Friday, March 27, 2009

Herrick's Poem, Reader's Face, Let's Party



(image: Likeness of Robert Herrick [1591-1674])

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To the Sour Reader

by Robert Herrick

If thou dislik'st the piece thou light'st on first,

Think that of all that I have writ the worst;

But if though read'st my book unto the end,

And still dost this and that verse reprehend,

O perverse man! If all disgustful be,

The extreme scab take thee and thine, for me.

Well, then! Here is poetry as a bit of a contact-sport. Instead of invoking the muses, Herrick invokes the reader, and, as I interpret the poem, he gives the reader two options: 1) If you don't like the first poem you read in my book, then simply assume that that poem is the worst poem in the book and move on from there (to what will, by definition, be better poetry). 2) If you don't like any of the poems, then you are perverse, and I curse you; specifically, may an extreme scab afflict you and those whom you know.

A poet and poem with attitude: not bad. Also a poet who probably wore a wig, judging by the image above. He looks like he could have played in a 1980s rock-band. Or maybe 1970s: He looks just a bit like Tony Orlando from "Tony Orlando and Dawn."

The use of "reprehend" is nice. We're used to "reprehensible." I don't hear or read "reprehend" much if at all anymore, though.

"Scab," I assume, in this case refers more to a disease than a single scab (crusted-over wound), per se. Here is an example from the OED online that may obtain (from anotheer poet, George Herbert, although not from a poem):

G. Herbert Jacula Prudentum 1137 The itch of disputing is the scab of the Church [transl. of the saying Disputandi prurigo est ecclesiæ scabies].

"Scab" also, of course, has come to refer to a worker who takes the job of a union-worker on strike. I haven't looked into the origins of that figurative use yet, but I probably will.

In the meantime, here's to Robert Herrick and his aggressive opening gambit toward is audience, even though the audience could have simply closed the book in outrage--and hoped the curse would not come to pass.

In a preface or foreword to one of his poetry-books, William Stafford was somewhat more subtle. If memory serves he wrote, "And to my critics: thanks, anyway." Lovely.

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