Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Upon Julia's Clothes


    WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then, (methinks) how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.


    Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
    That brave vibration each way free;
    Oh, how that glittering taketh me!

    Robert Herrick







    "It's about SEX, class! If you don't understand SEX, you don't understand anything!"
    Prof. Gorman Beauchamp, -on Robert Herrick's poem "Upon Julia's Clothes" English 240: Introduction to Poetry
    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
To many the professor's exclamations are laugh out loud funny. One can make an educated guess that even though he's taught his "Introduction to Poetry" class for quite a while, most of the students are reading this poem for the first time and may feel as if they're intruding or perhaps stumbled into something they're not quite sure about. The use of extended metaphor in the last three lines is an especially elusive one, no? Some may be even asking themselves, "Are Robert and Julia going to do what I think they're going to do?" Indeed it is that moment of realization, as to why Robert and Julia are so interested in these clothes, which can make the poem so unintentionally entertaining.

Something happens in poetry that can be characterized in a twofold sort of way perhaps best described as a public-private verse. This is in effect a way of viewing the poetry of the "early" 17th century adjacent to the poetry of the 16th century. During the middle ages there was the establishment of the bourgeoisie concept. Not too surprisingly it occurred during the rise and growth of the middle class along with the entire movement of the Protestant Reformation. It becomes perceptible as a split, what T. S. Eliot would later call the "disassociation of sensibility." One is so used to the notion of not saying what one is thinking and that there is that possibly of a vast difference between what is being thought about, what is felt and how one is presenting one.s self to the world. This is very noticeable in Herrick's attitude toward Julia in "Upon Julia's Clothes"

One of the Tribe of Ben Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) belonged to a group of writers who followed in Ben Jonson's footsteps by writing graceful, refined poetry that displays a classical influence of Greco-Roman style. In some of his poems, the point is merely to create something pretty, delicate, and charming while in others there is great depth of emotion.

The original text to this poem first appeared in his chief work and the only book he ever published titled Hesperides (London: for John Williams and F. Eglesfield, 1648).As one anthologist puts it, "He can be very playful, and even when his subject is serious, he does not take himself too seriously." The book contains about 1,400 poems which are typically brief with many short epigrams. This particular poem is composed with tercets and the aaa rhyming scheme and located in a section called His Noble Numbers: or, his Pious Pieces. In A Selection From The Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick (1876) English poet and anthologist Francis Turner Palgrave prefaces the collection with a biography that he has gathered by simply reading the poet's work.

    We know that he shone with Ben Jonson and the wits at the nights and suppers of those gods of our glorious early literature: we may fancy him at Beaumanor, or Houghton, with his uncle and cousins, keeping a Leicestershire Christmas in the Manor-house: or, again, in some sweet southern county with Julia and Anthea, Corinna and Dianeme by his side (familiar then by other names now never to be remembered), sitting merry, but with just the sadness of one who hears sweet music, in some meadow among his favourite flowers of spring-time;--there, or 'where the rose lingers latest.' .... But 'the dream, the fancy,' is all that Time has spared us. And if it be curious that his contemporaries should have left so little record of this delightful poet and (as we should infer from the book) genial- hearted man.

Herrick became well known as a poet from 1620 to 1630. Many manuscripts and commonplace books from that time contain his poems. He not only wrote epigrams but elegies, satires and love songs to imaginary mistresses. Ardent research so far has failed to reveal who Julia was in Herrick's life. He composed several poems to her and the other unknowables that went by names like Anthea, Corrina and Dianeme. Making rare pretenses to intellectual subjects his verse is often light, mature, and self-gratifying. The artistry of his words lays in Herrick's effortlessly sensuous design and detail combined with his execution of words and rhythms.

The poem Upon Julia's Cloths offers a good illustration of the complex extended metaphors commonly used by the 17th century Cavalier poets. Julia has caught Herrick's eye setting their mood as she goes streaming by and Herrick promises that surely she is a woman with a striking physical demeanor. The poet's hand paints the moment and predicts its likely outcome. Her clothing dissolves into liquid metaphor in the second line by means of the words "flows" and "liquefaction." The reader sees what Herrick sees; fluid movements of glossy clothes clinging almost as if they are wet. Garments take on the bold movement of a kinetic energy in a confident and daring shift in full sight of everyone's gaze. This vibration whether it is Julia, her clothes or both, is deliberately vague by design and entirely for the poet's entertainment; or so he implies. Quivering alliteration brings ideas into focus with the repetition of the b sound together with the v sound in the line, "That brave vibration each way free." . The phrase "each way" capitalizes on the novice reader's uncertainty, escalating a proposition of intent and adding the loose element of liberty to the image. The vibration is "free," Herrick points with a wink to the reader that Julia might lack her undergarments only to emphasize the movement of her body underneath.

The last line extends the metaphor into sensual excess which can give the reader pause. The palpable imagery of the middle four lines suddenly transforms the reader, as surprised voyeur, back into a visual description in one word, "glittering." It's there to remind the reader once more that her clothes are silken peaks of shimmering fabric as Robert writes from some universally shared peek-a-boo dimension of kinetics, one that can only be contained by Julia's silk.

Sources:

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Herrick, Robert" Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.


Public domain text taken from the Poetry Corner
Accessed October 18, 2005.

Professor Beauchamp's quote
Accessed Jan 01 2004

The Project Gutenberg Etext of Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick ...
Accessed Jan 01 2004

Session 29
Accessed Jan 01 2004

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