July 3 ‘Cherry Ripe’ is a great example of the interpenetration of polite and popular culture in Britain. The seventeenth century lyric poet Robert Herrick based his famous poem on the cries of costermongers (whose successors featured in Henry Mayhew’s study), selling fruit in the streets of London. It became part of the literary canon:
Cherry-Ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile;
There’s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.
In 1824 the composer Charles Horn set the poem to music, and the song immediately became a hit in London. It was particularly associated with the contralto Madame Vestris, who as both an actor and a theatre manager was an influential figure on the Georgian stage. A year later, the immensely successful comedy Paul Pry began a record-breaking run at the Haymarket Theatre. Its popularity was enhanced by inclusion of Cherry Ripe, sung by Madame Vestris, although it had nothing to do with the plot. From the theatre, it escaped back into the streets. In 1841 the writer Charles Mackay, reflecting the growing sensitivity of middle-class householders to street music, gave a jaundiced account of the inescapable presence of Horn’s song:
“About twenty years ago London resounded with one chorus, with the love of which everybody seemed to be smitten. Girls and Boys, young men and old, maidens and wives, and widows, were all alike musical. There was an absolute mania for singing, and the worst of it was, that, like good Father Philip, in the romance of “The Monastery,” they seemed utterly unable to change their tune. “Cherry ripe!” “Cherry ripe!” was the universal cry of all the idle in the town. Every unmelodious voice gave utterance to it; every crazy fiddle, every cracked flute, every wheezy pipe, every street organ was heard in the same strain, until studious and quiet men stopped their ears in desperation, or fled miles away into the fields or woodlands, to be at peace.*”
The popularity of the song owed much to Horn’s attractive melody, but it also reflected the perennial attraction of the subject. Nothing speaks more eloquently of the wealth of summer than the pure red fruit. The picture above is some of the crop from our garden this year. The larger bowl contains sweet ‘Stella’ cherries. They grow on a large tree we planted more than three decades ago. It is too tall to net, so we just share the crop with the blackbirds who nest in the adjacent hedge to ensure the shortest journey to their breakfast each morning. The smaller bowl has sharper morello cherries from a fan-trained tree on a wall, now carefully netted after the birds stripped it bare last year.
The sweet cherries became a clafoutis earlier this week, and the remainder we eat between and after every meal for as long as they last. The morellos were bottled yesterday and will be cherry brandy by Christmas. At least we have something to look forward to amidst the collapse of all plans and expectations.
* Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, 3 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), vol. 1, p. 336