Saturday, January 27, 2007

A like work never before in the English tongue

The bibliography to end all bibliographies! Citations for Orpheus, Zoroaster, Cleopatra, Ovid, Cato, Hermes Tresmegistus, Albertus Magnus, jostling with Hobbes, Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Fallopius and William Harvey. The contemporary women included in the list (the Countess of Kent, Lady Howard) have, it seems from the text, lent their own manuscript collections of remedies and cosmetic preparations to the assiduous compiler.

It is from one of the great mad books, Johann Jacob Wecker’s Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art & Nature (1660), a junk shop of arcane and preposterous lore. You want to ensure that your children never come to have beards or pubic hair? It’s in here (an early anointing of the areas of concern with tuna oil, if you want to know). Dye your hair green? Be able to breathe on a woman’s face and prompt an all-revealing chemical reaction if she is wearing face paint? Change the colour of your children's eyes? This is the book you had to have.

Among my favourites, the suggested potions for improving the memory (a monthly anointing of the forehead with the gall of a partridge, or wearing a ‘Lapwing’s heart, or eye, or brain about your neck’), which the author puts in twice within thirty pages, obviously not having followed his own prescribed regime.

But, as usual with this type of collection, would anybody? While one can imagine that fear and desperation might make you concoct any of the many preventatives against the plague, did anyone ever try to improve their memory by swallowing ‘a Lapwings heart, or a swallows, or Wesils, or Moles, whilst it yet pants and lives’? Even for a credulous age, there must always have been a ‘gosh-wow’ aspect of idle entertainment in such a book.

Wecker’s treatise gets cited for its virginity tests (p. 104: grind up jet beads from a rosary, put the powder in the lady’s drink, and only a virgin will be able to resist urinating immediately) – these in the context of Middleton’s The Changeling. In relation to that, post-marriage to your accredited and proven virgin:

‘Whether a woman be chast’

To try whether a woman be chast, you shall do thus. The Loadstone will try it, and discover it. I have a long time made diligent search, and find that some experiments are true of stones, which I have often wondred and laught at. If the Loadstone be put under the head of a wife whilst she sleeps, if she be chast she will embrace her Husband, if not, she will as it were with her hand thrust him out of the Chamber. Albert.

~ This ‘Albert’ being not the name of the worried husband, but the source, the legendary Albertus Magnus, reputed author of two of the grimoires Wecker is citing. The 'I know it sounds unlikely and risible but it turns out to be true' note is characteristic. But the thought that any couple’s domestic harmony should ever have depended on such proof by analogous thinking is a faintly worrying one.

Anyway, if you feel your family is large enough, here’s the word on how to make a fertile woman barren:

‘If childrens teeth when they fall, be hanged up before they come to touch the ground, and be set in a plate of silver, and hanged over women, this will hinder them to conceive, and to bring forth.’

I must say this seems to me perfectly plausible: to have a constant reminder of the sheer amount of bother and vexation a child’s teeth alone can bring into a relationship dangling above the marital bed might indeed contribute significantly to making both partners more risk-adverse.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Work of (No) foreign architect.

The new version of ‘Blogger’ does not always seem to retrieve pictures properly, nevertheless, this post is solely about a picture, this interior by Bartholomeus Van Bassen. This is, of course, sumptuous living, as depicted in what is really an architect’s visualisation of what a building might look like, if erected, and then inhabited.

Just to focus on the architecture of the room, the coffered ceiling, the great windows (shutters all thrown open to allow light to stream in), the magnificent pillared dais for the serving board, the tiled floor: this is baroque era Holland, unembarrassed by its riches.

What seems to have happened with Van Bassen’s pictures was that, his architectural interests satisfied (and, perhaps, those of his potential client), he would hand over his painting to another artist, who would add the staffage figures. Quite often, these are much diminished by Van Bassen’s aggressively assertive perspective. He generally seems to design the very opposite of Appleton Houses, a ‘hollow palace’, with his collaborator adding figures of people dwarfed by the immoderate size of their residence.

But in this case, a charming departure: in a sudden satiric freak, the staffage figures are wealthy versions of ‘boors carousing’: the worse-for-wear aristocrat, being looked after by two women, and all three of them covertly echoed by the animals: the red-headed parrot and the ginger-haired woman, both in profile, the man less dignified than the chained ape, and the other woman at the same angle as the patient dog.

The other revellers are about to be served a decorated pie by the aproned servitor. There are paintings, including a religious triptych, some blue and white china, the usual up-against-the-wall furniture, including what looks like a massively ornate false fireplace to support the nativity triptych. The women’s clothing, with those ‘bum-rolls’, would stop them from lolling even if there was the right kind of furniture for reclining, which there isn’t. The sideboard radiates wealth: even the fireplace itself is made subordinate to that purpose of ostentation.

