Monday, February 26, 2007

Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill...

And other useless cycling advice from Shakespeare!

Taking part in the Reading CC 'Reliability Trial' this last Sunday: 50.9 miles, 3,034 feet of climbing. Two hours and forty four minutes, a reasonable time for the course, but I rode with far less courage and commitment (i.e. to hurting myself) than I have done in previous years.

Photograph by Dennis Sackett, of

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Muskify thy palace with their reek

I think this may be the only soft furnishing item once belonging to an early modern poet still in existence: the Reverend Edward Taylor’s needlepoint cushion cover, carefully transported with him to the Massachusetts Bay colony from his Leicestershire home. The source is

That Taylor was responsive to such items might be judged from his poem ‘Housewifery’ (‘Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete … Make me thy loom then, knit therein this twine’), and , always alert to the natural world, he is a rather good poet of insects: spiders attract his attention (‘Upon a spider catching a fly’ - though he cannot shake off the general anti-spider prejudices of the period in that poem: it is a ‘venom elf’ that makes him think of how ‘Hell’s spider’ ensnares ‘Adam’s race’). Rather more sympathetic to the insect involved is:

‘Upon a wasp chilled with cold’

The bear that breathes the northern blast
Did numb, torpedo-like, a wasp
Whose stiffened limbs encramped, lay bathing
In Sol's warm breath and shine, as saving,
Which with her legs she chafes and stands
Rubbing her legs, shanks, thighs, and hands.
Her pretty toes, and fingers' ends
Nipped with this breath, she out extends
Unto the sun, in great desire
To warm her digits at that fire;
Doth hold her temples in this state
Where pulse doth beat and head doth ache.
Doth turn, and stretch her body small,
Doth comb her velvet capital.
As if her little brain pan were
A volume of choice precepts clear;
As if her satin jacket hot
Contained apothecary's shop
Of nature's receipts, that prevails
To remedy all her sad ails,
As if her velvet helmet high
Did turret rationality;
She fans her wing up to the wind
As if her petticoats were lined,
With reason's fleece, and hoises sails
And humming flies in thankful gales
Unto her dun curled palace hall
Her warm thanks offering for all.

Lord, clear my misted sight that I
May hence view Thy divinity,
Some sparks whereof thou up dost hasp
Within this little downy wasp
In whose small corporation we
A school and a schoolmaster see,
Where we may learn, and easily find
A nimble spirit bravely mind
Her work in every limb: and lace
It up neat with a vital grace,
Acting each part though ne'er so small
Here of this fustian animal.
Till I enravished climb into

The Godhead on this lather do,
Where all my pipes inspired upraise
An heavenly music furred with praise.

Taylor responds to the wasp’s (female) daintiness, to the rationality of its behaviour, and as showing a spark of divinity in its ‘nimble’ work – one assumes that his view would have been that the maker of his prized cushion had shown similar ‘vital grace’.

This all reminded me of E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, where a wasp is used as a marker of spiritual inclusiveness: Mrs Moore has this tenuously, Sorley the missionary cannot imagine wasps being admitted to heaven, while the Brahmin Professor Godbole sends both Mrs Moore and the wasp on their way towards spiritual fulfillment (but can’t quite manage to feel the same way about the stone):

1. “Going to hang up her cloak, she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew … ‘Pretty dear,’ said Mrs Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night’s uneasiness.”

(Chapter 3)

2. “And the jackals? Jackals were indeed less to Mr Sorley’s mind, but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps…”

(Chapter 4)

3. “He impelled her (i.e. Mrs Moore) by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. His senses grew thinner, he remembered a wasp he had seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone. He loved the wasp equally, he impelled it likewise, he was imitating God. And the stone where the wasp clung – could he … no, he had been wrong to attempt the stone …”

(Chapter 33)

More Taylor poems at:

but apparently he also wrote a long poem about some fossil bones which were sent to him, which I am now very keen to see and read, and will need to locate a copy of one of the Yale editions of his manuscripts. My title is from his 'Lord, dub my tongue'.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Rhomboidall decussations

I always meant to do a posting on this piece of 17th century concrete poetry by George Wither: John Broadbent included the second stanza in his Signet Classic Poets of the 17th Century. (Volume two, with its marvellous selection of the minor writers complementing the canonists in volume one.) It appears there as 'from Rhomboidal dirge' - that terrific title was all I could remember, and I just could not find the poem anywhere on LION or EEBO.

