Friday, August 31, 2007

It's a 'What I did on my holidays type of post'

Here I am at the top of Valahnukur, a minor peak in the Thorsmork ('Thor's Forest', no less) area.
Booth Junior is playing a Nintendo DS on a ridge below. He did me a cartoon, in which I am pointing up a crag and saying, 'Not much higher, Tim', while he is prone on the floor behind me with his legs on fire and his little soul departing from his body.

I was stirred by Iceland, a place of sublime scenery and sublime prices. Most of all, I liked the geothermal and volcanic stuff: the sheer randomness of a purely volcanic landscape, in which a cone or a crater will appear anywhere, lava flows will spread or stop with no other principle than chance; or collosal explosions will broadcast boulders. We stayed near Hveragerthi, where a stream warm as bath water flows down the valley north of the town ('Hot spring gardens').

A glacier close-up is a confrontation with one of Nature's great forces, somewhere utterly inimical to life. On August 3rd, two Germans went on to a dangerous part of Vatnajokull, and have never been seen again. The Icelandic daily press (Premier league results, obituaries on apparently every native citizen who has died, and weather forecasts) reported faithfully on the unceasing search for their bodies.

But the swimming pools! A community of delight, each one of them. Scrupulous rules of cleanliness before you enter that water, all that endless free heat going off into the sky.

England seems to have such dirty air and such a muddy colour palette, while Iceland is brilliant clarity, looming black cliffs of Pelagonite, then tumbling white water.

These people did it properly:

I read this very good entry about geysers - we visited Stokkur, 'the kettle', of course

The 1,000 foot geyser Waimangu Geyser, active near Rotura in New Zealand at the start of the 20th century, must have been astonishing.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Early Modern Proof Reading: a case study

Off very soon for another holiday, this time, a week in Iceland. I thought this might give me a topic for a post, but the country itself is not much written about in 16th and 17th century English literature - allusions to 'Iceland dogs' are quite common, and the occasional mention of an 'Iceland hawk', but geographical knowledge seems scanty. 'Geyser' doesn't get recorded in English till 1763, and when the British talked of 'vulcanos', as they did from 1613 onwards, they were thinking of 'Fogo' or 'Aetna' rather than Heckla.

But in the 1621 edition of Joshua Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas ('Fourth Day of the First Week'), I found what seemed to be an allusion:

Those that, in Norway and in Finland, chase
The soft-skinned Martens, for their precious Caces
Those that in Ivory Sleads on Ireland Seas
(Congeal'd to Crystall) slide about with ease
Were witness all of his strange grief; and ghest
That God, or Nature was then deep distrest...

The subject is an eclipse, with the Sun out of view over a large part of the northern hemisphere. Du Bartas imagines the locals doing their northerly things - hunting for furs, and travelling around in sledges with runners of ivory: in Norway, Finland, and Ireland. While waiting for my brother-in-law to appear on Robbie Coltrane's 'B-Road Britain' last night (which he duly did - he was the stonemason at Woodchester Mansion) I idly traced the appearance and duration of this ancient misprint (ah, Notes and Queries, I have missed you too long!). The first two English editions got it right: sledging in 'Izeland'. But the error crept into the 1611 text, and stayed there uncorrected through 1613, 1621, 1633 and 1641.

Not that this proves much, beyond the way that typesetters do not (and in general should not) think about what they are setting, also the absence of editing work even on a text the 17th century loved. There must be other allusions in early modern literature lurking under the spelling 'Island', but this was a pleasingly fanciful one. My other image is an early engraving of the original 'Geyser'. It seems to have lumps in it. Since then people have messed about with it so much as to turn its eruptions into an intermittent thing, but here it goes:

How different my life would have been had I been called 'Uno von Troil'.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Richard Brathwaite makes an excuse and stays, 1615.

One of those 17th century names you know of (learned allusions to The English Gentlewoman, that kind of thing) but don’t read … well, there’s such a lot of it. I came across his ‘The Civil Devil’, which is a poem about him visiting a prostitute.

It presents itself first of all as a ‘chanson d’adventure’, in which our hero just happens to come upon a brothel:
It chanc’d one evening as I went abroad,
To cheer my cares, and take away my load,
Of disagreeing passions, which were bred
By the distemper of a troubled head,
Midst of my walk, spying an Alley door,
(Which I protest I never spied before)
I entered in, and being entered in,
I found the entry was to th’ house of sin…

What is interesting is that, next, Brathwaite represents himself as disorientated and particularly seduced by the modest demeanour of the ‘civil matron’ who meets him (hence the title). By this stage he is more candid about the actual knowledge that has brought him to this particular alley door, but she lets him know that she is the wife of a respectable man: “ ‘therefore pray forbear, / You doe mistake yourself, there’s none such here /As you make suit for.’ I as one dismayed, / That durst not justify what I had said, / Began to slink away”.

