‘To the Herb Rosemary’: the poem that first grabbed Southey’s attention

Johnny Cammish, University of Nottingham

‘To the Herb Rosemary’ was first published in 1803 in Kirke White’s only lifetime collection of poems, Clifton Grove, and is particularly important when considering his reputation, as it attracted the initial interest of Robert Southey and ultimately led to Southey’s editing of the Remains that became so popular for much of the nineteenth century.

Southey first mentions the poem in these two letters from January and February 1804:

… there is a boy of much promise at Nottingham by name White – who poor fellow publishes in hope of raising money to help him to Oxford for ordination! there is a little wild ode of his to the Rosemary which is really very affecting. I know nothing of him but from his book, for which I have done my best in the Annual.[1]

A little volume of Poems by Henry Kirke White of Nottingham has excited some interest in me for the author, who is very young & has published them in the hope of obtaining help to pursue his studies, & graduate for orders. if you have interest enough with the Scotchmen <the Reviewer>, & if they have hearts enough to do any thing good – do recommend the book to their favourable [MS torn] there is a wild little poem there to a Rosemary-bush which affected me. the poor boy is sickly, & will I suppose die of consumption. I [MS torn] not, but it would gratify me if I could anyways directly or indirectly [MS torn] him. in the Annual I have been his friend.[2]

These first letters are significant because they reveal Southey’s first impressions of Kirke White – impressions that undoubtably influenced the biography that Southey included when he edited Kirke White’s Remains, and thus the poet’s reputation in the following years. First, the letters demonstrate how Southey was impressed by ‘a boy of much promise’. Both letters stress how Kirke White is ‘poor’, a ‘boy’, from Nottingham, and that his poetry is ‘wild’ and ‘little’. His youth, poor health, and financial struggle to fund a university education already hint at the persona Southey will create in his almost mythic telling of Kirke White’s life. The repetition of ‘Nottingham’ is also curious, as it suggests that his location is of significance, although the reason for this is unclear: perhaps it was mentioned merely because it was one of the few details Southey knew of with certainty. Southey’s reference to White dying of consumption may appear remarkably prescient, although considering the consumption epidemic during this period, particularly within Nottingham, it is likely no more than an educated guess at the fate of anyone who suffered from poor health.

The review in the annual that Southey refers to begins as a condemnation of the contemporary poetry scene: ‘We sit down heartlessly and reluctantly to examine the new candidate for poetical fame… in the present age every pretender to poetry can versify well, and many a volume which now sinks quietly into oblivion, would have acquired no trifling celebrity in the days of Dryden and Pope’.[3] This almost tired condemnation quickly becomes praise: ‘it is, therefore, with no common pleasure that we announce these extraordinary productions of early genius.’[4] It would certainly appear that Southey was not exaggerating when he said that ‘in the Annual I have been his friend.’

Here is the poem that excited Southey’s interest:

                        To the Herb Rosemary

Sweet scented flower! who art wont to bloom
On January’s front severe,
And o’er the wintry desert drear
To waft thy waste perfume!
Come, thou shalt form my nosegay now,
And I will bind thee round my brow;
And as I twine the mournful wreath,
I’ll weave a melancholy song;
And sweet the strain shall be, and long,
The melody of death.

Come, funeral flower! who lov’st to dwell
With the pale corse in lonely tomb,
And throw across the desert gloom
A sweet decaying smell,
Come, press my lips, and lie with me
Beneath the lowly alder-tree,
And we will sleep a pleasant sleep,
And not a care shall dare intrude
To break the marble solitude,
So peaceful and so deep.

And hark! the wind god, as he flies,
Moans hollow in the forest trees,
And sailing on the gusty breeze,
Mysterious music dies.
Sweet flower! that requiem wild is mine,
It warns me to the lonely shrine,
The cold turf altar of the dead:
My grave shall be in yon lone spot,
Where as I lie, by all forgot,
A dying fragrance thou wilt o’er my ashes shed.

