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Robert Herrick

The Argument of His Book

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1648

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Argument of His Book” appeared in Robert Herrick’s poetry collection Hesperides published in 1648. It is a lyric poem, meaning that it features the personal thoughts and emotions of the speaker. It also features a sonnet structure, as it is 14 lines long and written in rhyming couplets, which serve as a type of table of contents for Hesperides. Carol Rumens notes in her Guardian article, “[i]t’s the opening poem of Herrick’s only collection, Hesperides, and summarises [sic] some of its topics. Argument signifies ‘theme’ or ‘contents’ and is not a defence [sic]” (Rumens, Carol. "Poem of the week: The Argument of His Book by Robert Herrick," The Guardian, 11 Sept. 2017). The speaker of the poem lists a number of different topics to serve as subjects for the various poems in Hesperides. In this list of subjects—which varies from natural objects to trade goods—“[t]here is harmony as well as contrast, and a satisfying arc is formed from line one’s spring blossoms to the final hope of Heaven’s largesse” (Rumens, Carol. "Poem of the week: The Argument of His Book by Robert Herrick," The Guardian, 11 Sept. 2017). Read through literary and sociohistorical lenses, the poem shows a clear connection to the context in which it was created: the popularity of lyrical poetry during the 17th century and the upheaval of the English Civil War. Herrick’s work represents the power of creative expression, the pervasiveness of divine design, and the interconnectivity of all human beings.

Poet Biography

Robert Herrick was born in London on August 24, 1591. His father Nicholas was a jeweler and goldsmith. When Herrick was just over a year old, Nicholas committed suicide by falling from a window. Left without the head of their family, Herrick’s mother Julian took care of two of his siblings while Herrick and two older brothers were tended by their uncles. From ages 16 to 22, Herrick was an apprentice for his uncle William, a goldsmith. The apprenticeship was supposed to last 10 years, but Herrick only served six ("Robert Herrick." Poets.org).

After his apprenticeship, Herrick enrolled at Saint John’s College in Cambridge and graduated at 26. Following his education at Cambridge, Herrick began his religious career. When he was 32, he became ordained and served as a “domestic chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham on his ill-fated expedition to La Rochelle”—a siege in the Anglo-French War in 1627 (Robert Herrick." Westminster Abbey).

In the next stage of his religious career, Herrick became the Vicar of Dean Prior in Devon, England in 1629. Herrick served in this vicarage until his death in 1674, though his time in this role was interrupted between 1647 and 1662. During the English Civil War and due to Herrick’s Royalist ideology, he was removed from his religious office ("Robert Herrick." Poets.org). Over 142 other clergymen from Devonshire were also removed from their clerical positions during this period ("Robert Herrick." Poetry Foundation).

It is contested whether or not Herrick married. Some sources state he never married, while some acknowledge a marriage to Lettice Yarde in 1639. However, “literary gossips have revelled [sic] in speculations about the identities of the 14 ‘mistresses’ (in the 17th century, inamoratas, lady friends, or merely admired acquaintances) to whom he addressed 158 poems” ("Robert Herrick." Poetry Foundation).

Herrick’s authorship of over 1200 poems remains uncontested. His publications include a collection of religious verse, His Noble Numbers, published in 1647. Included in the same volume as His Noble Numbers is another collection of poems published in 1648 titled Hesperides; or, the Works Both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. Herrick was an admirer of Ben Jonson’s work and is counted among the “Sons of Ben”—men who adhered to Jonson’s theory and style of writing. Herrick even wrote five poems about Jonson. Herrick imitated and sought inspiration from the Greek and Roman classics as well, his works ranging from pastorals to declarations of love, religious musings, and even bawdry ("Robert Herrick." Poets.org).

Poem Text

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,

Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.

I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,

Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.

I write of youth, of love, and have access

By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.

I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece

Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.

I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write

How roses first came red, and lilies white.

I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing

The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.

I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)

Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

Herrick, Robert. “The Argument of His Book.” 1648. Poetry Foundation.


“The Argument of His Book” opens with a proclamation by a first-person speaker (evidenced by the use of the pronoun “I”). The speaker begins to list the different subjects about which they either sing or write. First, various objects in nature and months of the year, all relating to spring, appear in this tabulation. Next, diverse types of celebrations from harvest to marriage help form the list. Luxurious trade goods are mixed with emotions such as love and more natural events, such as rain. As the poem progresses, it shifts in tone, moving towards a darker “twilight” (Line 11) and the unknown and mystical realms of Queen Mab and the fairy king (Line 12), before the focus finally shifts away from “Hell” (Line 13) to focus on “Heaven” (Line 14).