I just loved the idea of a 'rhomboidal dirge', and could feel myself ready to discourse about Herbert's 'Church Floor':

Mark you the floore? that square & speckled stone
Which looks so firm and strong,
Is Patience:

And th'other black and grave, wherewith each one
Is checker'd all along,

and the suitable solemnity of a dirge in rhomboidal stanzas...

Ah, but: it is no such thing - when one finally noses out this potential truffle, it proves a rotten puff-ball; the inspiration was all editorial: Wither, reliably witless, actually deploys his poem-for-the-eye as a lute song trolled off by a lover, completely losing the point, and Broadbent anyway used the best stanza.

So I must mourn my 'rhomboidal dirge' - there was never a poem of that title. And not once did George Wither put two words together so well: that rare grace note came from his editor.

It is a 17th century word, though: one of Sir Thomas Browne's fine pomposities: In the Garden of Cyrus (1658): "Perspective pictures, in their Base, horison, and lines of distances, cannot escape these Rhomboidall decussations"

- the good doctor got two select words together there. The OED has him as first actually to dare use that bit of pure inkhorn (for 'criss-crossways'), and also finds a moment to correct, with majestic patience, another writer's three hundred year old mistake:

'1654 Henry L'Estrange, Charles I (1655) 117 "He yeilded his head to de-cussation, to the striking off" - Erroneous use, app. for DECUSSION, striking off.'

This Browne scrap from the great feast of language must be our sole reward, for the poem does not live up to the excitement of its shape. Something which is probably true of most concrete verse.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

O my Newfound-land!

A detail from a sumptuous still life, late 17th century, by Willem Kalf - that wonderful nautilus cup, modelled into a monster with a man fleeing its jaws, a porcelain covered dish with figures modelled in high relief - that ornate spoon goes into a condiment just as exotic, I feel sure. Radiant wine, and an orange: with wonders and wealth like this to be had, no wonder the colonial adventure happened.

But this is the luxury end of the cultural exchange. The little autobiographical poem below captures the formative moment in a life, when the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world gives a little boy an orange, and his blessing, in the street in Totnes:

Of the Great and Famous, ever to be honoured Knight, Sir Francis Drake, and of my little-little self.

The Dragon, that our Seas did raise his Crest,
And brought back heaps of gold unto his nest,
Unto his Foes more terrible then Thunder,
Glory of his age, After-ages wonder,
Excelling all those that excell’d before;
It’s fear’d we shall have none such any more;
Effecting all, he sole did undertake,
Valiant, just, wise, mild, honest, godly Drake.
This man when I was little, I did meet,
As he was walking up Totnes long Street,
He ask’d me whose I was? I answer’d him.
He ask’d me if his good friend were within?
A fair red Orange in his hand he had,
He gave it me, whereof I was right glad,
Takes and kissed me, and prays, God bless my boy:
Which I record with comfort to this day.
Could he on me have breathed with his breath,
His gifts Elias-like, after his death,
Then had I been enabled for to do
Many brave things I have a heart unto.
I have as great desire, as e’re had he
To joy; annoy; friends; foes: but 'twill not be.

The little boy, possibly as young as four, was Robert Hayman. Though he disclaims any achievement on his own part, that stray allusion to Elijah does suggest a lurking sense of a great mission having been handed on to him, and Hayman had become governor of a plantation called Bristol's Hope, near Harbour Grace, in Newfoundland. There, he wrote his Quodlibets, published in 1628, a crowded and generally sterile set of epigrams, on all the usual topics (baldness, cuckolds, marriage, women, wigs, Protestantism, etc) which suddenly spark into interest when he writes about himself. He does some early modern PR for the colony too:

'To all those worthy Women, who have any desire to live in NewfoundLand, specially to the modest & discreet Gentlewoman Mistris Mason, wife to Captaine Mason, who lived there divers years'

Sweet Creatures, did you truly vnderstand
The pleasant life you'd live in Newfound-land,
You would with tears desire to be brought thither:
I wish you, when you go, faire wind, faire weather:
For if you with the passage can dispence,
When you are there, I know you'll ne'er come thence.

