Poet's Pick April 10
Robert Herrick: "To Daffadills"
Selected by William Wenthe
National Poetry Month 2013

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William Wenthe's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2013

"To Daffadills"
by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Faire Daffadills, we weep to see
     You haste away so soone:
As yet the early-rising Sun
     Has not attain’d his Noone.
                Stay, stay,
         Until the hasting day
                      Has run
         But to the Even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
           Will goe with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
     We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet Decay,
     As you, or any thing.
                We die,
        As your hours doe, and drie
                      Away,
        Like to the Summers raine;
Or as the pearles of Mornings dew
            N’er to be found againe.

 

* William Wenthe Comments:
I love this poem for its fusion of truth and artifice.  Consider its truth: as I write this, daffodils are coming into bloom.  I live in a mild zone, where the appearance of daffodils carries less of a visceral thrill than when I lived in colder places.  Even in such places today, where the supermarket offers blueberries in February, fresh flowers year round, perhaps we miss some of the vital joy at the sight of these early spring flowers, their tangible promise that warmth and fruit will come, that was felt near four hundred years ago in England.  In this raw connection to season, Herrick’s poem harks back to the medieval “Cuckoo Song,” with its musical cry of relief that “Sumer is icumen in.”  But of course Herrick shifts the emphasis, from relief at the coming of daffodils, to grief at their fading—a moment compressed piquantly in a single line, “As quick a growth to meet decay”  (“quick” meaning also, “alive”; “meet” carrying several meanings, as both verb and adjective, including “equal” and “fitting”).  And so these daffodils compress a truth of our human lives: at every moment, we are moving toward death.  The poem also reveals the counterforce to this truth: our wish it weren’t so.  The poem addresses daffodils, as if they could hear.  This mode of address, called “apostrophe,” bears our underlying wish that the world were more like us—that daffodils would wait for us, and even pray with us.  It is our wish, too, to console ourselves, a need as intimate as dying.  But if this desire resists the truth of death, it does not deceive us.  I find it bold that after “having pray’d together,” Herrick, a clergyman, doesn’t mention religion again, but concludes with the loneliness of “Ne’r to be found againe.”  This poem’s profound attention to time rebukes our contemporary vogue for distraction.  24-hour news, entertainment, and markets; fond slogans like fifty is the new forty, seventy the new fifty: by these means we neglect the fact that death is the same old death, imminent and final.

The other quality I love about this poem, its artifice, also stands in contrast to our current mode of distraction; for rather than deceive, this artifice cultivates awareness.  Its tensions pull us in different ways, by design.  Consider the rigidity of the stanza structure, two symmetrical ten-line stanzas with complex rhyme scheme and beats: ABCBDDCEAE  and 4, 3, 4, 3, 2/1, 3, 1, 3, 4, 3.    Then consider how the movements within stanzas suggest frailty—the syncopation of changing line-lengths; the suspense of rhymes, from the adjacent rhymes at the stanza’s center, to the yearning of the ninth line all the way back to the first.  Consider, too, the counterpoint of sentence and line—sometimes phrase and line cohere; other times the phrasing breaks up the line with caesura, or steps across lines with enjambment.   Reading this poem aloud, and seeing it on the page, I am reminded of a Calder mobile—the suspension, movement and balance of rigid forms.  (Later editions often smooth out the variety of indentations, along with the spelling, thus dulling the visual effect of this poem’s artifice.)  No surprise, perhaps, that Herrick had apprenticed for six years as a goldsmith:  I see in his poetry such hammering of heavy metal into lightness, the gold of these ever-dying daffodils.


About William Wenthe:
William Wenthe is the author of Words Before Dawn, Not Till We Are Lost, and Birds of Hoboken. He has published widely in literary journals, and received Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Born and raised in New Jersey, he now teaches at Texas Tech University.


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