But she is too experienced to lose her client: she detains him with much talk about her good reputation, but winds up by professing to love him:

She would, forsooth, remain entirely mine,
This alteration made me strangely doubt,
And though my feet were in, my mind was out.
Yet so was I enthrall’d by tempting sin,
Though Virtue forc’d me out, Vice kept me in.
Thus did my tempting Genius, swear, protest,
That of all creatures she did love me best …

Rather surprisingly, at this point he does not ‘make an excuse and leave’, but succumbs completely. I keep hearing Shakespeare in this transaction, the way that he manages to assent to the pretence while knowing how false it all is:

Reason did tell me, and suggest her name,
Whisp’ring me in the ear, it was a shame
To gage my reputation to a whore:
But 'las who knows it not, sense hath more power
Then reason in these acts: I gave consent
To her inducements, thought her Innocent,
And a right modest matron…

What he represents himself as being, is incapable of resisting a seduction that’s artfully wound up in modest language and demeanor, to the extent that he can hide the real transaction from himself. “My lascivious Matron” is the oxymoronic term he comes up with to describe how he’s completely hooked. At this point in the poem, a fantasy sequence starts. Of course, we are in a 17th century published poem, so it will not be a description of what went on, but transfers all that to a rather implausible décor. He addresses the reader:

see wantons see,
How many motives now environ me?
Here my lascivious Matron woos with tears,
There a repose for lust’s retreat appears.
Here a protesting whore (see whoredom’s shelf)
Rather then loose me, she will damn her self.
There Adon’s picture, clipping Venus round,
Here Jove Europa lying on the ground …
Here Danâe stood (admiring divine power)
Which did descend like to a golden shower

What Brathwaite was seduced by surely wasn’t a room of mythological paintings: they are all in his head – he is being seduced by literature. The echoes of those morally dangerous Elizabethan epyllia start to thicken (later, “faire / Alcinous daughter, courted for her hair / By great Apollo” recollects the start of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: “Hero the fair / Whom young Apollo courted for her hair”). His lady companion hits his mood by pulling the major cultural trigger – she lets him admire the pictures for a while (on the wall, in his head), and then segues into the allusion or recital she has to make, to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:

Leave me the shadow, to the substance go,
What thou now seest, let lovers’ action know,
I’le be thy Venus, pretty Duck I will,
And though less faire, yet I have far more skill,
In Love’s affaires: for if I Adon had,
As Venus had: I could have taught the lad.
To have been far more forward then he was,
And not have dallied with so apt a lass.
Come, come (my youngling) though I ne’re could be
Immodest yet, I’le show my self to thee,
A lass of mettle…

This is what he needed to hear: after the modest preliminaries, Venus speaking to him, and casting him in the role that exonerates him, as an Adonis – younger, reluctant, overwhelmed, and, implicitly, the boy who will die if he refuses the goddess.

In his The English Gentlewoman, 1631, Brathwaite makes one of the famous allusions to Shakespeare’s narrative poems: “Books treating of light subjects are nurseries of wantonness: they instruct the loose reader to become naught. Remove them timely from you. Venus and Adonis are unfitting consorts for a Lady’s bosom”. This earlier poem (it is in A Strappado for the Devil of 1615) shows far more completely how Shakespeare’s poem conditioned his erotic imagination: after all the necessary virtuous pretences, he finally surrenders when she starts her recitation.

As I say, there is no blow-by-blow account of what they do. Brathwaite plunges on with ‘The Author’s Moral to his Civil Devil’. In this post-coital moralisation of experience, the prostitute is no longer a disconcertingly modest looking matron, found by chance through a doorway up an alley, but is all overtness: on show in her horse-drawn limousine, her eyes everywhere, heavily made up, with her entourage, pet monkey, and her phasers set to stun:

See my coach’t Lady hurried long the street,
Casting her lust’s-eyes on who so’ere she meet,
See, see her ceruse cheek, made to delight
Her apple-squire, or wanton Marmosite.
See, see her braided hair, her paps laid out,
Which witness how she’le do when she’s put to’t …

Brathwaite writes often about courtesans. Such a voluminous and verbose author could be represented as obsessed with any of his topics. But poems like this, and his ‘A Satyre called the Coniborrowe’ seem very symptomatic of his particular fever, and it is a topic on which he writes very revealingly for a man of his time.

My image is from one of his more famous publications, the collection of jests and tales about men and women, Art Asleep, Husband? Brathwaite has some good titles.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fornication, eating black pudding, and jesting

“For though we should not say that eating of Blood were as great a sin, as Fornication, in every respect, yet we may say, that by virtue of this Decree we are as much bound to abstain from Blood, as from Fornication, as long as they are thus connexed and joined together in one Law, till the equalitie be taken away by a countermand. Thus, Gal. 5. 9,20. Ephes. 5.4. different sins are forbidden, adulterie, fornication, theft, jesting, &c. Now though jesting be not so great a sin as Adultery, yet we must abstain from one as well as the other, because he that hath said, Thou shalt not commit Adultery, hath also said, Thou shalt not jest.

