Poem of the Day: ‘To Keep a True Lent’

Along with Ben Jonson and J.V. Cunningham, Herrick is one of the few major poets in English to reach systematic mastery of the epigram.

Robert Herrick. The Poetry Foundation

Robert Herrick (1591–1674) was nearly forgotten, a 17th-century Anglican priest whose poetry seemed old-fashioned to the readers of his time, trained up on the intellectual complexities of the Metaphysical Poets. But such popular carpe diem poems as “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” kept him from complete obscurity, and the Victorians would rediscover him — fittingly, for his clever meters and forms match the technical fascinations of many 19th-century poets. Along with Ben Jonson and J.V. Cunningham, Herrick is one of the few major poets in English to reach systematic mastery of the epigram (a difficult form for a sprawling language, easier in Latin and other concise tongues). In “To Keep a True Lent” he constructs nonce quatrains, rhymed abba, that step from three beats, to two, to one, and back to three, all to explain why abstinence from meat during Lent is a symbol of a great repentance before Easter.

To Keep a True Lent
by Robert Herrick

Is this Fast to keep
    The larder lean?
        And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
    Of flesh, yet still
        To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour
    Or ragg’d to go
        Or show
A down-case look and sour?

No: ’tis a Fast to dole
    Thy sheaf of wheat
        And meat
With the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife
    And old debate
        And hate
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent
    To starve thy sin,
        Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.


With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by the Sun’s poetry editor, Joseph Bottum of Dakota State University, with the help of the North Carolina poet, Sally Thomas. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

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