On a day like today: Robert Herrick and the rise of secularism

St Paul's Cathedral, London.

In 1647, following the fall of the Royalists toward the end of the English Civil War, the Anglican priest Robert Herrick, best known to posterity as the poet who wrote the oft-quoted lines “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” was expelled from his vicarage in Devonshire. Herrick was removed from his post by the victorious Puritan Parliamentarians for his support of Charles I, whom they would later behead on charges of treason.

Besides his Royalist sympathies, the Puritans particularly detested the “high church” elements of Herrick’s Anglicanism: vestments, ceremonial, and even altars. Even more, they despised what they thought of as “papistical” (i.e., Catholic, interchangeably referred to as “pagan”) practices and beliefs: May Day celebrations, Whitsun ales, wakes, and various elements of folk-religion such as the belief that the sun dances on Easter day.

Herrick responded by publishing a massive double-volume of poems in 1648, Hesperides and Noble Numbers, wherein he accepted all of the Puritan accusations and reveled in them. In the book, he exaggerated the papistical and pagan attributes of rural English religion, effectively thumbing his nose at his enemies. Despite the Puritan rise to power, the book sold remarkably well.

Recent scholarship has pointed to the rise of Puritanism as a deciding factor in the secularization the West has experienced increasingly since the seventeenth century. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age (2007), argues that the secularization of the West was a product of the removal of mystery and community from religious observance. Religion became more and more a matter of private conscience, not of a community’s relationship to the divine. The cosmos, which before had been alive with angels and the Communion of Saints, and the world, which had been made more alive through the Sacraments and the communal aspects of pilgrimage, both became deadened as they were cut off from one another. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was demoted to a symbol in more radically Protestant spheres, and God was more and more understood as purely transcendent, his immanence and presence in creation seen as more or less negligible. God, in a sense, had been exiled.

In The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012), historian Brad Gregory claims not only that the secularizing impulse exploded after the Reformation, but also that, with ever increasing enthusiasm, those in power began to prefer it that way. This resulted in a culture in which anything suggestive of “faith” was exiled to the private sphere and generally disallowed in public. Eventually, a culture of faith and charity (caritas) was replaced by its polar opposite: a culture of consumerism and materialism, preoccupied with the acquisition of goods as opposed to the acquisition of the Good.

The current intellectual and political climate in the West—and as all too apparent recently in the United States—embodies a variety of secularism that is militant in every sense of the word. As Gregory’s title reminds us, the secularization caused by the Reformation was “unintended.” The secularization of our times is full of intention.

(Robert Herrick)

For people of faith, the problem is that, for too long, we have thought of the drive toward secularization as “neutral,” as something that makes things fair for everyone. Recent developments have proved this is hardly the truth.

Robert Herrick refused to participate by the rules of a regime he saw as a perversion of Christianity. Instead, he responded by reasserting his Christian identity, celebrating the creation and God’s presence in human life and in the cycle of the year. He made this explicit in the opening lines of the opening poem of Hesperides, “The Argument of His Book”:

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 Bride-grooms, Brides, and their Bridal-cakes.

Much as Herrick thought of seventeenth-century Puritans, our contemporaries dedicated to militant secularization are, ironically, also engaged in what could be described as a perversion of Christianity: the salvation of all through political means. Certainly, as we have seen recently, this kind of secularization can often be a variety of non-religious (and sometimes blatantly anti-religious) fundamentalism. Our recourse, then, like Herrick’s, should also be to reassert our religious identity. We do, after all, have an end in mind, as the poet writes in the final couplet of the “Argument”:

 I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
 Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all
.

Herrick, after an unintended leave of absence of thirteen years, returned to his Devonshire vicarage when the monarchy was restored in 1660. He remained there until his death at eighty-three in 1674.

Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD is a professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit MI.

 

Comments

This page took 0.1914seconds to load