Thursday, June 29, 2006

In bed with Nicotiana

George Daniel, of Beswick (his dates were 1616–1657) vowed that he would never again take razor to his beard after the execution of Charles I. In this self-portrait, he is looking understandably surprised about the immensity of the consequence three years later: he is just 32, but has the beard of a patriarch, which he boldly complements with a balancingly vast furry hat. A friend confronted him with a mirror, and he wrote this poem about his new self:

How am I lost! though some are pleased to say
My mossy Chops estrange
All former Knowledge; and my Brother may,
At distance interchange
Discourse, as to a man he ne’re had known;
It cannot be, persuade
Your Selves; for when you made
Me take a Glass, I knew my Face my own.

The very Same I had three years agoe;
My Eye, my Lip, and nose,
Little, and great, as then; my high-slick't Brow,
Not bald, as you suppose;
For though I have made riddance of that Hair,
Which full enough did grow,
Cropped in a Zealous bow,
Above each Ear; these but small changes are.

For wer't my work, I need not far go seek
The Face I had last year;
The growing Fringe but swept from either Cheek,
And I as fresh appear,
As at nineteen; my Perruke is as neat
An Equipage as might
Become a wooer, light
In thoughts as in his Dress; but I forget;

Or rather I neglect this Trim of Art;
And have a Care so small
To what I am in any outward part,
I scarce know one of All;
'Tis not that Form I look at. Could I find
My inward Man, complete
In his Dimensions! let
Me glory Truth, the better part's behind.

It’s one of Daniel’s better performances. He likes to write about himself, though rather too often about himself as a poet, which he very self-consciously was: I don't know that he is ever really interesting on the topic. He admired George Herbert, but his own verse tends to be chopped-up prose with rhymes. He apparently lost many of his poems in a fire, and probably comforted himself with the assertion that those lost poems were his best ones.

My favourite Daniel piece, though, is his erotic poem about the pleasures of tobacco, which starts:

Come, my Nicotiana; we’ll renew
Our free delights, and Appetite pursue;
Wee fearless will Enjoy those real joys
Lovers would paint, in their fantastic toys…

Normally quite passionless in the relatively few amatory poems he does permit himself, which do conventional 'Platonic'/'Anti-Platonic' topics, in describing his passionate intercourse with the nymph Nicotiana, he really releases the sensualist. Suddenly, our bushy Yorkshire squire sounds like Carew at his fruitiest:

my free hand
No bashful blush shall ever Countermand,
But in a Thousand forms, thy Tresses part
And slide along, with uncontroll├Ęd Art,
Thy dainty Body; not to fear a frown,
For soiling of thy new white Satin Gown;
My willing Lips shall part, to catch thy Breath,
Sweet, as the Honey-dew, which Hybla hath.
There will I hang; and all my veins inspire
With Ardent Wishes, taken from thy fire;
Hard on my Lips, thy wanton tongue shall press,
And by new Chimistrie in Wantonness,
Send the rich Quintessence of all I seek,
In Dalliance through that faire Alimbecke:
There will I suck, with Cunning Industrie,
Thy Spirits Extracted by Love's Alchimie.
When we 'are be-qualm'd, that long embraces has
Made dull Desire, and wee shall only pass
Faint breathings, I will summon a fresh Store
Of Vigour, far more Active, then before;
And with neat Titillations, new provoke
Decayed fire in thee, to the full Stock;
Invent new postures, & out-doe the old
Fictions, to make 'em Story; when with bold
Uncurb├Ęd flames, we grapple; and not part,
But to renew our Action, and our Art.

I find it hard to think that Mrs. Elizabeth Daniel would not have approved: the oral and semi-tactile pleasures George describes all sound a bit unusual. I imagine that Charles I was a convenient pretext for the vast beard: Daniel clearly liked to be in a nimbus, of hair or smoke: the Creator, whose words issue from a bright cloud or burning bush.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Coming on strong, early modern style

I spent an almost spookily quiet Sunday (the England match was on TV) cycling in rural Hampshire.

