Sunday, April 29, 2007

Earthquakes: I blame the fulkers

There has been a small earthquake in Kent,

and this reminded me of Gabriel Harvey’s rather witty account of his experience of the 1580 earthquake, which he wrote about to his friend Edmund Spenser. Harvey was playing at cards with two gentlewomen, who were arguing so vehemently about the game that he quipped that their voices have caused an earthquake:

“Where being in the company of certain courteous Gentlemen, and those two Gentlewomen, it was my chance to be well occupied, I warrant you, at Cards, (which I dare say I scarcely handled a whole twelvemonth before) at that very instant, that the Earth under us quaked, and the house shaked above: besides the moving, and rattling of the Table, and forms, where we sat. Whereupon, the two Gentlewomen having continually been wrangling with all the rest, and especially with my self, and even at that same very moment, making a great loud noise, and much ado: Good Lord, quoth I, is it not wonderful strange that the delicate voices of two so proper fine Gentlewomen, should make such a sudden terrible Earthquake?
… But behold, all on the sudden there cometh stumbling into the Parlour, the Gentleman of the house, somewhat strangely affrighted, and in a manner all aghast, and telleth us, as well as his Head and Tongue would give him leave, what a wondrous violent motion, and shaking there was of all things in his Hall.”

At this point, the company decide that it was an earthquake, and not heavy furniture being moved around upstairs. The quarrelsome ladies turn from playing to praying:

“The Gentlewomens’ hearts nothing acquainted with any such Accidents, were marvelously daunted: and they, that immediately before were so eagerly, and greedily praying on us, began now forsooth, very demurely, and devoutly to pray unto God, and the one especially, that was even now in the House top, I beseech you heartily quoth she, let us leave off playing, and fall a praying. By my truly, I was never so scared in myself, Me thinks it marvelous strange. What good Partner? Cannot you pray to your selfe, quoth one of the Gentlemen, but all the House must hear you, and ring Allin to our Ladies Matins? I see women are every way vehement, and affectionate. Your self was liker even now, to make a fray, than to pray: and will you now needs in all hast bee on both your knees?”

Harvey, showing off incorrigibly, now argues that “an Earthquake might as well be supposed a Natural Motion of the Earth, as a preternatural, or supernatural ominous work of God”, taking the not entirely impossible line that the heavy rains in England since Michaelmas have caused the earth to be full like the stomach of a drunk, and it is now (essentially) vomiting. He asks Spenser to send him a copy of the inevitable “threehalfepennie Pamphlet for news” or “Tragicall Ballet in Ryme” about the earthquake, but in his superior vein, wishes “some learned, and well advised University man, would undertake the matter, and bestow some pains in deed upon so famous and material an argument. The general Nature of Earthquakes by definition, and the special diversity of them by division, being perfectly known…”

I took myself off to read one of the “threehalfepennie Pamphlets” about the 1580 earthquake, that by Thomas Churchyard, which amid its pious exhortations, gives the facts, and some vivid detail:
“On Wednesday in the Easter week, being the sixth day of April. 1580. between the hours of five and six in the evening, happened generally through all the City of London, & the Suburbs of the same (as it were in a moment and upon the sudden) a wonderful motion and trembling of the earth, in so much, as Churches, Palaces, Houses, and other buildings did so quiver and shake, that such as were then present in the same were tossed too and fro as they stood, and others, as they sate on seats, driven off from their places: some leaning backwards, were ready to fall: and many besides so shaken standing, that it brought such terror to those that were in the same houses, that the most part feared, their houses would come down upon them, and thereupon ran out of their doors in great perplexity, to see whether their houses were still standing in their wonted place or no. And some houses did so crackle, that the tables and stools, with other furniture, as Brass and Pewter, so tottered, that it was thought they would have fallen to the ground, and the houses rest insunder.”

The quake brought down the top of a pinnacle of Westminster Abbey, bells tolled of their own accord in steeples, it was felt in the great chamber at Whitehall with the queen in residence there, while the gentlemen of the Middle Temple, dining in their new hall, ran forth with their knives still in their hands, thinking the new building was falling. Tragically, it so shook Christ Church in Newgate during service there that a boy in the congregation was killed by falling masonry, and others hurt.

