“Herrick’s piece is an offering to the women of the world which he feels should be taken to the fullest.”

This is, I believe, my first example of faulty pronoun reference; it will not be the last. Indeed, faulty pronoun reference and misplaced modifiers can be blamed for most of the weird and wonderful images that originate in grammatical errors rather than erroneous or awkward wording.

So, in this example: WHAT should be “taken to the fullest”?

By proximity, at least some of the “women of the world” should be taken to the fullest. Herrick may have been a Cavalier poet, but he was also a clergyman (most of his love poems predate his taking of holy orders). He did advocate enjoying all the pleasures of what he considered a rich and beautiful world, and so maybe the student means that yes, women, being prominent among the riches of the world, should be taken to the fullest.

Or maybe the student means to refer, by “which,” to the “offering”: take his offering to the fullest.

Oh, dear. In this sentence, “offering” is equated with “Herrick’s piece.” Take that to the fullest. Oh dear, indeed!

Okay. This sentence is out of context. The “piece” was named in the previous sentence, certainly: Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” which begins “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying.” It urges young women to take love while they are young, because the chance will pass all too swiftly. It is a carpe diem poem: seize the day. His message is far from unique; it is virtually a cliché in 17th-century poetry. His advice is, as the reader learns toward the end of the poem, actually fairly chaste: that young women should “go marry” while their beauty lasts. Biographers reassure us, moreover, that Herrick, a lifelong bachelor, seems rarely to have had any particular real woman in mind when he wrote his lines.

But even with this contextual information, in the sentence the student is saying that Herrick feels either his “piece” or “the women of the world” should be taken to the fullest—and alas, Herrick meant neither.

The student could more accurately have written that Herrick thought his advice should be taken to the fullest, or that life should be taken to the fullest.

Instead she leaves us with a statement that, thanks to faulty pronoun reference, is considerably hotter than she means, and most likely would bring at least a blush to the cheek of our bachelor cleric.

And a bawdy little laugh to the hearts of her readers.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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