After two visits to churches, one of which, on the redundant churches list, had cobwebs between the pews, and then traversing the site of the Battle of Cheriton Down (March, 1644) -

- gives a reasonable summary based on William Seymour's analysis - I decided that I was communing with the 17th century dead rather too keenly.

So here's a bit of 17th century life, as rendered by Thomas Deloney in Part 2 of The Gentle Craft (1639). Harry Nevell is trying (this is Chapter 9) to woo Mistress Farmer, a London widow just 2o years old:

Faire Mistris quoth Harry, I know it is the custome of women to make their denials unto their louers, & strictly to stand on nice points, because they will not be accounted easily won, or soone entreated: alack deere Dame consider nature did not adorne your face with such incomparable beauty, & framed every other part so full of excellency, to wound men with woe, but to worke their content.

Wherefore now in the Aprill of your yeares, & the sweet summer of your dayes, banish not the pleasures incident to bright beauty, but honour London streets with the faire fruite of your womb & make me blessed by being father to the issue of your delicate body; & though your beauty as the spring doth yet yearely grow, yet in the black winter of old age it will not be so, & we see by daily experience, that flowers not gathered in time rot & consume themselves: wherfore in my opinion you should doe the world intollerable wrong to live like a fruitlesse figtree.

"Honour London streets with the fair fruit of your womb, and make me blessed by being father to the issue of your delicate body." Deloney is praised for the vividity of his dialogue, on which his fiction is highly dependent. He's fond of his shoemakers, who are always depicted as rather lucky fellows, who have a professional access to women's (lower) bodies. My illustration, from a 1678 edition of the first part of the book, captures those erotics. Earlier in the fiction, Long Meg of Westminster is involved in a piece of intense flirtation, and recites as she lifts her clothes (and is encouraged to lift them higher still):
Euery Carter may reach to the garter,
A Shoemaker he may reach to the knee,
But he that creepes higher shall aske leaue of me.

Harry's undeniably forthright pitch fails, for Mistress Farmer turns him down. But I do not think he is represented as foolish, rather that his carpe diem arguments (echoic of Venus and Adonis) are meant to sound eloquent, and his allusion to getting her pregnant - with its odd insinuation of a metropolitan version of patriotism, in which she first honours London, and secondly blesses him - was meant as well said. He rather goes off the rails after her refusal, largely because he is so winning in his ways with his later mistresses and their maids. Mistress Farmer accepts the offer of one of her shop's senior apprentices, after a series of trials of his patience, and his point blank advances on her. She tells him to join the army, he replies that: I had rather have my manhood tried in another place. Yfaith where quoth shee? by my troth said he, in your soft bed, which is far better then the hard field: why thou bold knave quoth she...

Till reading this part of The Gentle Craft, I don't think I'd noticed that it seems to have been customary for the mistress of a middle class house and premises to summon her servants using a whistle. There's an early allusion in the book, as two maids are fantasising about the pleasures of married life and being in charge of a household: 'she sets her siluer whistle to her mouth, and calles her maid to cleare the boord'. Mistress Farmer uses her whistle later in the book.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Surviving 105

On Sunday, as I was coming back from completing the 105 mile 'Circuit of the Cotswolds' Ride (I was rider 396)
I called in at Brightwell Baldwin church in Oxfordshire to pay my respects to 105 year old Stephen Rumbold. If you heave aside a vast doormat in the Church porch, and dust a bit, there's his grave slab, with its splendidly confrontational quatrain:

"He liv'd one hundred and five
Sanguine and strong
An hundred to five
You do not live so long."

He lived from February 1582 to March 4th 1687: from before the Armada, almost to the Glorious Revolution, through the reigns of the later Elizabeth, James I, Charles I, the Commonwealth, Charles II, and on into the reign of James II.