The monkey already is half ghostly, with pentimento of the tiles apparently showing through him. Over on this site:

one of those zealous photoshoppers has, as part of a competition, rendered all the figures ghostly, returning the picture half-way to how Van Bassen (perhaps) left it – and also creating a nice National Trust-like haunted house.

The major galleries world-wide seem to compete to have the best and most snazzily interactive on-line collection. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a marvellous Van Bassen, one of those Dutch paintings with a biblical scene grafted into the present:

It is a ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’, and the zoom-in detail, carrying you into Van Bassen’s architectural fantasy, is very rewarding: the son, kneeling to his father glimpsed through an archway, a courtyard, the banqueters rising to look out of the window at what the fuss is about. Just for a spell, you are in the past, where I tend to like to be.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thomas Traherne wants to be God's Boy

If you know the works of Thomas Traherne, then you will know that he wanted to go either to heaven, or back to his early childhood - and that these were pretty much one and the same. Even the 17th century thought his piety a bit much (‘you have said it over and over’). Here in this poem Traherne, a life-long celibate by choice, is working himself up on the subject of ‘Love’:


O nectar! O delicious stream!

O ravishing and only pleasure! Where

Shall such another theme

Inspire my tongue with joys, or please mine ear?

Abridgement of delights!

And queen of sights!

O mine of rarities! O kingdom wide!

O more! O cause of all! O glorious bride!

O God! O bride of God! O king!

O soul and crown of everything!

So far, so (characteristically) ecstatic: this was a man who was disappointed to find that at Oxford University, “There was never a Tutor that did professely Teach Felicity”, and set about remedying that deficiency by a life-long realisation of devout happiness. The Dobell manuscript has those ambiguous 17th century question/exclamation marks: I have put question marks into the poem, just to aid the sense:


Did not I covet to behold

Some endless monarch, that did always live

In palaces of gold,

Willing all kingdoms, realms, and crowns to give

Unto my soul? Whose love

A spring might prove

Of endless glories, honours, friendships, pleasures,

Joys, praises, beauties, and celestial treasures?

Lo, now I see there’s such a King,

The fountainhead of everything!

There’s little politics in Traherne, his sole excitement is with the heavenly king. This is where the poem started to catch my eye, in its sudden burst of mythological reference:


Did my ambition ever dream

Of such a Lord, of such a love? Did I

Expect so sweet a stream

As this at any time? Could any eye

Believe it? Why, all power

Is used here

Joys down from Heaven on my head to shower,

And Jove beyond the fiction doth appear

Once more in golden rain to come

To Danae’s pleasing fruitful womb.

Once started, Traherne doesn’t stop. The final stanza is the real eye-opener:

His Ganymede! His life! His joy!

Or He comes down to me, or takes me up

That I might be His boy,

And fill, and taste, and give, and drink the cup.

But these (tho great) are all

Too short and small,

Too weak and feeble pictures to express

The true mysterious depths of blessedness.

I am His image, and His friend.

His son, bride, glory, temple, end.

One can see that Ganymede might work as an image of being carried away by the divine. Malcolm Bull says this tradition stems from an emblem book by Alciati, I find it in English in R. B’s Choice Emblems, Divine and Moral, 1684, with these verses appended to the emblem:

THE Forty fourth Emblem Illustrated.

Take wing my soul, and mount up higher,
For Earth fulfils not my desire.

When Ganymed, himself was purifying,
Great Jupiter, his naked beauty spying,
Sent forth his Eagle (from below to take him)
A blest Inhabitant in Heav'n to make him:
And there (as Poets feigned) he doth still,
To Jove, and other God heads, Nectar fill.

Though this be but a Fable, of their feigning,
The Moral is a Real truth, pertaining
To ev’ry one (which harbours a desire
Above the Starry Circles, to aspire.)

By Ganymed the Soul is understood,
That’s washed in the Purifying flood
Of sacred Baptism (which doth make her seem
Both pure and beautiful, in God’s esteem.)
The Aegle means that Heav’nly Contemplation,
Which, after Washings of Regeneration,
Lifts up the Mind, from things that earthly be,
To view those Objects, which Faith’s Eyes do see.
The Nectar, which is filled out, and given
To all the blest Inhabitants of Heaven,
Are those Delights, which (Christ hath said) they have,
When some Repentant Soul begins to leave
Her foulness; by renewing of her birth,
And slighting all the Pleasures of the Earth.
I ask not, Lord, those Blessings to receive,
Which any Man hath pow’r to take, or give;
Nor what this World affords; for I contemn
Her Favours; and have seen the best of them;
Nay, Heav’n it self, will unsufficient be,
Unless Thou also give Thy self to me.