Not sure that the final sentiment is entirely well judged for his purpose. He even defends the climate:

'To a worthy Friend, who often objects the coldness of the Winter in Newfound-Land, and may serve for all those that have the like conceit'

You say that you would live in Newfound-land,
Did not this one thing your conceit withstand;
You fear the Winters cold, sharp, piercing air.
They love it best, that have once wintered there.
Winter is there, short, wholesome, constant, clear,
Not thick, unwholesome, shuffling, as 'tis here.

Annie Proulx has terminally prejudiced me against his judgement. Hayman was to die, in 1629, of a 'burning fever', and was buried beside
the Oiapoque River, which separates Guiana from Brazil, and which the UK Foreign and Commonwealth safety advice says remains a high risk area for malaria. I wonder if, in that final delerium, he saw Sir Francis Drake appear to him again, with a hallucinatory double of that fatal first orange.

I add my very best wishes to one of my occasional commentators, 'Decidedly Bookish', and wish her a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Choice of Valentines

I wonder when that familiar little bi-lobed icon first appeared? This is a detail from a tapestry of around 1410, which I have cropped ('Save changes to Heart?', asked my computer. Oh, yes, save changes to heart).

‘It was the merry month of February’, as Thomas Nashe ineffably began his famous naughty poem … but the thin corpus of Elizabethan-era pornography is so picked-over these days, I will go no further than the title and that funny first line. I’d not thought about ‘choosing’ Valentines before, so I checked out the accessible Valentine’s day poems, and the OED.

The OED has a fine set of citations, which I have abbreviated:

2. A person of the opposite sex chosen, drawn by lot, or otherwise determined, on St. Valentine's day, as a sweetheart, lover, or special friend for the ensuing year.

a1450 MS. Harl. 1735 fol. 48 (Halliw.), Godys blescyng have he and myn, My none gentyl Volontyn, Good Tomas the frere. 1477 Paston Lett. III. 170 Unto my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn, John Paston, Squyer, be this bill delyvered. 1596 RALEIGH Disc. Guiana 23 After the Queens haue chosen, the rest cast lottes for their Valentines. 1623 in Crt. & Times Jas. I (1848) II. 395 To the great grief of his sweetheart, Mrs. Bray, my ancient valentine. 1667 PEPYS Diary 14 Feb., This morning came up to my wife's bedside..little Will Mercer to be her Valentine... But I am also this year my wife's Valentine. 1712 W. ROGERS Voy. r. World 359 That same Day, in Commemoration of the antient Custom in England of chusing Valentines, I drew up a List of the fair Ladies in Bristol..and sent for my Officers into the Cabbin, where every one drew.

3. A folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine. to draw valentines, to draw lots for this or other reasons.

c1553 Cecil Papers (Hist. MSS. Comm.) I. 134 There is three papers like unto walentynes put in a cap and so they draw. 1725 BOURNE in Brand Pop. Antiq. (1777) 225 It is a Ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots, which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine day.

~ ~ So, on the evening before Valentine’s day, what must have generally been an early modern rigged ballot was run, when (as if by chance) pairings felt to be appropriate or likely to be well received would emerge from the sortilege.

I assume that some of the various 17th century Valentine poems that have survived would have been found on the paper once unfolded. As you’d expect, Herrick is keen. William Strode’s poem is a kind of follow-up to accompany a gift: his name emerged as her Valentine, he hopes she will accept the gift as a further sign that the outcome of the lottery was in fact satisfactory to her wishes:

Faire Valentine, since once your welcome hand
Did cull mee out wrapt in a paper band,
Vouchsafe the same hand still, to shew thereby
That Fortune did your will no injury:
What though a knife I give, your beauty’s charme
Will keepe the edge from doing any harme:
Wool deads the sternest blade; and will not such
A weake edge turne, meeting a softer touch?