For Churchyard, this is all a matter of God's wrath, and he runs through a list of those whose sins draw such correction upon God's people, among which 'fulkers' feature:

"You greedy graceless Fulkers lewd, that lets out gold for gain,
Take heed, lest from the heavens high, hot fire and Brimstone rain."

I had never seen this word before, as you see it means moneylender. A pity it didn't last, but one can see reasons why it wouldn't. (Try "I am a fulker at Lloyds Bank".)

The impious fared rather better than the pious. Plays were being performed at the theatres to the north of the City:

“A number being at the Theatre and the Curtain at Hollywell, beholding the plays, were so shaken, especially those that stood in the highest rooms and standings, that they were not a little dismayed, considering, that they could no way shift for themselves, unless they would, by leaping, hazard their lives or limbs, as some did indeed, leaping from the lowest standings.”

These events were frightening enough to prompt publication of a special order of prayer:

The order of prayer, and other exercises, vpon Wednesdays and Frydayes, to auert and turne Gods wrath from vs, threatned by the late terrible earthquake: to be vsed in all parish churches and housholdes throughout the realme, / by order giuen from the Queenes Maiesties most honourable priuie counsel (1580)

As you see from the title, it recommended fasting two days a week, gave suitable extracts from Isaiah, and the Book of Joel, even a psalm complete with musical notation (xlvi, ‘The Lord is our defence and aid’). The book has ‘A prayer to be used of all householders, with their whole family, every evening before they go to bed, that would please God to turn away his wrath from us, threatened in the last terrible earthquake”. The prayer includes

“We most heartily and humbly beseech thy Fatherly goodness, to look down from thy throne of thy mercy seat upon us most miserable, and sinful slaves of Sathan, which with feareful and trembling hearts doe quake, and shake at the strange & terrible token of thy wrath and indignation appearing most evidently unto us, by thy shaking, and moving of the earth.”

but no special apology for those odious fulkers.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

'Without acrimony and mordacity': early modern milk

“The best is that which is tepid, of equall substance, not quickly running off the naile if put thereon, light, not viscous, but sweet, without smell, white, somewhat shining, and taken out of a sound beast of good feeding, that hath good dugs. The most usuall are the womans, which is the best; the cows is thicker, fatter, more nutritive, obstructive and hardly concocted; the sheeps, is worse and obstructeth more; the goats, is a little hotter, than the former, of a thinner substance, more nourishment, and sooner passeth away; the mares is very thin, hot, and detersive, the asses, is colder than the rest, thinner; and more serous, lesse nutritive and obstructing, and cleanseth without acrimony and mordacity … the camels is the best of those, that chew not the cudde, being sweetest and thinnest … that of women, asses, or mares, will never curdle into any hard substance, raw … it’s best for children, and old men, in the marasmus, atrophi, and phthisick, and the camels for the first, the womans for the second, and asses for the third, being of a middle age, kept cleane, fed with grinded malt and a little fennel seed, then drink the milk morning and evening with sugar of roses, also she is to be kept in fine leaze, or with good hay in winter”

This is the madly pell-mell prose of Robert Lovell, trying to classify the animals and their utility in his Panzooryktologia. Sive Panzoologicomineralogia. Or A compleat history of animals and minerals, containing the summe of all authors, both ancient and modern, Galenicall and chymicall, touching animals, viz. beasts, birds, fishes, serpents, insects, and man, as to their place, meat, name, temperature, vertues, use in meat and medicine, description, kinds, generation, sympathie, antipathie, diseases, cures, hurts, and remedies &c. (1661)

Whether and when you should administer to an infant camel’s milk, or that of an ass, in preference to that of its mother (or wet nurse) rather depended on how you read Lovell’s relentlessly hasty and accumulative prose. The care of the elderly is mixed up in this mad list of recommendations, or at least, that of atrophied elderly men, old women perhaps being less commonly in need of emergency nursing. I was amused by the way Lovell races off into prescribing the best way to keep the middle aged ass you intend to use for your medicinal drafts, while women are still muddled up in the floundering reader’s sense of the sentence.

