The time has come. I can’t put it off another day.

I have savoured every moment of them in the little tree in the corner of the garden near the fence. First they were green, then gold, then burning red. Now, with the onset of October and a colder wind, they are starting to drop. The crab apples must be picked and jellied.


There are many good jellies but my favourite is the crab. And although the bramble jelly might have reminded me of Robert Herrick, it didn’t. It took the crabs to make me think of pipkins; and pipkins took me to ‘A Ternary of Littles’ which I have loved all my life, though I’ve no idea when I first read it. It is not in The Lyric Poems of Robert Herrick edited by Ernest Rhys, which I see I acquired in 1972, when I was nineteen. The little book has no publication date, but its previous owner, Flora E Peel, has inscribed the date 1898. Quite an elderly book, then. And I have put my maiden name under Flora’s: Helen L Curry.

A pipkin is a small cooking pot. Often, apparently, they had three legs. I don’t know whether Robert Herrick’s had. I don’t even know what kind of jelly he was presenting his lady with. Nor does it matter. In my mind it was, and has always been crab apple jelly. Mine will go into small glass jars.

Of course ‘A Ternary of Littles, upon a Pipkin of Jelly sent to a Lady’ is a list poem (they have been around a very long time) but I still like it. Herrick was born in 1591 and survived to the ripe old age of 83. He never married. But I think I had better quote his ternary, had I not? Here it is:

A little saint best fits a little shrine,
A little prop best fits a little vine:
As my small cruse best fits my little wine.

A little seed best fits a little soil,
A little trade best fits a little toil:
As my small jar best fits my little oil.

A little bin best fits a little bread,
A little garland fits a little head:
As my small stuff best fits my little shed.

A little hearth best fits a little fire,
A little chapel fits a little choir:
As my small bell best fits my little spire.

A little stream best fits a little boat,
A little lead best fits a little float:
As my small pipe best fits my little note.

A little meat best fits a little belly,
As sweetly, lady, give me leave to tell ye,
This little pipkin fits this little jelly.

And thinking about it in bed, I realised there are several poems by Herrick that ring in my head and have done these several decades. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ of course, which is really titled To the Virgins to Make Much of Time. And of course To Daffodils, which I met at school (we had to do an exercise comparing it with Wordsworth’s better known daffodil stanzas). He sets a cracking rhythm, does Herrick, which means I can still rattle off the first few lines. And reading him again, now, I see what an influence he must have been not only on W H Davies, but Thomas Hardy too. And even me. The reach of the Tribe of Ben is long.

And then there is Cherry Ripe, and the wonderful poem that taught me the word ‘liquefaction’: Upon Julia’s Clothes. I see Julia’s Clothes is also a ternary: three line stanzas, and rhyming in threes. But I mustn’t forget the wonderfully precise Delight in Disorder. I wonder if this is his best-known poem? Perhaps.

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more betwitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

I had forgotten how much I love Herrick. It’s taken the crab apple jelly to remind me that he’s still there. Wikipedia tells me that even in his day Herrick was old hat. Too simple compared to the superior complexity of Marvell and Donne (but oh I love them too). And look how well he has lasted! The line ‘As my small stuff best fits my little shed’ could have been written today. It made me think of Jenny Elliott’s Fife-based Shed Press, which produces extraordinarily beautiful (and small) poetry artefacts. I heard her read from One Old Onion only last night at a Platform event, and it was a rare treat.

Maybe  I specially like Herrick’s Ternary of Littles because I am little. I was always small and am getting smaller.  And it’s a highly domestic poem. You could argue that it’s somewhat coy in tone, I guess (he was either charming or flirty, depending on how you read him), but I cherish it as a personal rather than a public piece. I believe he wrote it down and presented it, with the jelly in its pipkin, to the lady. The end, to my mind, is particularly pleasing. ‘Give me leave to tell ye’ doesn’t rhyme neatly with ‘jelly’ these days, but it did then. It takes me back.

And forward. Gather ye crab apples while ye may. The job must be done. I’ll end with some words of Herrick himself.

The Departure of the Good Daemon

What can I do in poetry,
Now the good spirit’s gone from me?
Why nothing now, but lonely sit
And over-read what I have writ.




Keep them long enough and they turn into poetry.


HappenStance subscribers recently received a complimentary copy of Preparing to be a Beautiful Lady. This little A6 production, written and designed by Jenny Elliott and originally printed by her own Shed Press, is a mixture of poem and ‘found’ poem, with graphics and adverts dating back to 1945, the year the Second World War ended.


Antique objects acquire value simply through age – from coal scuttle to paper knife. The same is true for words. What was ordinary, acquires curiosity and charm, especially when rescued and polished up by someone with an eye for such things.