I have been reading the conscientious pages of The triall of a black-pudding. Or, The unlawfulness of eating blood proved by Scriptures, before the law, under the law, and after the law. By a well wisher to ancient truth (1652). Here the learned author weighs up the relative gravity of the offences of fornication, eating black pudding, and telling jokes. Thomas Barlow doesn’t offer many concessions – though at one point he does seem to allow that the Hebrews did consider the eating of the blood of fish and locusts to be acceptable, provided it were clean.

As the title makes plain, Barlow takes pains to show that the absolute prohibition and threat from God in Leviticus is not rescinded in later scripture. The Leviticus passage is here:

(“And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…)

Black puddings are inherently populist, mirthful foods. They crop up in early modern texts as a cheap dietary item, and are mentioned by Vices like Nicholas Newfangle and Ambidexter in Tudor Interludes. In the prose pamphlet of Friar Bacon (c. 1627?), the learned mage suspects Miles his manservant of covertly breaking his Friday fast with flesh, and when he duly discovers Miles half way through a black pudding, causes it to stick in his mouth, leads him to the hall of Brasenose College, and ties him up to a window, using the protruding and immovable sausage as a tie.

But the Puritan Barlow retains a severe restraint: he will not acknowledge that his topic might be funny: “Neither do we deny, but that it was a great offence to believing Jews, to see men eat Blood, as to see men continue fornication”

His ending is modest and conscientious: “It is no sin in us if we abstain from Blood: It may be sin to us, if we eat Blood. The safest way, the best way: He that maketh no conscience in little things, will hardly do it in greater. The Lord give us grace to practice the Apostles rule … Abstain from all appearance of evill.”

Maybe with my new found learning I should supplement the purely gastronomic article in the Wikipedia

Here’s a complete slip-up by a famous (and very devoutly Jewish) diva’s researchers, as they tried to tune her in to the bizarre customs of the locals in Manchester:

My image is a butcher's stall, River Island Cottage style, by Aertsen. Below and to the right of the spiralling black pudding hung on the post, a prostitute meets a client in a tavern.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

He wanted to believe: Elias Ashmole edits poems of alchemy

When the virtuoso Elias Ashmole got married for the second time, to the older but wealthier Lady Mainwaring, it was so as to “be enabled to live to my selfe & Studies, without being forced to take paines for a livelyhood in the world”. Thus tenured, and without any teaching or examining to interrupt, he devoted himself to abstruse research. He was a student of alchemy, astrologer, collector, student of heraldry, and was the first known Englishman known inducted into the Masons.

I am lost in the wondrous lumber contained in his Theatrum chemicum Britannicum· Containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language. / Faithfully collected into one volume, with annotations thereon (1652).

As the title indicates, it is an anthology of poems about alchemy, including Chaucer’s ‘The Canon Yeoman’s Tale’, generously included by the all-believing editor for its exposure of fraudulence. Ashmole contributes a rhapsodic introduction. In this first extract, he is talking about the variety of philosopher’s stones. I didn’t know there were quite many varieties, all of which increase perfection in value or knowledge:

“And first, of the Minerall Stone, the which is wrought up to the degree onely that hath the power of Transmuting and Imperfect Earthy Matter into its utmost degree of Perfection; that is, to convert the basest of Metalls into perfect Gold and Silver; Flints into all manner of Precious Stones…

…Next, to come to the Vegitable, magicall, and Angelicall Stones …

By the Vegitable may be perfectly known the Nature of Man, Beasts, Foules, Fishes, together with all kinds of Trees, Plants, Flowers &c, and how to make them Grow, Flourish & bear Fruit; how to encrease them in Colour and Smell, and when and where we please …

By the Magicall or Prospective Stone it is possible to discover any Person in what part of the World soever, although never so secretly conealed or hid; in Chambers, Closets, or Cavernes of the Earth: For there it makes a strict Inquisition … Nay more, It enables Man to understand the Language of the Creatures, as the Chirping of Birds, Lowing of Beasts &c

Lastly, as touching the Angelicall Stone, it is so subtill… that it can neither be seene, felt, or weighed; but Tasted only … It hath a Divine Power, Celestiall, and Invisible, above the rest; and endowes the possessor with Divine Gifts. It affords the Apparition of Angells, and gives the power of conversing with them, by Dreams and Revelations: nor dare any Evill Spirit approach the Place where it lodgeth.”