There is apparently a Rumbold's Lane and a Rumbold's Copse locally. We are currently living through the last years of those exceptionally long-lived people who fought in World War One. These occasional centenarians really do seem to last into an eighth age of man, and were (and are) made much of, and rightly. Of course, early tombstones, with their regular 'hodie mihi, cras tibi' and 'such as I am, so will you be' mottoes did confront the reader uncompromisingly with mortality. But I have never seen was as cheerfully challenging as this, with old Stephen laying the odds just outside the church door. I do not know, but I'd guess that the gravestone which uses its inscription to remind the reader that he or she must die was a type which disappeared after World War One. Utterly unthinkable now, where prompting such thoughts has become bad taste. I like to think that the unknown verse-writer captured Stephen Rumbold's 'sanguine' character, maybe even one of his own jokes.

Brightwell Baldwin does well for inscriptions. Inside, now safe on the wall, is what might be the earliest recorded memorial brass in English: 1371, for John the Smith:
'Man com & se how schel alle ded li; wen yolk comes bad & bare
Noth have wen we away fare; All ye wermes yt ve for care;
Bot yt we do for god yr luf haue nothyng yare; hundyr
yis grave lys John ye Smith god yif his soule hewn grit.'

('Man come and see how shall all dead lie, when [youth? folk?] comes bad and bare
We have nothing when we go away, only the worms care for us.
Except what we [have done] for God's love, we have nothing ready [provided]; Under
this grave lies John the Smith God give his soul great heaven').

The idea here is that John Smith survived the Black Death, and bought up ownerless lands, became prosperous, and finally wanted a vernacular inscription - Latin had probably died in the parish with the priest. Blogger has put my blurry picture at the top of this post, my camera could not cope any better than that. As a final monument, in you lift the carpet in the aisle, there's one of the Cottesmore brasses, commemorating Chief Justice John Cottesmore, Amice his wife, and their eighteen children, five boys and thirteen girls.

History, human history accumulating in yet another 'accoutred frowsty barn'! (

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Early Modern Nakedness

I’ve been unable to get on-line, my ISP having problems. I’ve anyway been reasonably busy with the effort to get degree results out after the lifting of the industrial action. My image is taken from a painting by Jordaens, because in this hot weather, I am offering you two passages concerning early modern nakedness.

“The same day sevennight he [Prince Henry] died, there fell out a very ridiculous accident. A very handsome young fellow, much about his age and not altogether unlike him, came stark naked to St. James’s whiles they were at supper, saying he was the Prince’s ghost come from heaven with a message to the King. But by no manner of examination or threatening could they get any more out of him, or who set him to work. Some say he is simple, others mad. He belongs to one of the Chancery. All the penance they gave him was two or three lashes, which he endured as it seemed without sense, and keeping him naked as he was all night and the next day in the Porter’s lodge, where thousands came to see him. The King sent to have him dismissed without more ado or enquiry.”

Diary of John Chamberlain, 19th November, 1612

“And in the mean while went the Lord Frederick secretly away, and came into the chamber, where she did unclothe her all naked saving a cloth before her members, and then came into the hall before the king and all his lords, and before all the other persons there being present, all naked, save that she had a kercher of silk before her members. And when she was come in, she went to the king and did him reverence. And when the king and his lords saw her, they marvelled greatly, wherefore that that fair woman came in naked before them… and therefore said the king to her, ‘Show you us what ye be and wherefore that ye come in here before us all naked in this manner.’ Then answered the woman to the king and said ‘I am the same person Lord Frederick that you spake on…’ ”

This second passage is from the narrative called Frederyke of Jennen (1518, 1520, 1560). It is the source narrative that you will find in the back of any decent edition of Cymbeline – the tale of the good wife whose partner has wagered on her virtue, who over-trustingly takes a trunk into her bedroom, from which a villain emerges to gather evidence that will win his bet that she can be proved lacking in virtue, the wife who then disguises as a man until the time comes for her dramatic way of revealing her true gender. A pity Shakespeare’s theatre prevented him from having Imogen cease to be ‘Fidele’ in this way (it would have done something for the popularity of the play). The theatrical conventions of the self-regendering moment are interesting – Luce in Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsden stops being Jack the lad with this concise action and question to the bewildered man she is claiming as her husband: ‘She scatters her hair. What say you now?’

