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The Mourning After
January/February 2015


A harvest at once English, Biblical, and clasiscal: "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May" (1909) by John William Waterhouse, inspired by Robert Herrick's poem "To The Virgins, Make Much Of Time"

In "The Hock-cart", the fine poem he wrote to celebrate the gathering in of the harvest, Robert Herrick begins by praising the agricultural labourers whose sweat has produced such plenty. (The harvest ceremony itself was a moment of social inversion or levelling, so it is entirely appropriate for Herrick to speak first of the labourers, and to leave the lord of the estate until last.) 

The poem magnifies these swains into mythological figures, the "Sons of Summer":

                                 by whose toile,
We are the Lords of Wine and Oile:
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crown'd with the eares of corne, now come,
And, to the Pipe, sing Harvest home.

If we are to imagine this pagan scene as taking place near Herrick's parish on the southern edge of Dartmoor, it becomes difficult to take "Wine and Oile" literally (although in another poem Herrick confessed that "I . . . love to have my Beard / With Wine and Oile besmear'd").  In "The Hock-cart", however, the phrase "Wine and Oile" works in a different way, bringing this very English harvest scene — we later read that the harvest feast included "stout Beere" and

                Fat Beefe:
With Upper Stories, Mutton, Veale
And Bacon, (which makes full the meale)
With sev'rall dishes standing by,
As here a Custard, there a Pie,
And here all tempting Frumentie.

— into contact with Biblical and classical predecessors. In Deuteronomy God promises that if the Israelites truly love and serve him "I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil." In the opening lines of one of his elegies Tibullus calls on Bacchus and Ceres to be present at the Roman ceremony of the purification of the crops and fields that his poem describes.  The world of "The Hock-cart" is at once English, Biblical, and classical. Herrick gave the name Hesperides to the collection in which the poem was published. Like that mythological garden, the covers of Herrick's book are a sanctuary in which to protect mundane things from the touch of time, and thereby to discover what is timeless within them. Wine, as a transformation of the fragile and transient into something more permanent, is a natural image and example of the "Times trans-shifting" that Herrick takes for his subject in Hesperides.

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