I’ve been working on my chapter on the representations of feminine aromas in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides, and thinking a lot about his large nose. Below I argue that Herrick is the poet laureate of smell.
The frontispiece to his Hesperides depicts a bust of Robert Herrick aloft a column. To his right Pegasus—symbol of poetic inspiration—is about to fly from the Hill of Parnassus—home of the Muses, a place of poetry, music, and learning—from which the Spring of Helicon—the divine spring of the Muses—flows. To his left is a tree, maybe the sacred tree of the titular Hesperides—the tree of golden apples, sacred to Juno—around which five putti dance in a ring. Two more putti holding laurel or olive leaves point toward the large Latin-inscribed base of the bust. Two last putti—making the number nine, the number of the Muses—fly overhead with rose-wreaths. The imagery then is a constant reiteration of Herrick as poet, inspired by the Muses, moved out of his own time into the eternal world of verse, and allowed into the sacred spaces reserved for gods and heroes. While the frontispiece is a bit over-the-top in establishing Herrick as a poet “not of an age, but for all time,” to paraphrase Jonson’s sentiment on Shakespeare, it does hammer into the viewers’ head the gravity and timeless quality of the work they are about to read. The above discussed background of the frontispiece is relatively uncontroversial, but there are two opposing schools of thought concerning Herrick’s bust, and especially, his dominating feature, his large, hooked nose.
In profile, Herrick wears the curls and mustache of a fashionable Cavalier. Prominent
and hooked, Herrick’s Roman nose is his defining feature. His eyes appear beady and focused on either something quite far off, out of the frame of the frontispiece, or not really focused on anything in particular, but his large nose gives his face its character and tells the viewer that this is definitely and definitively Herrick. Jay A. Gertzman’s study of different editions of Herrick’s work from the second complete edition of Hesperides (not until 1810!) until the mid-1960s, demonstrates the popularity of extracting Herrick’s profile from its highly allegorical surroundings in later editions of Herrick’s poetry. Gertzman claims that it is easy to misread Herrick’s features without its putti and Pegasus: “The viewer is encouraged to make a subtle comparison between the man and his book whatever one might expect of a man with such features, he has produced poetry of pastoral grace” (16). Without the background, however, Herrick appears course, fat, ugly, profane, and “too voluptuous” (16-17). Even within the beauty of the Hesperidean garden, Gertzman still contrasts Herrick’s profile with his surroundings,
… an odd-looking man, in profile, double-chinned, thick-necked, curly-haired, and especially hook-nosed, this very mundane fellow is surrounded by symbols of ideal beauty. The iconography, and the inscriptions on the bust, suggest the motifs of peace, song, innocence, which make profane love a proper subject for poetry. The all-too-mundane features profiled by [William] Marshall [the engraver] make a wry contrast between the man and his book, between the realities of Herrick’s life and the poetic fantasies he has chosen to surround himself with. The archness, very much a mark of a gentleman, tells us at the outset a good deal more about the poet than would the usual sycophantic batch of commendatory verses. (178).
There are those scholars, such as Gertzman, who read the bust as rather realistic and depicting Herrick ‘warts and all.’ Later illustrators and engravers of Herrick’s Hesperides also follow Marshall’s example in representing Herrick with his big nose, obviously reading this an actual feature of physiognomy. Yet, there are others who read the portrait to be just as allegorical as the background. J. Max Patrick, among others, suggest that the engraver William Marshall may have “intended this to portray Herrick, but the picture may well be merely a generalized portrait of a poet” (7). If this is not a likeness of Herrick, why create such a peculiar looking figure with a rather large and unattractive nose? What could the relationship between a hooked nose and inspiring verse be?
