Robert Herrick – The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home

This poem takes the form of a folk song, with couplets of iambic tetrameter contributing to the joyful, carnival mood with which the poem opens. Herrick’s rich evocation of rural English life aims to celebrate and justify feudal society – the political element of this poem shows Herrick as unmistakably royalist, writing around the civil-war period.Implicit in the scenes of pleasure and festivity is an affirmation of duty and a recognition of order and hierarchy.

The rich carnival atmosphere of the poem is underpinned by a string iambic pulse. ‘The horses, mares and frisking fillies’ has a fittingly ‘feminine’ unstressed ending, matching ‘fillies’, and lines such as this deviate from the meter to create a relaxed, sing-song voice. This line also shows the gentle sensuality and playful eroticism that runs through the poem – affirming rural people’s right to enjoyment and pleasure as a means of deflecting discontent. ‘We are the lords of wine and oil’ sounds like a challenge to authority, but reflects in reality the notion of lords of misrule’ – the topsyturvydom of festival days which are sanctioned and necessarily brief opportunities for anarchy. The poem also shows an enjoyment of traditional village customs, as some kiss the sheaves’, a challenge to puritan suppression of such traditions which were deemed unchristian and licentious. The extravagant plenty and richness of the harvest feast shows how the poet is attempting to idealize rural life – glossing over the hunger and hardship which were so prominent a part of feudal existence.

The poet makes explicit his political ideals in the poem. From the start he addresses himself to a lord, ‘Come forth, my lord, and see the cart’, implicitly endorsing social hierarchy. It is significant that the poem is dedicated to an Earl, clearly the sentiments expressed would have found favour with aristocracy. The ironic apostrophisation of a plow as the commonwealth’ is an explicit mockery of and challenge to the puritan ideas of republic. The poet suggests that a plow, which is owned and shared by the village, and so provides for everyone, is an equivalent to a form of pluralist government.

The poem affirms, alongside its celebration of rural festivities, the importance of order and duty. The feudal imperative to provide for your lord is cast in terms so as to make it seem an act of natural generosity and humanity on the part of the villagers. As harvest festival celebrates the provision of food from God, so the poet suggests that rural people should share this wealth, first with their cattle, ‘neat’, and then, in what is painted as a self-evident natural progression, with the ‘lord’. The tone is both a prayer of supplication to the villagers, elevated to the role of divine providers, ‘be mindful’, and informal and jovial, ‘And know besides, ye must revoke’. The inclusion of animals in this return to work, and the idea of summer’s ‘toil’ at the start of the poem makes labour seem a natural cycle or process, one that it would be wrong to change.

The final three lines of the poem are interesting and ambiguous in that they seem to cut into the idealized rural world of the rest of the poem by presenting the ‘pain’ of agricultural labour as something cyclical and inescapable. It can be seen as a show of sympathy and understanding in the poet, authenticating the rest of the poem by showing an awareness of reality. The poet ventures it with the hope that the rich festivities of the poem will be able to justify the pain of labour. The elegant pun reminds us that spring, while a time of hard agricultural labour, is also beautiful. Spring pain also brings to mind lambing season and the pain of childbirth, a further suggestion of the ‘commonwealth’ between humans, animals and earth, that all experience seasons of hardship and times of abundance.

This poem glorifies rural labour in pastoral imagery and singing verse, offering itself as a folk song for villagers at harvest time. By celebrating the excess and frivolity of festival days, it actually reaffirms the role of order and hierarchy in society. Where it gains an extra dimension is in the final lines, which recognise and seem to gently apologise for the fact that rural life isn’t all as rosy as the poem suggests.


One thought on “Robert Herrick – The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home

  1. This is a great reading of the poem. Just a note to say that the documentation of rural life in terms of agriculture, seasonality and periodical times of hardship is called the Georgic tradition and this is a classic example. Thanks though, this post has been really helpful!

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