I suppose breast milk of the human female was then far more of a commodity; and as early modern medicine, like early modern magic, advocated trying more or less anything, failing the ready availability of camel, the local wet nurse might express for the sick her variety of lactic goodness.

This made me think of the quite commonly favoured motif in 17th century art of ‘Roman Charity’, and I have used Rubens’ take on this exemplary narrative as my image for this posting – so repulsive to our eyes. Maybe that response shows that our culture has lost something, having over-sexualised the breast (but the transfixed male onlookers in the painting hardly convey noble innocence of other meanings).

I was then astonished to find that the hardy – or chronically lactophiliac – Arthur Murphy attempted a play on the theme, The Grecian Daughter, performed in 1772. So here’s an extract of this previously well forgotten oeuvre. The central scene takes place off stage (when the actress who played the daughter speaks the epilogue, she does deplore the possibility that the audience might leer at her). The captive Evander, condemned to starve to death, is being sustained by the pious action of his daughter, who has been forbidden to take him any solid food. The tyrannical Arcas here is told what his henchman has witnessed in the prison:

Arcas. Ha! what means, Philotas,
That sudden haste, that pale disorder'd look?
Enter Philotas.
Philotas. O! I can hold no more; at such a sight
Ev’n the hard heart of tyranny would melt
To infant softness. Arcas, go, behold
The pious fraud of charity and love;
Behold that unexampled goodness; see
Th’expedient sharp necessity has taught her;
Thy heart will burn, will melt, will yearn to view
A child like her.
Arcas. Ha!---Say what mystery
Wakes these emotions?
Philotas. Wonder-working virtue!
The father foster’d at his daughter’s breast!---
O! filial pity!---The milk design’d
For her own offspring, on the parent’s lip
Allays the parching fever.
Arcas. That device
Has she then form’d, eluding all our care,
To minister relief?
Philotas. On the bare earth
Evander lies; and as his languid pow’rs
Imbibe with eager thirst the kind refreshment,
And his looks speaks unutterable thanks,
Euphrasia views him with the tend’rest glance,
Ev’n as a mother doating on her child,
And, ever and anon, amidst the smiles
Of pure delight, of exquisite sensation,
A silent tear steals down; the tear of virtue,
That sweetens grief to rapture. All her laws
Inverted quite, great Nature triumphs still.
Arcas. The tale unmans my soul.

hus nourished, the father recovers enough to participate in what may be the strangest act-closing speech in the whole of English drama. This is beyond normal parameters of the weird: exiting to spend the interval thanking God whose presence fills ‘the dome’ for the virtue He has given the daughter and for the ‘wondrous goodness’ either God or Euphrasia has just been lavishing:

"Evander. Euphrasia, oh! my child! returning life
Glows her about my heart. Conduct me forward---
At the last gasp preserv’d! Ha! dawning light?
Let me behold; in faith I see thee now;
I do indeed: the father sees his child.
Euphrasia. I have reliev’d him---Oh! the joy’s too great;
'Tis speechless rapture!
Evander. Blessings, blessings on thee! …
… Come, my Euphrasia, in this interval
Together we will seek the sacred altar,
And thank the God, whose presence fills the dome,
For the best gift his bounty could bestow,
The virtue he has giv’n thee; there we’ll pour
Our hearts in praise, in tears of adoration,
For all the wond’rous goodness lavish’d on us.

End of Fourth Act."

Anyway, Euphrasia, a girl nothing can daunt, ends the play by personally stabbing the tyrant (when he is once again about to kill her father). I think this text is overdue a reassessment for its enthusiastic embrace of very female heroism. There had been a broadsheet ballad of Roman Charity in 1750.

reviews Marilyn Yalom on the history of breast. Mary L Bellhouse has an interesting piece the journal Signs (available via JSTOR) which partly addresses an authentic representation by the painter Etienne Barthelemey Garnier of the original Roman story, in which a nursing daughter breast feeds her imprisoned mother (as in Valerius Maximus). I'd forgotten - or never managed to reach - the ending of The Grapes of Wrath.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bad Art: Just Say No!