In Thomas Stanley’s ‘Drawn for a Valentine by the L. D.S.’, the poet is less lucky in love than in the ballot. This is a Marvellian poem, apparently celebrating a girl whose youthful beauty already promises large later conquests. She has given him no hope, and forbidden his suit, but the ballot obliges her to accept him as her Valentine, and the poet praises the Goddess Fortuna for not being blind, and says he will prize this piece of fortune just the same as if he had really won the young lady by her consent:

Though 'gainst me Love and Destiny conspire,
Though I must waste in an unpitied fire,
By the same Deity, severe, as fair,
Commanded adoration and despair:
Though I am mark'd for Sacrifice to tell
The growing age what dangerous Glories dwell
In this bright dawn, who when she spreads her raies
Will challenge every heart, and every praise;
Yet she who to all hope forbids my claim
By Fortune's taught indulgence to my Flame.

Great Queen of chance! unjustly we exclude
Thy Power an int'rest in Beatitude:
Who, with mysterious judgement dost dispence
The Bounties of unerring Providence;
Whilst we, to whom the causes are unknown,
Would stile that blindness thine, which is our own,
As kinde in Justice to thy self as me,
Thou hast redeem'd thy Name and Votarie:
Nor will I prize this lesse for being thine,
Nor longer at my Destinie repine,
Counsell and choice are things below thy State,
Fortune relieves the cruelties of Fate.

James Howell’s ‘Upon a Beautiful Valentine’ is just a conventional try at a love poem, setting off to praise her beauties, but he all too soon gets into deep water with his enthusiastic tour of the 17th century Miss Europes he has ‘seen’, and so roving on to the appalling pox and the yet more appalling use of cosmetics, finally landing back at compliment after his ill-judged cadenza:

Could I charm the Queen of Loves
To lend a Quill of her white Doves,
Or one of Cupids pointed wings,
Dipped in the fair Castalian springs:
Then would I write the All-divine
Perfections of my Valentine.

As mongst all flowers the Rose excels,
As Amber mongst the fragrant'st smells,
As mongst all Minerals the Gold,
As Marble mongst the finest Mold,
As Diamonds mongst Jewels bright,
As Cynthia mongst the lesser lights;
So mong the Northern Beauties shine,
So far excels my Valentine.

In Rome and Naples I did view
Faces of Coelestial hue;
Venetian Dames I have seen many,
(I only saw them, touch'd not any)
Of Spanish Beauties, Dutch and French
I have beheld the Quintessence;
Yet saw I none that could out-shine,
Or Parallel my Valentine.

Th' Italians they are coy and quaint,
But they grossly daub and paint;
The Spanish kind are apt to please,
But sav'ring of the same disease;
Of Dutch and French some few are comely,
The French are light, the Dutch are homely:
Let Tagus, Po, the Loire and Rhine
Then vail unto my Valentine.

Here may be seen pure white and red,
Not by feign'd Art, but Nature wed;
No simpering smiles, no mimic face,
Affected gesture, or forc'd face:
A fair-smooth front, free from least wrinkle,
Her eyes (Oy me) like Stars do twinkle.
Thus all perfections do combine
To beautify my Valentine.

Robert Hayman’s ‘To my perpetuall Valentine, worthy Mistris Mary Tayler, wife to Master John Tayler Merchant of Bristoll’ does seem to indicate that, as in the Pepys quotation from the OED, these ‘Valentines’ could be entirely honorific. You’d think that a poet commending another man’s wife as ‘discreet’, and mentioning her childlessness, her husband as better than any number of babies, and talking of ‘babes begot by good’ he and she could have together was up to something, but I’ve read the whole lot of his ‘Quodlibets’, and Hayman is just being clumsy (you can rely on him for that), rather than archly insinuating:

My sweet discreet perpetuall Valentine,
In your faire brest vertue hath built a Shrine,
Bedecking it with flowres, amongst the rest,
Mild bearing your not-bearing is not least.
You know the worthy husband that you haue,
Is worth more children then some fondlings craue;
Besides the blessed babes begot by good,
More comforts bring then some of flesh and blood.
Kind Valentine, still let our comfort be,
Children there are ynow for you and me.

Phineas Fletcher, by dint of referring to his wife as ‘Maystress’ (sic) concocts a gallant anagram in his ‘To my onely chosen Valentine and wife’:

Maystress Elisabeth Vincent

Is my brests chaste Valentine (anagram)

Think not (fair love) that Chance my hand directed
To make my choice my chance; blinde Chance & hands
Could never see what most my minde affected;
But heav'n (that ever with chaste true love stands)
Lent eyes to see what most my heart respected:
Then do not thou resist what heav'n commands;
But yeeld thee his, who must be ever thine:
My heart thy altar is, my breast thy shrine;
Thy name for ever is, My brests chaste Valentine.

