I was thinking again about Sir Thomas More and his household: that grave company of clever adults (two or three of the young women present do seem to be pregnant, but no actual children intrude on the scene). Instead, three honorary children appear, supplying an unexpectedly frivolous shrub-layer to this forest canopy of mature intellects: the animals, two dogs, and tucked away in the right hand corner, like a marginal antic-work in an illuminated manuscript, an ape.
Early modern pets always included exotics – those delightful and faintly subversive popinjays! – but I want to post today about the wider range of native animals people kept as pets. Charles Cotton (1630-87), gentleman poet and angler, who lived on the Staffordshire side of the Peak District, had a pet pine marten, which he wrote about in a set of verses, ‘On My Pretty Marten’.
The poem seems to have a twofold purpose: a self-indulgent burbling about the merits of the animal, and an attempt to convince a woman partner that this is an acceptable animal to have around. Towards the end of the poem:
Here sweet beauty is a creature
Purposely ordained by Nature,
Both for cleanness and for shape
Worthy a fair lady’s lap;
Not her bosom would disgrace,
Nor a more beloved place.
As you see, the poem is familiar to the point of being cheeky, provoking her with the inevitable and immemorial associations of small furry animals.
Cotton commends his marten as a courtly animal, superior to other favoured pets:
Then for fashion and for mien,
Matty’s fit to court a Queen;
All his motions graceful are …
Which should ladies see, they sure
Other beasts would ne’er endure;
Then no more they would make suit
For an ugly pissing-coat
Rammish cat, nor make a pet
Of a bawdy marmoset.
Nay, the squirrel, though it is
Pretti’st creature next to this,
Would henceforward be discarded,
And in woods live unregarded.
I wonder when the squirrel ceased to be a house-pet? Did it lose that ancillary role as it lost its wild territory to the grey squirrel? Marjorie Pinchwife (‘The Country Wife’) complaining that her jealous husband has threatened ‘to kill my squirrel’ comes to mind. Pine martens themselves have long disappeared from the Peak District, to survive only in
The greater part of Cotton’s poem simply commends ‘Pretty Matty’:
And for beauty, Nature too
Here would show what she can do;
Finer creature ne’er was seen,
Half so pretty, half so clean.
Eyes as round and black as sloe,
Teeth as white as morning snow;
Breath as sweet as blowing roses …
Next his feet my praise commands,
Which methinks we should call hands,
Which so finely they are shap’d,
And for any use so apt,
Nothing can so dextrous be,
Nor fine handed near as he.
These, without though black as jet,
Within are soft and supple yet
As virgin’s palm …
He somehow omits the claws, doesn't he? One senses that there was a sceptical first audience, someone who had to be persuaded of the merits of this animal, when he goes out of his way to commend its smell:
Back and belly soft as down …
And of such a rich perfume,
As, to say I dare presume,
Will out-ravish and out-wear
That of the fulsome milliner.
I’ve taken my pine marten image from this website http://www.ionalister.com/pinemarten/pmfrontdoor.htm
and, in asking permission to use the photograph, drawn attention to this post about a marten as a pet. Maybe an expert will know if a marten smells pleasant at close quarters.
If Cotton’s first reader was an acute reader of poetry and men, she might have been struck by the facility with contemporary love poetry adapts to blazoning the looks of a small mammal. In the middle of the poem, Cotton praises the masculine virtues of his ‘little Cavalier’, and these tend to be its inner merits: Matty’s courage, constancy, chastity, justice, and judgment. He is
with such virtue bless’d,
That he chooses still the best,
And wants nothing of a wit
But a tongue to utter it:
Yet with that we may dispense,
For his signs are eloquence…
It doesn’t have the power of Smart’s ‘I will consider my cat Jeffrey’, or the pathos of Marvell’s ‘Nymph Complaining’. Cotton isn’t in the league of either of those poets. As a pet, a pine marten isn’t really as odd as those pet toads that seem to crop up in witchcraft pamphlets. But ‘Star Wars Galaxies’ has just popped through the door, and my son is pressing to get it installed. I have to give way to superior force. But I wonder if Cotton persuaded the lady to take to his pet?