Renaissance poet Robbert Herrick notably portrays the accounts of women’s femininity and sexuality in an unequivocal and evocative manner. Scholar David Landrum deliberated the modes of inspiration that influenced Herrick’s perception of femininity in his essay, “Robert Herrick and the Ambiguities of Gender,” declaring the poet’s primary affluence to be the paradoxical standards of women throughout the Renaissance era. Herrick did not solely receive this perception by observing the contradicting beliefs of two primary groups that governed ideological beliefs. The Catholic and Protestant Churches and the Cult of Virgin, but also many powerful women that he was affiliated with, such as his widowed mother, who had a vastly independent spirit. A primary view of various Christan Churches was that women were subordinate to men and that their value lay within them being domestic figures; on the other hand, the Virgin Cult deduced the “transcendence of womanhood,” disregarding male superiority (Landrum, 1). The two juxtaposing expectations of women caused a double-coding, in which it was merely impossible to succeed in both parties’ expectations. Within these prominent beliefs throughout this seventeenth century, Landrum argues that Herrick does not distinctly affiliate with either of these ideologies yet has a “progressive stance” towards women empowerment through portraying women outside the merits of society’s standards, depicting them in a sexually explicit manner, and outside the romantic perception of femininity.
One primary poem in which these distinctions are intertwined is “Upon the Loss of Mistresses,” the second poem in the Hesperides series. The author playfully and facetiously lists his many mistresses and connotes them with their defining attributes in this poem, varying forth the whiteness of Athena’s complexion to the wit and mind of Corrina. Landrum claims that because Herrick’s subject matter and dedicates the majority of this collection to women, it signifies their powerful stance in Herrick’s perception, notably Julia, who has over six poems devoted to her. Furthermore, these women “defy the restrictions of the day”: through their attributes and general portrayal in three distinct techniques (Landrum, 17). First, they opposed gender expectations devoted to women in the seventieth century, existed as sexual personas, and lastly, challenged social expectations. Herrick constructed their qualities through the seamless combination of imagined and real women, amplifying their power beyond patriarchal limitations and giving them realistic attributes. The mistress’s sexuality is progressive because although he does subject them to the sexual entities, it “does not diminish and relegate them to a prescribed role,” such as mother or wife that was highly enforced, giving women a new-found autonomy. In the judgment of Landrum, these women lie outside the constructs of class division and do not have a distinct stratum of life; therefore, they are free to do as they wish. Herrick’s calculated use of sexualization and autonomy evokes progressive respect toward women, contrasts the ambiguous placement of women in society, and gives them a defined purpose.
Herrick illustrates women outside the realm of common Renaissance society not only through their individual qualities but also through the way he describes them as a whole. “Upon the loss of His Mistresses” initiates by prescribing these women as “dainty mistresses,” which could have two defined meanings: one, that they are delicate and beautiful, or that they are generally fastidious creatures (Herrick line 2). The plausible interpretations contrast one another, but they have one primary similarity of them both lying in the beliefs of the Christian Church. As noted by Landrum, it was prevalent for mothers and wives to be attentive and support the household while being visibly beautiful and vocally meek. These qualities that Herrick stated are intertwined with those beliefs relating to women being domestic figures. This is yet another way in which Herrick depicts the fickle societal stance of women. Although they are meant to be ever-present and controlling in the household, they are still expected to be passive, subordinate, and focused on enhancing their beauty.
Another primary argument of Landrum is that the sexualization of women was progressive or liberal; Herrick’s intent contrasts their essence in society as mothers and wives. Distinctly, although as a modern audience, it is difficult to distinguish the process of objecting to the various mistresses as progressive. Herrick does not confine these women as stoic wives and mothers and instead portrays femininity’s turbulent and ever-changing nature. The poet emphasizes Corrina’s intelligence and capability to highlight and vocalize her opinions. However, he idolized the fairness and delicate features of Athena, which is a standard mode of alluding to a woman’s sexuality through sonnets. Even if noting one of the mistress’s intelligence, the progressive statement does not seldom negate the presence of objectification in general. The opposition to women’s suppression is not sexualization; it is empowerment, which is not a present belief emphasized in Herrick’s collection. Landrum stated that “the softness and passivity that was also seen as proper social status for women ” was prevalent in the works of Herrick (Landrum, 16). However, it was seemingly complemented by the virtuosity and strength of these mistresses. Although Herrick does empower women’s minds in minor respects, he confides them and emphasizes their beauty and sexuality, which is not progressive, merely contrasting the beliefs of the seventeenth century. Opposition to an ideal is not equivalent to the correct stance. Women Reinsurance poets such as Katherine Phillips depicted femininity insightfully and robustly without sexualization, bringing progressive ideals. Although Herrick’s work contests the beliefs of the seventeenth century, his ideas are not ‘progressive.’
Lastly, the distinctions of Herrick’s progressive sentiment towards femininity should be assessed in his notably most sexually explicit and feminine poem, “the Vine.” The poem describes the speaker’s erotic dream of becoming a vine intertwined with his love, Lucia. In the erotic nature of this poem, there is no commendation of her morality or cleverness, only her physical and sexual prowess. Herrick illustrates her “long, small legs,” “her belly buttocks, and her waist” (Herrick lines 5-7). Yes, this poem is one of romance; therefore, it could only discuss her physicality; however, in the belief of Landrum, this is accompanied by her mental abilities and resistance to social norms. The poem that primarily discusses femininity and sexuality completely overlooks these qualities. Yet, there is ambiguity and conflict in how she is portrayed physically. The speaker is the vine, that gradually completely consumes his lover by curling “around her neck,” causing her to not “freely stir” (Herrick lines 14-17). The perception of Landrum is present, her imagery never relates to one of a mother or a wife, yet Lucia still has a distinct lack of autonomy; she is depicted as passive, while the speaker consumes her essence. Thus, further the stance of contrasts rather than progression.
Herrick utilizes the social presence and expectation of women to develop the personas of the women in his poetry, which does visualize the barriers of the Renaissance era, but does conform them to sexualization, arguably not a progressive stance towards women empowerment.
Landrum, David. “Robert Herrick and the Ambiguities of Gender.” Texas Studies in
Literature and Language, vol. 49, no. 2, 2007, pp. 181–207. JSTOR, https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?qurl=https://www.jstor.org/stable/40755482. Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.