My puzzlement is about how they managed to fence off in their minds the other, and more obvious take on Ganymede, which I illustrate from Henry Peacham’s emblem book, where Ganymede ‘the foule Sodomitan’ becomes the type of all crimes ‘abhorr’d of God and man’: incest, witchcraft, murder, and forgery. Quite how Ganymede got to be flying on a cock – well, let’s not go there.

When, as a teenager, I heard the Incredible String Band do ‘Douglas Traherne Harding’, I fear that even then I knew (O reward of bookishness!) the meditation by Thomas Traherne which they were incorporating. It isn’t to be found on , and my copy of the album is long ago lost or given away.

I see that Jorn Barger, the cessation of whose Robot Wisdom blog I regret, was a fan. Grotesquely, a snatch of the song is available to download as a ringtone.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A detail from Ghirlandaio

Giovanna Tornabuoni, in 1488. How can so valuable a ruby hang on such a slender thread?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A (No) caption competition

I enjoyed the caption competition over on ‘Blogging the Renaissance’, but I came to it late, when as far as I could see there was no quip left worth the quipping. (Iwill put the link down at the bottom of the post here, to try to stop the long URL colliding with the 'previous posts' panel.)

As a complete alternative, I offer this painting, by Guido Reni: ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, and assert that no words can make it funnier than it is. Ariadne’s mute gesture and eye-rolling says it all. There she is, just been deserted by Theseus, and along has chanced Dionysus himself. But the god of delirious pleasure seems to have left his thyrsus behind.

There’s a representative gallery of Reni over on the Web Gallery of Art.

He gives me the impression of being rather constrained and insipid when doing religious painting unless the biblical subject has got a bit of sex in it. His 'Susanna and the Elders' is very good: that old lecher putting his finger to his lips as he twitches at her robe, there's a 'Joseph and Potiphar's Wife' which isn't too bad (there are many better), but his 'Salome' is too much Raphael and not enough Caravaggio. The mythological scenes are his high points - Reni does ideally beautiful beings very well.

So, was this picture once serious? Wasn’t it always sly?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beneath the cacuminous thick Beeches

I have a seminar to give on sections of Tennyson’s In Memoriam,

and this led me back to William Lathum’s Phyala lachrymarum. Or A few friendly teares, shed over the dead body of Mr Nathaniel Weld Mr of Arts of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge who in the short journey of his life, died betwene the five and sixe and twentieth yeare of his youth, (1633).

I don’t think much is known about Lathum, and don’t recollect that Bruce Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England book does anything with such putatively gay elegies. Like Tennyson’s, his long poem is a broken-hearted lament for an idolized friend. Lathum veers between his personal loss, and the loss to everyone who knew Weld. To him, it feels as though death has broken off a marriage:

“… two true hearts in love united fast.
For well his tongue and 'haviour could indeed
Of faithful love a learned lecture read,
And well him love became, who loyal was
Unto his love; (unhappy love) alas,
Which when both hearts, and hands, and friends consent
Had all clapped hands with infinite content,
And all things ready to enjoying, had
(Save publication) death the Banes forbad.”

But these special feelings were (perhaps reassuringly) shared by everybody:

“… Oh my dear WELD, whose conversation was
So lovely unto me …

… how lovely wert thou (living) unto all?
All, for thou wert not sullen-cynical,
Nor of a supercilious-haughty eye,
But affable, and full of courtesy,

Well pleas'd with mirth, and harmless merriment,
Which (but injuriously) can ne're be shent.
How did all hug thee, and embrace, for thy
Thy (hardly-sampled) self, and company?”

That little stutter ‘thy / Thy’ is not a misprint in the text. ‘Hardly-sampled’ means something like ‘unequalled’; the modern sense of ‘sampling’ is not yet in the language. Lathum follows this with a passage in which the winding sheets, coffin, and earth, personified as female, receive Weld’s body with sensuous delight in embracing him.

Tennyson, quizzed about the matter, asserted that he had never even kissed Arthur Hallam, and Lathum celebrates in his sublime friend the “single Caelibat of his chaste youth”. My quotations so far make the poem look more physical than it is: Weld’s body seems to have been imaginatively off-limits, sex only comes to him in the embrace of the winding sheet.

