of the incidental a never ceasing wonder and spectacle of the spiritual".
Reflecting on Cornell's note and its implications, it's possible to understand why, for this reader, many a tiny and seemingly "momentary" Herrick poem endures and pleases over time in a way that, to take an illustrious example from the same century, Paradise Lost does not.
It was the century of poetry, for our language, the century in which poetry came to be the glory of the language that it is. The critic who offered perhaps the best overview on this, Basil Willey, wrote in The Seventeenth Century Background (1934): "It was one of the privileges of the seventeenth century to be able to believe, without any effort or striving, that 'truth' was not all of one order. It would be more accurate to say that this was unconsciously assumed, or felt, rather than consciously 'believed'. Thus however eager one might be for the old 'exantlation' of one kind of truth, the new kind, the old order of numinous truth was still secure in its inviolate separateness. The feeling that there was a divine meaning, an otherness, in the universe, as well as a mechanical order, was still natural and inevitable; it had not, as so often since, to be deliberately worked up or simulated."
Of course getting the cats to buy into this sort of thinking would be another matter. Perhaps they'd be better inclined to consider it if the message came wrapped in a felt mouse stuffed with catnip.