The term “phallocentric” finds one of its more ludicrously explicit instances in Robert Herrick’s funny little poem about a wet dream. In contrast to contemporary writing about sex, however, the 17th-century poet Herrick does not really put the male organ–or any organ–at the center of his poem; for him, imagination–both erotic imagination and literary imagination–is central. He smiles a little mockingly, but affectionately, at his own body. The helplessness of Lucia in this fantasy, and the idea of “Bacchus ravisht by his tree,” may make us uneasy on feminist grounds; but the corrective reality of the last line–the physical fact of the helpless erection–corrects and undermines the imagination’s unreal fantasy of domination. The reality sunnily undermines the preposterous fantasy.
Herrick’s poem is a loose translation of a piece by the ancient Greek poet Anacreon. The quality of civilization–and civilization accepting that it is made of and by the human body, laughing at that body fondly, putting it in its place–is part of what makes the poem interesting and appealing.
I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprize;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv’lits were embrac’d:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem’d to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree.
My curles about her neck did craule,
And armes and hands they did enthrall;
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy’d,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock, than like a Vine.