But enough early modern soppy poems: there's Valentine’s day reduced to an owlish footnote for you. 'Save changes to heart'.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

He died with his hand on his Shakespeare

His what?

Reading for a seminar, and for the first time in years, all the shouty poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and find myself enjoying most the ‘Sundry Fragments and Images’, as they are so much less overpowering (and I concede that I’m a ‘Sundry Fragments’ type of reader).

Then, among the unfinished stuff, I came across a sonnet octave Hopkins wrote about Shakespeare:

In the lodges of the perishable souls
He has his portion. God, who stretch'd apart
Doomsday and death - whose dateless thought must chart
All times at once and span the distant goals,
Sees what his place is; but for us the rolls
Are shut against the canvassing of art.
Something we guess or know; some spirits start
Upwards at once and win their aureoles –

And at this point our poet’s pen faltered to a halt, as if riven by doubt– would Shakespeare in fact have made it to heaven? In
Hopkins, heaven is a dismayingly exclusive sort of joint, and GMH did not have the benefit of Gary Taylor arguing Shakespeare’s Catholicism (which would have laid the troubling question to rest).

This reminded me of Boswell affecting to be bothered by the thought that (leaving aside the gloriously resurrected body of the bard himself) Shakespeare’s works might not be available in the here-beyond:

' BOSWELL. 'The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.' JOHNSON. 'Why yes, Sir.' BOSWELL. 'There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours (naming him) tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.' JOHNSON. 'This is foolish in *****. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds; for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto.' BOSWELL. 'True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakspeare's poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, "The first thing you will meet in the other world, will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare's works presented to you."' Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.

I assume that Dr Johnson is amused at Boswell’s affectation, and with the omission in the refined exchange Boswell so guilelessly reports of any thought that Old William himself might be all present and correct beyond the gates of pearl, his anecdotes 'more amusing than Pipit’s experience could provide'.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, managed (it was reported) to pass away with a copy of Shakespeare in his hand. I found an elegy on Tennyson by Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, which starts like this, and gets as early as its second stanza to the exciting thought of Alfred and William hob-nobbing, bardically-bonded, among the blessed:

The moonlight lay with glory on his face

About whose bed in grief the nation bowed,

And darkly flew the wild October cloud:

Sobbed the pale morn, and came with faltering pace

As if it feared to lift a dead man's shroud;

And all the streams made lamentation loud.

But such majestic calm was in his look

As seemed to say, 'Why weeping o'er me bend,

Or bid me longer here on earth attend

Whose home is Heaven?' His hand held Shakespeare's book---

Shakespeare, so soon to greet him as a friend!

And so he went companioned, to the end.

“He died with his hand on his Shakespeare, and the moon shining full into the window, and over him”, Queen Victoria noted approvingly, but Christopher Ricks also cites Samuel Butler being waspish about this story: “his friends should have taken it out of the bed when they saw the end was near. It was not necessary to emphasize the fact that the ruling passion for posing was strong with him in death.”

I found at

a poet called Nicholas Bielby’s effort to complete the unfinished Shakespeare in heaven poem by Hopkins, which he does in another octave, which sounds some of Hopkins’ major chords:

Some plough the earth, their feet of lardy flesh,

In love with earthly waywardness. Dare we

Not know what Incarnation means, not see

Love that breaks every bound? Soiled soil, afresh,

Leaps up in Christ. And those that live the thresh

Of blood and word in creativity,

Pity pied humankind and let it free,

Share Christ at each cross in that singing mesh.

He has fought shy of imagining the beatific bard – which would at least have been fun - and retreats into a generality which seems to suggest that poets are Christ-like, pitying and freeing ordinary humankind even despite their awful lardy feet, and suffering such an agony, the poor dears, in the act of composition.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Strand from a Saga

By that time, Gunnar had wounded eight men and killed two. Now he received two wounds himself, but everyone is agreed that he flinched neither at wounds nor death itself.

He said to Hallgerd, ‘Let me have two locks of your hair, and help my mother plait them into a bow-string for me.’

‘Does anything depend on it?’ asked Hallgerd.