The first passage is an incident at the Jacobean court, rather well handled by King James, considering the offence he could have taken at this impersonation of his dead son. I suppose that at an early modern court, you had to do something to fix royal attention on you, and get them to listen to your petition. I like the way word gets out, and thousands go to take a look at the offender, though that he felt punished by this is perhaps open to doubt.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Recollection of Dame Helen

Posting on the number of the beast reminded me of Dame Helen Gardner - not that the late Merton Professor of English was in any way satanic herself: far from it, in fact. I knew her via an early form of staff-student committee in the Oxford English faculty, which she invited me to join, probably assessing me shrewdly enough as suitably ordinary and from nowhere special (and so credible to the role), but (when it came to any dispute about the degree) deeply compliant. Stories about her were rife in the student body, and we massed in her otherwise not particularly remarkable lectures, hoping to hear one of her fabled candid asides.
She once quenched a potential postgraduate pitching a research project on a Renaissance numerologist called (apparently) Pietro Bongo with the regal and disdainful query: 'And who is Bongo?' (tonally very much in the line of the earlier Oxford joke, 'What I don't know ain't knowledge'). Another Unlucky Jim in a similar position unluckily ad libbed at some point about 'God-botherers', to be told acidly: 'I consider myself something of a God-botherer'.

In 1972 this devout and learned lady edited the New Oxford Book of English Verse, all 884 poems of it, and so had to choose a poem to be number 666. Somehow she slipped into place, without apparent disruption of the chronological run of the book, this sonnet, Lucifer in Starlight, by George Meredith:

ON a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,

Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he leaned,

Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened,

Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reached a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.

Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.

And so, having put the devil in his place, she passed serenely on - if you wanted to carp about her victory, well, Meredith was born in February 1828, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the immediately prior poet in the anthology) not until the May of that year, and so technically he ought to appear in the book after Meredith. So she did cheat a bit. I doubt that anyone would have said as much to her when she was alive.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Wrong Number of the Beast

The world seems to have survived 6.6.06, despite those ominous words, ‘Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred three-score and six’: Revelation, 13; 18).

With the abrupt ending of the marking boycott, life is full of the business of moderating numbers, so here’s just a brief post based on Richard Franklin’s argument (from 1675) that the number of the beast had always been misunderstood, and should be construed as 42.

Yes, 42, one of the favourite numbers on the internet, with a whole website devoted to sightings of it at

That site is, of course, created in homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the computer Deep Thought calculates ‘the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything’. After seven and a half million years of computation, '42' is the answer Deep Thought comes up with. To the delight of Adams’ fans, 42 was subsequently strongly backed (at least for a spell) as the figure for the ‘Hubble Constant’ (which determines whether the universe expands, or is static, and so whether it will end entropically, or in a ‘Big Crunch’) For which see

Richard Franklin based his argument about a different kind of end-of-the-world on reading the Greek 'chi xi sigma' not as denoting numbers, but as letters that are then to be decoded as numbers (on a simple scheme with alpha as one, and then onwards through the 24 letter alphabet of Greek to omega, so giving him signs in these three cases equivalent to 22, 14, and 6: the product of those numbers being 42). This he can then prove, at least to his own satisfaction, to be the number of Roman emperors prior to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. He goes on to argue that the Antichrist cannot be identified with the Pope, but has (in the 17th century way of these things) to be Mohammed.

What really is interesting here is that sense (again) that the press in the mid 17th century was very much their internet, their way of posting their crazy ideas. Once censorship had lapsed post-1642, and after the burst of urgent controversy in the mid 17thcentury, it looks as though lots of printing presses were chasing work. It clearly didn’t cost very much to publish a pamphlet, so all sorts of ill-advised stuff appeared, 'Printed for the Author'. Franklin apparently projected a life of Cranmer, but this little work seems to be all that's left from him. Among the class of writings that rave about Gog and Magog, it is relatively lucid, but 42 just didn't catch on - after all, compared to 666, it is such a banal number. How could anyone get excited about 42? Oh, yes, I've already answered the question. I think he must be right.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A not quite early modern footballer

Some years back, we used to run ‘poetry seminars’ for our students. They were more a training for speaking up in class than designed to meet any syllabus. I used to do mine thematically, and would set the class off to find poems to bring to the seminar. One of these themes was heroes (and heroines), and I would produce as my text Alan Ross’s poem about Stanley Matthews (1915-2000), the first footballer ever to be knighted. I transcribe it before the overblown festival of footballing mediocrity that the World Cup will almost certainly prove to be.