Herrick’s nose, or the more “generalized portrait of a poet” (with a rather large nose) can link this poet metonymically and visually to Ovid Naso (‘the Nose’), to whom Herrick alludes and translates in several of his poems. And indeed, besides the textual evidence, there is compelling career and personal trajectories, especially the concept of the poet in exile, with Herrick supporting his troubled king from afar instead of Ovid’s opposition to Augustus Caeasar (Pugh 7). On the other hand, Herrick picks and chooses from many of the Greco-Roman poets in his thousand-odd poems—Catullus, Anacreon, Martial, Horace—so the supremacy and topicality of Ovid, while compelling, still has not been fully argued yet. Pugh reads the frontispiece as follows:
This bust has two striking peculiarities: firstly its immense nose, indeed as if to draw attention to this, one of the amores seems to be about to hang his rose garland over it, and secondly that despite its marmoreal and sculpted appearance it is endowed with luxuriant dark curling hair and a moustache. The nose I take as Herrick’s jocular self-representation as another Ovidius Naso, about whose cognomen (naso=Lat. ‘nose’) Shakespeare’s Holferenes puns: Ovidius Naso was the man. And why indeed “Naso,” but for smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention? (LLL 4.2.123-125). Herrick makes a similar pun in “To Live Merrily, & to trust good verse”(Pugh 18)
That is, Herrick depicted with both Cavalier curls and facial hair—the only features of the frontispiece which hint toward occasional trends—and an Ovidian nose can exist within conflicting and overlapping polytemporal planes at the same time: current Civil War England, ancient Greece and Rome, and the eternity of the Judeo-Christian garden of Eden and afterlife. Even Ovid, however, despite the naso-centric name is never depicted with a large nose. The name may well have belonged to an ancestor with a dominant Roman nose, but not Ovid himself. That Herrick would be represented with a large hooked nose to allude to Ovid’s lesser-known cognomen (and not even Ovid’s own physiognomy) seems rather the inside joke, rather than as an easily understood “jocular self-representation.”
Yet, there can be other possibilities for the large proboscis. I argue that beyond the poetic allegories, there are details hinting toward standard conventions of the allegory of smell. As Pugh notes, the two flying putti highlight the importance of Herrick’s nose. Herrick’s nose is so prominently his defining feature that the flying putti appear as though they are placing floral wreaths upon his nose. While the foregrounded putti inform readers how and where to look by pointing, and the distanced putti celebrate touch as they hold hands and dance, the central putti carry wreaths of flowers, indicating the sense of smell. J. Max Patrick claims that the flowers are “from the Garden of Hesperides” (7-8), but Juno’s garden is most famous for its golden apples, not its flora. The fact that the wreaths are floral—instead of the more traditional bay or laurel leaves worn by poets—is also an interesting detail. This floral wreath either represents Herrick as decidedly English, instead of Greco-Roman (bay, laurel, or olive leaves), or it demonstrates Herrick as a poet of smell. If the flowers are roses, although it is difficult to tell from the small size, then Herrick’s poetry also is decidedly English, and his bust indicates that he has joined the pantheon of English and Classical poets. I would suggest that that the flowers also represent the work as a whole—it is after all, an anthology, defined by the OED as “a collection of the flowers of verse”—epigrams and posies/poems woven together into a wreath of verse. Furthermore, flowers are the usual iconography to represent the sense of smell from early manuscript collections of Aristotle’s De Sensu and have continued to indicate the sense of smell.
In Herrick’s first poem of the Hesperides, his “Argument of His Book” the poet claims to “sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece/ Of balm, of oil, of spice and ambergris,” all sweet aromatics and perfumes. Herrick uses the terms “balm,” “oil,” “spice,” and “ambergris” in 57 different poems, sometimes even using two or more of the terms in the same poem. These aromatics and unguents appear “piece by piece” in these different poems in many different functions, often reiterating the very foci of the rest of the “Argument,” which is that like a well-ordered garden, or a nicely chosen bouquet, or even a cleanly domestic space, everything comes together “piece by piece” to create an aromatic and effortlessly constructed whole.
Simply put, Herrick is the poet laureate of smell, and the putti might as well be crowning his nose instead of his brow. Reading the argument to his book after the study of the frontispiece, Herrick’s unfocused gaze makes more sense; the narrative poet of many of the Hesperides sniffs his way through his world.