I was acting as a marshal at the Reading Cycling Club spring road race today. For me, this involved standing at the side of the road just up from a lone shop at Goring, and waving a red flag as the great British public dragged itself from TV coverage of the London marathon, drove half a mile to the shop, parked sloppily, extricated themselves from the car with the cautious deliberation of a crab shedding its exoskeleton, limped into the shop, and came back bent under the weight of the Sunday Mail in a plastic bag. Before, on returning, abruptly driving off without signal or care, despite four of us anxiously matadoring away.
After the event, I diverted slightly to the village of Checkendon, where this macabre and unforgivably bad fiberglass sculpture has appeared on a previously innocent skyline. The slumped barn and corrugated outhouse outdo it in being sinister: the two cadavres look like second home owners lamenting the effect of some catastrophe that has hit their property value.
It has all the aesthetic charm of an album cover designed by a thirteen year old death metal fan, a combination of nastiness and sentimentality. Check it out, good burghers of Checkendon: have you no feelings? Have you no hammers?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Urged by your propinquity

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

I have just finished marking a batch of poetry essays by my first year seminar groups, and utilize this blog to post a general comment. I will not, of course, be commenting on or quoting any individual student’s work.

From the Norton Anthology, the students could choose between Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sestina’, Robert Graves’ ‘Warning for Children’, and two intertextual pieces, Richard Howard’s ‘Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565’ and Charles Tomlinson’s ‘The Picture of J.T. in a Prospect of Stone’.

Along with these, a fifth option: Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘I, being born a woman…’ sonnet. I thought this was quite a risqué choice on my part, but I have been retrospectively reassured by a google search which indicates that the sonnet is pretty much common game all over the Western higher educational system.

It proved to be quite a popular choice, just edged out by the Elizabeth Bishop poem, where, as it proved, the best work was done. On the Millay poem, everyone, unprompted, saw the point of it being a sonnet, and rejoiced in its audacity in re-making the mode. But the thing that I found most interesting was a persistent (but not ubiquitous) misreading, in the lines:

Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity…

Around this point in the poem, the happy initial acceptance of a woman’s right to have sex without further commitment or meaning beyond a physically satiating thrash in the missionary position, often faltered. The sexual act, it seemed, had to mean more to a woman, or this would lower female sexual experience to the level that ought to be reserved for the doings of men. The arch of Millay’s syntax enabled such sentimentalists to retrieve something higher, and out leapt the comforting thought that she will, after all, ‘remember him’, there will be some ‘love’ or ‘pity’. No one could say that the poet hadn’t done her best to be understood (‘Let me make it plain’), but the phrase which parenthetically clarifies ‘this’ as the treason of the body against the mind, intervening between the crucial ‘not’ in line 9 and line 11, enabled the latter line to wriggle free and reinstate niceness. Other excuses were found: the speaker was voicing female ‘broodiness’ (in the real world, a pregnant woman would surely tend to want a conversation ‘when we meet again’). Or the poem was often read as narrating part of a relationship, rather than our poet recruiting the nearest man to do what she found necessary.

My main feeling is that my students always write about (capital P) ‘Poetry’. On go their most solemn expressions, and they have elevated expectations. That the sonnet overturns thousands of pieces of male-authored discourse was seen, but the wittiness of saying these unsayable things was gradually forgotten, and with it was missed the archness of that ‘urged by your propinquity’, and that dry, distanced ‘a certain zest’ (leading up line five coming disconcertingly straight out with what she wants). Sagacious noting of alliteration in that fifth line never asked why ‘b’s’ feel so right here. I doubt that the author banged, bonked, or boffed, but we do these days, and there’s a bouncy element of joy in the sound. The whipcrack ending had already been internally subverted in the minds of many of these readers (on the ‘I shall remember you with love’ lines), so little was said about what it denies to the man. Of course, nobody (not even the occasional male student who had blundered into this dangerous territory) remotely imagined that a man so brusquely required to comply with a lady’s wishes might find these terms unacceptable. Women must have sentiments, but only a fool would impute them to men.

Here’s Vincent again, doing a lyric after Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker positioning herself both outside and inside the amatory imbroglio:

‘The Philosopher’

And what are you that, wanting you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?