A high art poem on a low art subject is a hard act to pull off, and perhaps Ross indulges some anxious cultural name-dropping that doesn’t quite work. Maybe the poem can be seen as ancestral to Karl Miller's notorious prose-poem on Paul Gascoigne. But as a mimesis or verbal opsis of Matthews’ movement on the pitch, the poem is good, and it is clearly (stanza three) the product of someone who has studied his subject intently. The black and white film of Matthews hardly gives any better sense of what he did, and what there was to see, than this poem does. As a highly modified love poem, one man to another (final stanza) it reveals something about the homoerotics of sport. People loved watching Matthews play, and were moved to the poetic by what they saw - his movement, in dribbling past a fullback, was compared to that of a dragonfly, that hovers, then swerves away with flickering rapidity.

Even young women (students), indifferent to football, were beguiled by a poem than can turn ‘Stoke City, Blackpool and England’ into such a powerful mantra.

I used to follow football, prior to the Hillsborough and Heysel stadium disasters, which made me give up. The contact that I had with football of the 50’s was early experience at school with leather caseballs, leftovers from a bygone era, hard and weighty, painful if you kicked them with poor technique, frightening objects if they came at you fast. Matthews was the genius at the kind of game they dictated.

Stanley Matthews

Not often con brio, but andante, andante,

horseless, though jockey-like and jaunty,

Straddling the touchline, live margin

not out of the game, nor quite in,

Made by him green and magnetic, stroller

Indifferent as a cat dissembling, rolling

A little as on deck, till the mouse, the ball,

slides palely to him,

And shyly, almost with deprecatory cough, he is off.

Head of a Perugino, with faint flare

Of the nostrils, as though Lipizzaner-like,

he sniffed at the air,

Finding it good beneath him, he draws

Defenders towards him, the ball a bait

They refuse like a poisoned chocolate,

retreating, till he slows his gait

To a walk, inviting the tackle, inciting it.

At last, unrefusable, dangling the ball at the instep

He is charged – and stiffening so slowly

It is rarely perceptible, he executes with a squirm

Of the hips, a twist more suggestive than apparent,

that lazily disdainful move toreros term

a Veronica – it’s enough.

Only emptiness following him, pursuing some scent

Of his own, he weaves in towards,

not away from, fresh tacklers,

Who, turning about to gain time, are by him

harried, pursued not pursuers.

Now gathers speed, nursing the ball as he cruises,

Eyes judging distance, noting the gaps, the spaces

Vital for colleagues to move to, slowing a trace,

As from Vivaldi to Dibdin, pausing,

and leisurely, leisurely, swings

To the left upright his centre, on hips

His hands, observing the goalkeeper’s spring,

heads rising vainly to the ball’s curve

Just as it’s plucked from them; and dispassionately

Back to his mark he trots, whistling through closed lips.

Trim as a yacht, with similar lightness

- of keel, of reaction to surface – with salt air

Tanned, this incomparable player, in decline fair

to look at, nor in decline either,

Improving like wine with age, has come far –

born to one, a barber, who boxed

Not with such filial magnificence, but well.

‘The greatest of all time,’ meraviglioso, Matthews –

Stoke City, Blackpool and England.

Expressionless enchanter, weaving as on strings

Conceptual patterns to a private music, heard

Only by him, to whose slowly emerging theme

He rehearses steps, soloist in the compulsions of a dream.

Philip Larkin included this poem in his resolutely retro Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse (1973), which is where I came across it. (if you have access to the ODNB on-line)