‘My life depends on it,’ replied Gunar, ‘for they will never overcome me as long as I can use my bow.’

‘In that case,’ said Hallgerd, ‘I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not.’

‘To each his own way of earning fame,’ said Gunnar. ‘You shall not be asked again.’

Rannveig said, ‘You are an evil woman, and your shame will long be remembered.’

Gunnar defended himself with great courage, and wounded eight more so severely that many of them barely lived. He kept on fighting until exhaustion brought him down. His enemies then dealt him many terrible wounds, but even then he got away and held them at bay for a long time.

But in the end they killed him.

~ I strayed onto Njal’s Saga in my last post about hair, surmising that Hallgerd Long-Legs would in the end do for the hero Gunnar, her third husband. I didn’t know then just how importantly her attribute of flowing hair would feature at his death. It must be a celebrated episode: the hero holed-up, with his homestead surrounded. At the first approach, Thorgrim foolishly climbs onto the roof (“Gizur looked up at him and asked, ‘Is Gunnar at home?’ ‘That’s for you to find out,’ replied Thorgrim, ‘But I know that his halberd certainly is.’ And with that he fell down dead.”) Thorbrand Thorleiksson, before dying on the same weapon, managed to slash Gunnar’s bowstring. And so, in the end, Gunnar turns to his reliably recalcitrant wife. Roberto Calasso says somewhere in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony that betrayal is a woman’s heroic act: Hallgerd refuses with that kind of heroism, and Gunnar accepts it – that’s his fate, and how it must be. He doesn’t get his mother to subject Hallgerd to an impromptu trim, but implicitly acknowledges that her superb implacability is her gambit for fame, and replies with a laconic rebuke that ensures his own dignity, and carries on fighting his own lost cause.

The image is the Franks casket, in the BM, with its lid depicting a lone defender with his bow, and a woman watching. It's whalebone, so I have not completely strayed from whale-relatedness. I'm off to Iceland in the summer: my first saga-holiday, you might say.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Some Early Modern Hair

As hair is proving to be so engaging a topic, and as I am spending too much time trying to justice to Emily Dickinson to offer a longer post, one of my favourite Milton passages, Parachute Lost (that non-rhymed tale of the fall of man), Book IV, from 300. First, Adam’s divine tonsure:

His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthin Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustring, but not beneath his shoulders broad

I often find myself answering a barber’s ‘How do you want it done?’ with ‘Hyacinthine’. Leaving aside Adam looking like Apollo’s boyfriend (actually, the OED traces the word to Homer, and hyacinths that seem to be gold in colour, though one rather likes the notion that, before the fall, just as roses could be blue, Adam's truly regal hair could be purple), the lines remind us just how political hair was in the 17th century – can’t have Adam looking like a Cavalier, can we? I once asked a student in a seminar what Adam’s ‘fair large Front’ was, and was rewarded with the hopeful guess ‘Er, ... his manly parts?’

Adam out of the way, Milton then lets himself go weak at the knees about Eve:

Shee as a vail down to the slender waste
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dissheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav'd
As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli'd
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receivd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.

I guess that Edward Le Comte has written about this in Milton and Sex, I know I’ve read someone about Milton’s hair fixations, but can’t check it out at the moment. The charm of course is that into this blank verse poem, Milton insinuates a rhyming love-lyric to Eve (‘implied/pride’; ‘sway/delay’). Of course, we might find it offensive that Eve is pitched so definitively as a major babe – golden tresses, disheveled, wanton ringlets, her required sexual actions all transferred to or implied by her hair – apt to curl around something.

But her hair ‘implied / Subjection, but required with gentle sway’ – at one level, it expresses her subordination, but required that subjecting to be done only by the exercise of (Adam’s) gentle sway. But then, at the other level, triumphant Eve: her hair only ‘implied’ subjection, but when it came down to it, its ‘gentle sway’ made an irresistible requirement of Adam, and what she wanted, he did.

This will tend to happen when God Himself has been your hairdresser.

In leisure hours, I am reading Njal’s Saga, in which the Adam and Eve are the heroic Gunnar, and Hallgerd Long-Legs, ‘her lovely hair so long it could veil her whole body. She was impetuous and wilful’. She tucks it into her belt when she is out to cause trouble, which is most of the time. The body count of her vendetta grows and grows, but Gunnar seems to forgive her everything. She will destroy him in the end, I guess.

