Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Handy-Crafts

I’ve been dipping into Josuah Sylvester’s translation, Du Bartas: His Divine Weekes And Workes (1621). The fourth part of the first day of the second week ( … it’s a big book) deals with ‘The Handy-Crafts’ Adam and Eve master after the fall: ‘the miserable states /Of Edens Exiles: their un-curious Cates, /Their simple habit, silly habitation: /They find out Fire’, says ‘The Argument’.

This is the account du Bartas gives of the mastery of fire. Eve is at home busily developing haute couture while Adam does the hunter-gathering:

Yet fire they lacked: but lo, the winds, that whistle
Amid the Groves, so oft the Laurel jostle
Against the Mulberry, that their angry claps
Do kindle fire, that burns the neighbour Copse.

When Adam saw a ruddy vapour rise
In glowing stream; astound with fear he flies,
It follows him, until a naked Plain
The greedy fury of the flame restrain:
Then back he turns, and coming somewhat nigher
The kindled shrubs, perceiving that the fire
Dries his dank Clothes, his Colour doth refresh,
And unbenumbs his sinews and his flesh;
By th’unburnt end, a good big brand he takes,
And hying home a fire he quickly makes,
And still maintains it, till the starry Twins
Celestial breath another fire begins.

But, Winter being come again it griev’d him;
T'have lost so fondly what so much reliev’d him,
Trying a thousand ways, sith now no more
The jostling Trees his domage [i.e., loss] would restore.
While (else-where musing) one day he sate down
Upon a steep Rock’s craggy-forked crown,
A foaming beast come toward him he spies,
Within whose head stood burning coals for eyes;
Then suddenly with boisterous arms he throws
A knobby flint, that hummeth as it goes;
Hence flies the beast, th’ill-aimed flint-shaft grounding
Against the Rock, and on it oft rebounding,
Shivers to cinders, whence there issued
Small sparks of fire no sooner born then dead.

This happy chance made Adam leap for glee:
And quickly calling his cold company,
In his left hand a shining flint he locks,
Which with another in his right he knocks
So up and down, that from the coldest stone
At every stroke small fiery sparkles shone.
Then with the dry leaves of a withered Bay
The which together handsomely they lay,
They take the falling fire, which like a Sun
Shines clear and smoke-less in the leaf begun.

Eve, kneeling down, with hand her head sustaining,
And on the low ground with her elbow leaning,
Blows with her mouth: and with her gentle blowing
Stirs up the heat, that from the dry leaves glowing
Kindles the Reed, and then that hollow kix
First fires the small, and they the greater sticks.

Exploitation of naturally occurring fire, then a chance inspiration for striking sparks from a flint after seeing an ill-thrown rock land. It is all rather well-imagined, though it is odd that combustion through wind-driven friction in a wood, rather than a lightning strike, is chosen. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Adam seems simply to envisage mastering fire, perhaps with a hint or two from the right quarters if what he surmises doesn’t work:

Or by collision of two bodies grind

The air attrite to fire, as late the clouds

Justling or pushed with winds rude in their shock

Tine the slant lightning, whose thwart flame driven down

Kindles the gummy bark of fir or pine,

And sends a comfortable heat from far,

Which might supply the sun: such fire to use,

And what may else be remedy or cure

To evils which our own misdeeds have wrought,

He will instruct us… (X, 1071ff)

Milton keeps the ‘justling’, here for the friction of clouds, but keeps the idea of a turpene-rich tree being involved.

These surmises about immediately post-lapsarian technology allow early modern authors to think about man in his primitive state. People must have seen stone axes and the like, a loss of knowledge more complete than Milton’s Adam suffers would allow for a long spell of unenlightenment. Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric sets off with large numbers of post-Edenic ‘Neanderthalers’ (who are finally persuaded into a civilized state by rhetorically adept ‘Homo Sapiens’ trained in persuasive arts by God):

“Man … was made at his first being an ever-living Creature … But after the fall of our first father, Sin so crept in, that our knowledge was much darkened, and by corruption of this our flesh, man’s reason and intendment were both overwhelmed … Long it was ere that man knew himself, being destitute of God’s grace, so that all things waxed savage, the earth untilled, society neglected, God’s will not known, man against man, one against another, and all against order. Some lived by spoil, some like brute Beasts grazed upon the ground, some went naked, some roamed like woodwoses, none did any thing by reason, but most did what they could, by manhood. None almost considered the ever-living God, but all lived most commonly after their own lust. By death they thought that all things ended … And therefore, where as Men lived Brutishly in open fields, having neither house to shroud them in, nor attire to clothe their backs, nor yet any regard to seek their best avail.”

In du Bartas, Adam mastering fire leads next to Eve getting pregnant. I’ve illustrated, therefore, with Goltzius’s superb and unusual drawing-with-paint, ‘Sine Cerere et Libero Friget Venus’.

I never saw the Anthony Burgess scripted cave man movie, ‘La Guerre du Feu’, but here’s its IMDB entry (there’s an interesting set of plot keywords!), and a few sites about prehistoric man and fire-making. I couldn’t resist the set of instructions about making a burning glass from a lens of ice: if only a metaphysical poet had seen that stunt!





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