(The Remains of Henry Kirke White, ed. Robert Southey, 2 vols (London, 1807), I,19)

A poem about a herb and its flower is quintessentially Romantic, and a common topic in poetry more generally. Rosemary has traditionally been considered a flower of remembrance, being mentioned as such in Hamlet: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember’ and earlier in a poem discussing the symbolism of various flowers, ‘A Nosegay Always Sweet’ by William Hunnis.[6] Southey notes in the Remains, beneath this poem, that the flower was often strewn over graves.[7] Rosemary carries many symbolic and mythic connotations, many of which Kirke White would have been familiar with. Robert Herrick’s short poem The Rosemarie Branch states the twinned significance of Rosemary as a herb of remembrance: ‘Grow for two ends, it matters not at all, / Be’t for my Bridall, or my Buriall.’[8] Remembrance of love and death mean that the flower contributes towards Kirke White’s curious thanatophilia, an obsession with the joy and peace of death most notable in his ‘Thanatos’.[9] This recurring theme relates to Kirke White’s interest in the Graveyard poets, as well as his evangelical leanings and concern with his own sickliness.

Concerning the opening lines of the poem, ‘On January’s front severe, / And o’er the wintry desert drear / To waft thy waste perfume!’, Southey notes that rosemary buds in January.  Myth, moreover, states that rosemary blooms at midnight on Christmas Eve, and this may have been why Kirke White refers to it in January. January is also typically the coldest month in terms of maximum temperature, and often the most fatal for those who are sickly.

The line ‘to waft thy waste perfume’ is polysemic, suggesting both that the perfume is for the dead, as ‘waste’, and also that in being for the dead, the scent itself is wasted, since the dead cannot smell it. This contradiction is developed in the final lines of the poem, ‘My grave shall be in yon lone spot, / Where as I lie, by all forgot, / A dying fragrance thou wilt o’er my ashes shed’, where the flowers of remembrance are the only means for the narrator to be remembered, he having been forgotten by everyone else. The flowers, however, being buried with the corpse, are unable to perform their duty of symbolising remembrance, and so, as they decay, so too does the memory of the narrator.

As in many of Kirke White’s poems, death is presented as a ‘pleasant sleep’, ‘so peaceful and so deep’. The phrase ‘break the marble solitude’ invokes a marble tomb or casket that is seemingly at odds with the description of the burial ‘beneath the alder tree.’ A favourite haunt of Kirke White’s however, Wilford Churchyard, lies on the banks of the river Trent, then marshy and populated by many alder trees. It is likely that White both wrote this poem while there and about a specific spot within the graveyard, imagining a marble tombstone (rather than a tomb or sepulchre) under a tree either within the churchyard grounds or its edge.

Rosemary is significant in one final measure, in that it is considered a herb that can ‘keep ghosts out’, and as such the presence of the herb in burial places might be a means of ensuring that the ‘peaceful sleep’ imagined by Kirke White continues undisturbed.[10]

The complexity of this poem, and the level of folk myth and tradition that has been woven into an imagining of death and burial in a specific site demonstrate Kirke White’s talent, and show that Southey had recognised genuine potential, and was not merely sympathising with a youth whose early death and Christian piety made him a sentimental figure.

[1] Robert Southey to Charles Watkins Williams Wynn, , 18 February 1804, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Ian Packer, https://romantic-circles.org/editions/southey_letters/Part_Three/HTML/letterEEd.26.898.html#back8 [27/05/2022]

[2] Robert Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 23 January 1804, Collected Letters of Robert Southey, https://romantic-circles.org/editions/southey_letters/Part_Three/HTML/letterEEd.26.888.html [27/05/2022]

[3] Cuttings from the Annual Review, vols. I-VI., Containing the Contributions of Southey, (n.p: n.p, 1803), p. 552.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Remains of Henry Kirke White, ed. Robert Southey, 2 vols (London, 1807), I,19.

[6] Act 4, Scene V; William Hunnis, ‘A Nosegay Always Sweet’, English Literature: The Renaissance ed. Robert George Whitney Bolwell (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1929), p. 271.

[7] Remains, I, 19.

[8] Robert Herrick, The Hesperides & Noble Numbers, ed. Alfred Pollard, 2 vols (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1898), II, 37.

[9] Remains, I, 318.

[10] Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edn (London: Shire Publications, 1996), pp. 132-33.