Back to Emily Dickinson (‘my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves’ – who needs Imagism, when you can find off-hand remarks as vivid as that?)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Subtile wreaths

I was giving a poetry seminar earlier this week, and we got onto the subject of hair in Robert Browning’s poetry, and then, hair as a gift. I had a full text of ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ to hand, and was able to read out Elizabeth Barrett (Browning to be):

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
"Take it." My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified, ---
Take it thou, --- finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

One of the students in class spoke of her repugnance to cut hair, even her own on the hairdresser’s floor, seeing it as dead stuff that should be swept away out of sight. All this made me think about hair bracelets: John Donne’s ‘subtile wreath of haire, which crownes my arme’ and, more famously, that ‘bracelet of bright haire about the bone’ (‘The Funeral’ and ‘The Relique’, of course). The word ‘relics’ will tend to crop up in later references, perhaps partly because of that poem.

As a lover’s token, the bracelet of hair lasted through millenia. Here’s a disappointed lover in Mrs. Manley’s Lucius (1717):

(…) The fleeting Moments bore her Truth away,
And only I am left to speak her Falsehood;
An hated Evidence of broken Faith.
And yet some Proof remains;
[Pulls a Bracelet from his Arm.
This Bracelet's of her Hair, wove with her Hand,
Which, to the Present, gave a double Value;
View well the Clasp, see her fair Self enshrin'd,
The Altar where my constant Vows I paid:
These were the Gifts she gave me with her Heart.
Why do I still such worthless Toys retain,
When the chief Jewel is recall'd?
Why yet (as sacred Relicks of our Love)
Worship the Shrine of an apostate Fair?
Hence, vain Remembrancers of past Delight,
[Stamps upon the Bracelet and Picture.

His beloved wove it herself. But some of the surviving examples are of such extraordinary craftsmanship, that one has to wonder if a professional maker wasn’t sometimes used.

The Victoria and Albert has just one in its online collection,

but 19th century examples can be found in abundance on commercial antique jewelry sites like

(click on ‘Victorian Hair Jewelry’ in the left hand pane). My image is snipped from the Museum of London’s site, probably with as much permission as the bad Baron in Pope’s poem had for raping Belinda’s lock. The bi-colour weave suggests that both the gentleman and his lady contributed, which makes it all the odder that he wears a wig. Did wigs make hair somehow more private, more intimate?

In Aston Cokain’s translation of Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, such a memento is one of the things the recovering lover must relinquish:

If by some sleight a Garter you have got
From her that will not love you, keep it not;
Or if you have a Bracelet of her hair,
Or any such like toy, them never wear …

Here is Foscaris (“A Gentleman of Quality, who longs for his Wife after he has parted with her”) in Edward Howard’s The Women’s Conquest (1671), deceiving himself, but incidentally letting us know which arm to wear such a thing on (if it wasn’t obvious, heart side, of course):

Ha, ha, ha, a Bracelet of a lock of Hair,
In colour much resembling my Wives: but
Such a trick on me, were to little purpose,
I'le tangle no more there---but now I think on't,
I have found the knack; as sure as I am made
Of flesh and blood, 'tis Melvissa courts me
For her self …

I'le pleasure her desire, and wear her favour.
[Puts it on his arm.
The Devil on't, it warms the vein that leads
To the Heart strangely; and 'tis love I feel
In abundance …

I assume that it was the Victorians themselves who finally completed the transformation of an amatory token (or sign of tortured erotic remembrance) into apparatus for that favourite mode of theirs, mourning. Robin Jaffee Frank, who curated a major exhibition of American miniatures, has written about this famous miniature (‘The Dead Bride’), with its woven sample of her hair,

and explains that while hair ‘has been used to represent loss in rituals of mourning the world over’, the ingenuity of its deployments in colonial and federal America could be bizarre: ‘it was chopped up or dissolved in pigment used to paint mourning miniatures, knotted in bracelets, or plaited in lockets’.

Through such extravagances, hair as a pleasing memento of a living person must gradually have become, in the main, a faintly grisly memento of the dead. Elizabeth Barrett’s sonnet captures an unexpected reversion to the former. But it took Donne to rejoice in both at once.