The time has come. I can’t put it off another day.
I have savoured every moment of them in the little tree in the corner of the garden near the fence. First they were green, then gold, then burning red. Now, with the onset of October and a colder wind, they are starting to drop. The crab apples must be picked and jellied.
There are many good jellies but my favourite is the crab. And although the bramble jelly might have reminded me of Robert Herrick, it didn’t. It took the crabs to make me think of pipkins; and pipkins took me to ‘A Ternary of Littles’ which I have loved all my life, though I’ve no idea when I first read it. It is not in The Lyric Poems of Robert Herrick edited by Ernest Rhys, which I see I acquired in 1972, when I was nineteen. The little book has no publication date, but its previous owner, Flora E Peel, has inscribed the date 1898. Quite an elderly book, then. And I have put my maiden name under Flora’s: Helen L Curry.
A pipkin is a small cooking pot. Often, apparently, they had three legs. I don’t know whether Robert Herrick’s had. I don’t even know what kind of jelly he was presenting his lady with. Nor does it matter. In my mind it was, and has always been crab apple jelly. Mine will go into small glass jars.
Of course ‘A Ternary of Littles, upon a Pipkin of Jelly sent to a Lady’ is a list poem (they have been around a very long time) but I still like it. Herrick was born in 1591 and survived to the ripe old age of 83. He never married. But I think I had better quote his ternary, had I not? Here it is:
A little saint best fits a little shrine,
A little prop best fits a little vine:
As my small cruse best fits my little wine.
A little seed best fits a little soil,
A little trade best fits a little toil:
As my small jar best fits my little oil.
A little bin best fits a little bread,
A little garland fits a little head:
As my small stuff best fits my little shed.
A little hearth best fits a little fire,
A little chapel fits a little choir:
As my small bell best fits my little spire.
A little stream best fits a little boat,
A little lead best fits a little float:
As my small pipe best fits my little note.
A little meat best fits a little belly,
As sweetly, lady, give me leave to tell ye,
This little pipkin fits this little jelly.
And thinking about it in bed, I realised there are several poems by Herrick that ring in my head and have done these several decades. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ of course, which is really titled To the Virgins to Make Much of Time. And of course To Daffodils, which I met at school (we had to do an exercise comparing it with Wordsworth’s better known daffodil stanzas). He sets a cracking rhythm, does Herrick, which means I can still rattle off the first few lines. And reading him again, now, I see what an influence he must have been not only on W H Davies, but Thomas Hardy too. And even me. The reach of the Tribe of Ben is long.
And then there is Cherry Ripe, and the wonderful poem that taught me the word ‘liquefaction’: Upon Julia’s Clothes. I see Julia’s Clothes is also a ternary: three line stanzas, and rhyming in threes. But I mustn’t forget the wonderfully precise Delight in Disorder. I wonder if this is his best-known poem? Perhaps.
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more betwitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
I had forgotten how much I love Herrick. It’s taken the crab apple jelly to remind me that he’s still there. Wikipedia tells me that even in his day Herrick was old hat. Too simple compared to the superior complexity of Marvell and Donne (but oh I love them too). And look how well he has lasted! The line ‘As my small stuff best fits my little shed’ could have been written today. It made me think of Jenny Elliott’s Fife-based Shed Press, which produces extraordinarily beautiful (and small) poetry artefacts. I heard her read from One Old Onion only last night at a Platform event, and it was a rare treat.
Maybe I specially like Herrick’s Ternary of Littles because I am little. I was always small and am getting smaller. And it’s a highly domestic poem. You could argue that it’s somewhat coy in tone, I guess (he was either charming or flirty, depending on how you read him), but I cherish it as a personal rather than a public piece. I believe he wrote it down and presented it, with the jelly in its pipkin, to the lady. The end, to my mind, is particularly pleasing. ‘Give me leave to tell ye’ doesn’t rhyme neatly with ‘jelly’ these days, but it did then. It takes me back.
And forward. Gather ye crab apples while ye may. The job must be done. I’ll end with some words of Herrick himself.
The Departure of the Good Daemon
What can I do in poetry,
Now the good spirit’s gone from me?
Why nothing now, but lonely sit
And over-read what I have writ.