Does Lathum know what his feelings (at least, as we would understand them) were? I looked at his (earlier) translation of Virgil’s Eclogues - which will always crop up in these contexts - and his version of ‘Formosus pastor Corydon’. He starts off, perhaps, a touch defensively (‘this idle stuff’):

“The Shepherd Corydon erst dearly loved
His Master’s darling, young Alexis faire:
But in pursuit thereof he still improved,
Not having what he hoped; but reaped despair,
Though every day alone he did repair,
And 'mongst the cacuminous thick Beeches shade,
In vain, this idle stuff, to hills, and woods bewray'd.”

(‘Cacuminous’ is that joy of the absolute pedant, an OED antedating, for the dictionary doesn’t have it till 1871. It apparently means formed into a pyramidal shape.)

But in his commentary, he can expand on Corydon’s overpowering feeling as ‘the instinct of [his] nature’:

“The meaning is … deal with me as you think good; avoid my company, disdain me; nevertheless I know not by what propensity of inclination, I am (will I, nill I) haled on to affect your Love: neither will I alter my desire herein, howsoever you demean your self towards me: For I must confess, I am led by the instinct of my nature thereunto, as pronely, as the Wolf is to the Kid, or the Kid to the bushy shrubs; and as every thing in the kind, is drawn by sense, to follow that which they find to bee agreeing, and most fitting to their natures.”

The much lamented Nathaniel Weld is represented as an early victim of tobacco, and Lathum has quite a lively passage of dirae on the herb that robbed him of his beloved, who seems to have been smoking when he suffered what one guesses was a tubercular haemorrhage:

“ 'twas this unsavory fulsome weed,
That traiterously conspir'd his death indeed;
Provoking him to cough, which broke a vein
Within his lungs, first causer of his bane.”

An interesting poem, antecedent to the Lycidas collection. The image is a Raphael double portrait.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Visions of delight

1607, 2007: tomorrow, the 10th of January, the US Mint releases commemorative coins for the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony. As you will see on their site, the silver dollar design represents “Three Faces of Diversity, representing the three cultures that came together in Jamestown”. That's nice, and quite tempting at $35.

I’ve recently and dutifully watched Terrence Malick’s film, slightly mistimed in its release last year (and sure to have a ‘director’s cut’ this year), The New World.

There’s some highly intelligent for and against argument about the film on the IMDB talkboards,

I confess freely that it took me three sessions to get through the DVD. If you haven’t seen it, you have to imagine the stalagmitically slow enigma of ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ coupled with the chocolate box tragedy of ‘Elvira Madigan’ – yea, it even has a Mozart piano concerto for the walking-together-in-the-long-grass-wondering-if-a-hearty-shag-might-help-us-

over-the-language-difficulties scenes (of which there are many). You cannot imagine anyone doing better with the I’m-in-harmony-with-the-great-mother elegant arm-wavings of Matoaka (Pocahontas)

than the splendidly named Q’Orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell furrows his brow a lot as John Smith. Superbly shot in natural light, the sound recordist’s perverse work apparently renders a large part of what dialogue there is maddeningly inaudible.

When you read the self-vindications of the ‘Counseil for Virginia’, it’s clear that the English colonists expended their energies falling out with one another, but Malick wants the sound of the wind in the trees and the grass, the sound of raindrops and rivers, and so the one adequately descriptive quarrel ends with a pistol shot that could have been the director’s.

I thought as I watched that the term for the ‘first people’ used in the film, ‘the Naturals’ was false to early 17th century usage, but I was wrong, and someone has done their homework, for there it is “for the Naturals withdrew from all commerce and trafficke with them, cunningly making a war upon them, which they felt not” (A true and sincere declaration of the purpose and ends of the plantation begun in Virginia, 1610, p.11), and there it is in the OED: ‘Natural’, n1., III. A person or thing of or from a designated region; a native. 19. a. A native of a place or country. It must have pleased the polemic purpose of the director no end to discover that.

Here’s the American archaeologists digging up what can be found of Werowocomoco:

Friday, January 05, 2007

Machiavel the Waiting Maid

I came across a Cowley poem, thought it witty - what else would Cowley be?

It is ‘The Chronicle: A Ballad’, and the conceit is that he is doing (at the opposite end of the literary scale, i.e., merely in a ballad), his own personal version of the vast volumes of Holinshed or Stowe. In their chronological sequence, he names the queens that have reigned in his heart. So he starts off with his earliest experience of love, and ends with the present reigning monarch.

Margarita first possest,
If I remember well, my brest,
Margarita first of all;
But when a while the wanton Maid
With my restless Heart had plaid,
Martha took the flying Ball.

That’s the stanza form, which my clumsy attempt to shrink the poem onto a single jpeg somehow disrupted. (But at least the whole text is there for anyone who is curious to see it; click to enlarge, of course.)