In Jenny’s pamphlet “her nerves pay for it”, originally a phrase from an advert for cocoa, grows into something more than itself. It’s not just the rhythm and cadence of the words that render them attractive, it’s the acquired irony. Nothing wrong with the fact that cocoa “soothes frayed nerves / and aids digestion” – but in the age of obesity, we’re less reassured by the “body building protein, / energy-giving carbohydrate, and fat.” Fat?


Meanwhile “Mrs Futura’s wedding cake” is “baked by a valve”. How odd-sounding – how very odd! But “valves have solved many industrial problems”, and if you think about it, this must be true. Meanwhile, “the Doctor’s son, David” is benefiting from a concoction known as “humanized trufood”, an oxymoron if ever there was one.


We don’t see the curiosity, the oddness, the beauty in the language under our very noses. But what charm it can have nearly seven decades later! We hang onto old objects – silver spoons, rings, vases and Toby jugs – and endow them with both sentimental and financial value. The same is true of old words: they acquire power as they roll along.


I was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, in the days when church was a social outing, and the church youth club was the event of the week. So that’s what we did on Sunday morning – Matins, and sometimes, if the attractions of the choir boys were sufficient, Evensong as well. We did a lot of praying and kneeling, and we did most of it using words from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with our stories and parables drawn from the ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible, the version of King James’s edition finalized in 1769.


I liked those words. I liked them because of their strangeness, their ancient rhythms and turns of phrase. I liked that it wasn’t ‘you’ but ‘thou’ and ‘thee’. I liked the old forms that cherished the ‘th’ sounds: “Here endeth the first lesson.” I liked the way we raced to the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the powerandtheglory, foreverandever, Amen.”


We had no idea that “amen” (used in Hebrew, Christian and Islamic prayer) meant ‘so be it’. And yet, of course, we did know. We knew it in context. ‘Amen’ meant what it meant. It meant ta da. It meant shut the door on the end of that prayer. It meant nearly time to get out of church. Most importantly it was part of a special language we didn’t use at home.


In my late teens, church congregations were already getting smaller, though we didn’t notice. Some clerics thought the impenetrable language was to blame. We began to get readings from The New English Bible, and I remember my mother acquired a copy about this time.


Then our old vicar died or retired, and we got a new one. The old one was called Mr Harris. He used to visit parishioners regularly, and if you were out, he used to slip a card through the door. The card read: “The Reverend and Mrs Harris called and found you out.” No-one knew whether the double meaning was deliberate.

The new vicar didn’t want to be called ‘Mr ….’. He wanted more familiar terms, and as a result, my father always referred to him as ‘Callmejohn’.


Matins turned into Morning Prayer, Evensong to Evening Prayer. Instead of using the piles of well-thumbed prayer books (though we knew the prayers by heart), ‘Callmejohn’ brought in new versions on printed leaflets in ordinary English with the thees and thous banished. I liked him. But I preferred “the quick and the dead” to “the living and the dead”. I preferred “Hear ye the comfortable words . . .” to “Listen to the words of comfort”.


In effect, I liked not knowing what it all meant. (People probably felt the same when the language of prayer shifted from Latin into English.) As the vocabulary of my church became more and more accessible, I became less and less attracted to it. Soon I could no longer join in ‘The Creed’ – at least not all of it – because I’d started to think what the words meant and, as a result, found I couldn’t believe them. Eventually, I stopped going, even though I had to sacrifice singing hymns and psalms too.


I began by talking about poetry, and in my head I haven’t strayed from that theme. If you love poetry, what you look for is something special in the language – some beauty, oddness, or curiosity. And certainly what most people recognize as ‘poetry’ is not meaningless expression, but it is a form of words from which you can infer great possibility. The church language did that for me, and its phrasing and cadences shaped me in ways I don’t suppose I can rationalize. It made me love words and their functions: the virtue of repetition, the comfort of litany, the ancient shadows of something stretching back through language to pre-language. Language bound me.


If you write poetry, you look for a way of using words that preserves and exploits their essential strangeness. Much contemporary poetry draws on the vernacular, the common speech that surrounds us. In fact, we are averse to old phrasing in poetry and regard it as a Bad Thing. The danger with common usage, of course, is that it sounds too common, too ordinary for ‘poetry’, which is why many people still hanker after outmoded terms. It was so much easier for the old poets, even the early modernists, who could still draw on church language, already high and mysterious in register.


But the strange thing about common speech is how uncommon it is. It is threaded with ancient and modern. It changes as you look at it. You hardly, when you really think about it, understand it at all. You have to translate it for yourself as you go along, and often you translate it into a feeling, not a meaning. It is full of poetry, whatever that may be.


Wolcum be ye that arn her,
Wolcum alle and mak good cher,
Wolcum all another yer,
Wolcum yol.