Robert Herrick (1591-1674) had a long life that included dangerous adventure (he was fortunate to survive the siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré in 1627) and quiet retreat as a country parson in South Devon. He published some 1,400 poems in his 1648 collection entitled “Hesperides”, and possibly wrote another thousand after that date. Despite his calling he was not over-religious, and most of his poems, if they mention religious matters at all, do so almost as an afterthought. He was a hedonist by temperament and his lyrics describe, compliment and express thoughts of love, as opposed to preaching or exploring deep theological concepts. To quote from the opening “Argument” of Hesperides:
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 …
(and so on)
“To Daffodils” is a typical Herrick poem in that it implies that one should enjoy the here and now because the future will bring problems and misery. It presents the same thoughts as in his poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, which begins with the well-known lines:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
In the case of the two-stanza poem under discussion, for rosebuds read daffodils.
Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.
The poet has presumably noticed that the spring daffodils, possibly growing in his churchyard, are starting to die off, and he wishes that they would at least stay unshrivelled for the hours of daylight. He then associates them with evensong and prayer, expressing the hope that the congregation will be able to see the flowers still in bloom as they leave church.
There is an interesting hint, worthy of a “metaphysical” poet, that the daffodils, as they droop, are engaged in prayer alongside the parishioners. This depends on the ambiguity of “prayed together”, which could be taken as meaning just the church congregation or including the daffodils as well.
We have short time to stay as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
Humankind is likened to the daffodil in the shortness of its lifespan, with growth followed immediately by decline and eventual death. Of course, Herrick is speaking in relative terms, but his readers would be familiar with the concept of human life being compared with that of plant life as far as its temporary nature is concerned; the well-known verses from the Sermon on the Mount (St Matthew’s Gospel 6:28-30) about the “lilies of the field” that are growing one day and “tomorrow are thrown into the furnace” would have struck a chord.
However, Herrick merely points to the comparison without labouring the point. He has already alluded to the best-known sermon ever preached and does not need to offer one of his own.
Indeed, it is surprising that Herrick does not make any reference to an afterlife for either daffodil or man. There is nothing here about hopes to bloom again next year, or of heavenly rewards for the righteous. As far as man is concerned he is just like “summer’s rain” or “morning’s dew” in that he is “ne’er to be found again”. In other words, apart from the references to prayer in the first stanza, this is a poem that could have been written as easily by an atheist as by a country parson.
As mentioned above, this is a “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) poem that points to the inevitability of decay and death but with no hint of any obligation to earn a place in the afterlife by living a godly existence now. There is also nothing of the “do it now” urging of “To the Virgins” (expressed even more explicitly by Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress”). In “To Daffodils” it is simply a straightforward presentation of the facts, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.