This Martha loses him to Catherine, who in her turn experiences usurpation:

Beauteous Catharine gave place
(Though loth and angry she to part
With the possession of my Heart)
To Elisa’s conqu’ering face

The self-chronicler asserts that Eliza might have reigned till the present, but the (sexual) politics of her reign turned him into a rebel:

Elisa till this Hour might reign
Had she not Evil Counsels ta'ne.
Fundamental Laws she broke,
And still new Favorites she chose,
Till up in Arms my Passions rose,
And cast away her yoke.

Cowley’s heart then goes through a joint-monarchy of Mary and Ann, then a tyranny under another Mary (you can see how he touches lightly on English history, without trying to sustain too much detail in his analogy):

Another Mary then arose
And did rigorous Laws impose.
A mighty Tyrant she!
Long, alas, should I have been
Under that Iron-Scepter’d Queen,
Had not Rebecca set me free.

But Rebecca dies young; and while the Judith who succeeded her was beautiful, ‘But so weak and small her Wit, / That she to govern was unfit’. From this weak monarch, who does not last long (‘One Month, three Days, and half an Hour’, the poem specifies), Susan seizes the throne, only to yield it in turn to the conquering Isabella:

But when Isabella came
Arm’d with a resistless flame
And th’Artillery of her Eye;
Whilst she proudly marcht about
Greater Conquests to find out,
She beat out Susan by the by.

Cowley has even experienced, like England, an Interregnum:

But in her place I then obey'd
Black-ey’d Besse, her Viceroy-Maid,
To whom ensu’d a Vacancy.
Thousand worse Passions then possest
The Interregnum of my brest.
Bless me from such an Anarchy!

It would be more interesting if one thought that it all reflected real experience, but that’s the last thing to look for in Cowley. What keeps it alive is the sense of him (partly) subordinating himself: here, the male is the territory ruled by the women (yes, a reversal of that Donne conceit in Elegy 19 that one keeps coming back to). Rule tends to be brief (‘few of them were long with Me’), but that is quite like history. Cowley does demean female rule with a Pope-like list of the petty devices that kept them in power (as in my title for this post), but apart from his one rebellion, he is cast in the passive role of being ruled: Isabella, for instance, apparently conquers him only on her way to bigger and better conquests.

I’d imagine that many (most?) men would look back on their personal history as being something like a series of ‘reigns’. Of course, Cowley, writing in the Cavalier persona, is pretending to a rakishly long series of women who have ruled him. But flaunted multiplicity does help sustain the idea of a chronicle that could have been as long as Stowe’s.

In my own case, my sister is currently plotting like General Monck. Again.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Year's Gift, 1607

My hundredth post starts 2007.

My illustration puts together into one composite image the tiny title page, colophon, and three miniscule openings from Automachia, evidently presented as a 'small New-yeres-Gift' at the start of 1607 to Mary Neville - 'Alia Minerva' ("Another Pallas", which the poet adroitly finds as an approximate anagram of her name).

The writer may be George Goodwin, or Joshua Sylvester; the dedicatee is the daughter of Thomas Sackville, First Earl of Dorset, part author as a young man of Gorboduc, contributor to The Mirror for Magistrates, and who, as Lord High Treasurer of England would die at the Council table in April 1608, aged around 72.

Automachia, 'self-conflict', isn't the work of a negligible poet:

"Both right and Wrong with me indifferent are:
My Lust is Law: what I desire, I dare:
(Is there so foule a Fault, so fond a Fact,
Which Follie asking, Furie dares not act?),
But Art-lesse-hart-lesse in Religion's cause
(To doo her Lessons, and defend her Lawes)."

It could be a bit of the wordy moralising in Lucrece; George Herbert would have approved. The poet is aware that the vociferous self-rebuke and the dainty format are at odds, but asks his dedicatee to accept the 'poore MITE' he humbly offers:
'Too small a Present to so great a GRACE,
And too unworthy of your Worthinesse

Saue that the Matter so exceeds the Masse'.

I am not sure that I could do a bibliographical description of this book even if I had it in front of me: it seems to run [A1-6]; B-B4 [B5-8]; C-C4 [C5-8]; D-D4 [D5,D6], the EEBO copy does not have a rule on the title page image to show just how small the book is. But a graceful present for a devout lady.

I wonder when it was that New Year's Day gifts were supplanted by present-giving on Christmas Day? I quite like the notion of starting the New Year with gifts, though perhaps they might all be rather forward-looking and improving. I recall liking in the Elizabethan Court records how, if you could manage it, your new year's gift to Gloriana had best be gold, while in return, you generally got something 'parcel-gilt' from the thrifty old girl.