Besides his Prolegomena to the alchemical texts, Ashmole provides a set of explanatory notes, which also allow him to expatiate on his enthusiasms. He had some of John Dee’s manuscripts, delivered to him after being found in a secret compartment in a piece of furniture that had once belonged to Dee. The following is a very famous anecdote about a reputed projection of precious from base metal. I have seen it strangely transmuted into an account of Kelly turning part of a shovel into gold. But here it is in an authentic 17th century form, with suitably mystical provenance for the ‘Elixir’:

“ 'Tis generally reported that Doctor Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly were so strangely fortunate, as to find a very large quantity of the Elixir in some part of the Ruines of Glastenbury-Abbey, which was so incredibly Rich in virtue (being one upon 272330) that they lost much in making Projection, by way of Trialls; before they found out the true height of the Medicine.

And no sooner were they Masters of this Treasure, then they resolved to Travell into Forraigne Parts … And whether they found it at Glastenbury (as is aforesaid) or howsoever else they came by it, 'tis certain they had it: for at Trebona in Bohemia (whither they were come to dwell) Sir Edward Kelley made Projection with one small graine thereof (in proportion no bigger then the least graine of sand) upon one Ounce and a Quarter of Common Mercury, and it produced almost an ounce of most pure Gold … for a nearer and later Testimony, I have received it from a credible Person, that one Broomfield and Alexander Roberts, told him they had often seen Sir Ed: Kelly make Projection, and in particular upon a piece of Metall cut out of a Warming pan, and without Sir Edwards touching or handling it, or melting the Metall (onely warming it in the Fire) the Elixir being put thereon, it was Transmuted into pure Silver: The Warming-pan and this piece of it, was sent to Queen Elizabeth by her Embassador who then lay at Prague, that by fitting the Piece whence it was cut out, it might exactly appear to be once part of that Warming-pan. The aforesaid Person hath likewise seen in the hands of one Master Frye and Scroope, Ringes of Sir Edward Kellyes Gold, the fashion of which was onely Gold Wyre, twisted thrice about the Finger: and of these fashioned Rings, he gave away, to the value of 4000l. at the Marriage of one of his Servant Maides. This was highly Generous, but to say truth he was openly Profuse, beyond the modest Limits of a Sober Philosopher.”

My illustration comes from the anthology, which Ashmole had richly illustrated. In one of his notes he reports his engraver begging everyone's pardon "for giving the Gryphons hinder feete, those cloven ones of a hogge, instead of the ungued pawes of a Lion" during Ashmole's absence from the press, for our author cared deeply about getting all these imaginary things exactly right.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

From Shovell's pocket

So that my family can access it, a couple of images from my trip to the Scilly Isles. The first, way out at sea near the Bishop's Rock lighthouse, is of the Gilstone, with the Gilstone ledge beyond it. This is where Sir Cloudesley Shovell's 'Association' struck in October 1707. He just about fetched up on the first possible rock, but there was no escape. Had his ship missed this, in a few hundred yards, it would have hit the Rosevear Ledges or the Western Rocks. The other image is of a rather battered half crown, a William III of 1696-7, and a ducaton of 1734 from the 'Hollandia' wreck of 1743, both retrieved by divers from the wreck sites. I was surprised to find them available, and reasonably priced (the English coin was £35). I suppose that for the coin collectors, the cleaning process such coins must undergo after such a long immersion detracts from their value as collectable pieces.

The Scilly Islands made a good week. St. Mary's, the largest, is unpretentious, the 'off-islands' are varied and engaging both for sea-scapes and up-close island flora. You spend a lot of time in boats going from shore to shore, and the boatmen are all cheerful and good value. In our trip out to the Western Rocks and Bishop's Rock lighthouse, to enable everyone a good view of seals at their haul-out rocks, the boatman, in a heaving sea, was willing to take his boat very close in, almost to the point when you thought, 'OK, we can see them, now get us away from these rocks right now'. A seasonally belated puffin appeared, circled three times, dived for fish, and went off to its island after exhausting its full puffin repertoire.

Coming from multi-racial Reading, it struck me that there might have been an invisible colour bar just off Cornwall. Everyone is Caucasian, locals and visitors (odd that one should notice). The line from literature that kept coming to my mind during the boat trips was that of Dorigen in 'The Franklin's Tale', about the 'grislie rockes blacke'. Even on a good day, the Western Rocks are frightening, lethal boat-rippers. It must have been hard to believe in a benign creation if you were an early mariner. When the Schiller wrecked in 1875, drifting past the Bishop's Rock lighthouse in a fog, with the passengers lined up on the rails on the wrong side of the boat trying to get a glimpse of its light, the Scillonians were so kind to the German bereaved that (it is said), Scilly was out-of-bounds for all military action by German forces in World War I - they also say WW2, though it is hard to imagine that the Nazis would have scrupled if there were military advantage to be had.