‘To Music, to becalm his Fever’ by Robert Herrick
Robert Herrick, a charming poet, was a disciple of Ben Jonson, and the Sons of Ben were not metaphysicals. Herrick never married, but a number of his poems are addressed to imaginary mistresses.
Of the seventeenth century English poets, Herrick’s work has the closest inherent relationship to music. It is melodious, and most of his poems have the character of song about them. Among his contemporaries, in fact, Herrick is called ‘the songwriter’.
On the Poem
Herrick’s poem ‘To Music, to becalm his Fever’ was included in Bissell’s In Praise of Music. This text would also be set to music by Paul Hindemith, and in 1952 by Ned Rorem from Flight For Heaven, No. 1. It was written about 1660, when the poet was 70 years of age, and reflects Herrick's marriage of music and poetry.
At its most basic level, this is a poem of “passage” with music as the embracing catalyst. Memory research says that the last thing a person recognizes is touch and music. Music can distract, quiet the mind, make us laugh, remind us of past experience or relationships, soothe our soul, or transport us to another place. Poems extolling the soothing balm brought by sleep to those in need are numerous. ‘To Music: To Becalm His Fever’ stands out as the best in its class.
Song to Music for Slumber
To ‘charm’ something involves chanting a verse that supposedly has magic powers. Another meaning of charm is to ‘put to sleep’. Yet another meaning of charm is, to “put to sleep”.
The poet Herrick, in this poem pens an ode to Music, to charm him to sleep, as he knows that Music has the great power of putting him to deep slumber. Music is also personified as the balm or the panacea that can remove the sickness from the poet, by ‘killing’ his fever.
Thou power that canst sever
From me this ill;
And quickly still,
Though thou not kill,
A Plea to Music for Repose
In the second stanza, Music is personified as a therapist who ameliorates pain from the sick, which has the power to convert a ‘consuming fire into a gentle licking flame and make it thus expire’.
The poet then proceeds to gives an earnest plea to Music to give him a ‘repose’, which is a state of rest, sleep, or tranquility, where there is utmost peace with oneself because of a freedom from pain or worries – a repose that will make him live and die amongst roses.
A Plea to Music for Relief [‘Ease’]
In the final stanza, Music is personified as the silent dew and as the maiden showers, which when it falls, with its soft strains, has the power to melt the pains of the sickness and give a great delight to the poet, which can thus give him an assurance that he can now proceed homeward bound, joyously, towards heaven.
Robert Herrick, often referred to as a “songwriter” poet embraces music as a charm with mystical power to “melt pain” and bring delight and anticipation to the soul's flight to another place. The simplicity of thought within the poem has the power to still the mind and soul long enough to realize the fragility and purpose of life. And, in so doing, live a life more fulfilling.
With inputs from
ü Robert Herrick, The Hesperides and Noble Numbers: Ed. Alfred Pollard, The University of Adelaide Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia 5005
ü Harold Bloom, John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets. Infobase Publishing, NY, 2008
ü AllianceMusic.Com & Harpers.Org