Yet women’s ways are witless ways,
As any sage will tell,
And what am I, that I should love
So wisely and so well?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A parenthesis between the horizon's brackets

The Cyclist
Freewheeling down the escarpment past the unpassing horse
Blazoned in chalk the wind he causes in passing
Cools the sweat of his neck, making him one with the sky,
In the heat of the handlebars he grasps the summer
Being a boy and to-day a parenthesis
Between the horizon’s brackets; the main sentence
Is to be picked up later but these five minutes
Are all to-day and summer. The dragonfly
Rises without take-off, horizontal,
Underlining itself in a sliver of peacock light.

And glaring, glaring white
The horse on the down moves within his brackets,
The grass boils with grasshoppers, a pebble
Scutters from under the wheel and all this country
Is spattered white with boys riding their heat-wave,
Feet on a narrow plank and hair thrown back

And a surf of dust beneath them. Summer, summer —
They chase it with butterfly nets or strike it into the deep
In a little red ball or gulp it lathered with cream
Or drink it through closed eyelids; until the bell
Left-right-left gives his forgotten sentence
And reaching the valley the boy must pedal again
Left-right-left but meanwhile
For ten seconds more can move as the horse in the chalk
Moves unbeginningly calmly
Calmly regardless of tenses and final clauses
Calmly unendingly moves.

There’s an extensive prose literature of cycling, but not many good poems. This is one of the best: Louis MacNeice, writing just after World War 2. Quite a typical poem for the author, another of his ‘moment[s] cradled like a brandy glass’. Here the boy freewheeling down past the white horse experiences a time outside time, just as what is placed in parentheses in a sentence is separated from the sentence’s ongoing sense. The poem’s inventive play on brackets involves the encircling halves of the horizon, and the vast cursive sweeps which make up the Uffington white horse (as I think it must be). Maybe the handlebars are also bracket shapes which the rider is between.

As time stands still, the poem connects the freewheeling boy – who is of course moving without having to move – with other notions of being at once static and moving. The verbal Instamatic photo of the dragonfly is exactly right: they do hover before darting away so quickly that they seem to leave a retinal burn of their colour behind them. The white horse itself is a vast capturing of movement on something that is immemorially still, part of the landscape itself. Despite its appearance of motion, the horse is ‘unpassing’: it goes nowhere, but neither has it passed away over time. The poem opens and closes with ‘unpassing’ and ‘unending’-ness, the wordplay in the opening line introducing the theme of our mortal passing.

Time resumes – the poem hints that life is going to be all uphill pedaling after this moment when time was under control. A swinging church bell will toll the passing hour, the cyclist will have to resume his effort: we are all under sentence, and must come to the full stop.

The final section of the poem initially evokes other ways to grasp the summer: indulgent in describing such indulgences, but justified poetically, as the effect MacNeice wants requires a long, loping syntactic unit which itself hovers between the poetry of ‘meanwhile’, and that dealing with the resumption of normal time and effort.

The ending of the poem is beatific, a flurry of adverbs attached to that repeated verb ‘moves’ which the poem has neutralized. Paradoxically, freewheeling down Dragon Hill – all speed and danger – has led to a closing mantra of ‘calmly / Calmly … Calmly’. The fear implied earlier in the poem has been stilled, mortality is now ‘calmly’ accepted because of such moments of union with the unchanging, touching even us with unendingness, can be had – or be imagined in poems.

Cycling was good this last weekend. Having indulged myself, I must now go and mark some year one poetry essays. The photo is from my own collection, just someone's dad (whose?), but it had the right kind of ambience.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Habitacles of daemons and intelligences

I mentioned in a recent post my buying mineral specimens at a ‘Rock, Gem and Mineral Fair’. One thing I have noticed about these fairs is that dealers tend to set off with a stall that reflects their own interests, but after a season or so, they end up making compromise with ‘crystal healing’, ‘mood rings’, and various Tolkienesque notions of particular powers in stones. Better chance of a sale and a better price if the stone has magic in it.

I’ve been reading Thomas Nicols’ A lapidary, or, The history of pretious stones with cautions for the undeceiving of all those that deal with pretious stones (1652). It is amusing to imagine some of his more traditional magical powers of gems being pitched to the modern customer: ‘You should buy this, madam, for if your husband places this gemstone on your head while you are asleep, he will be able to see by your reaction whether you are faithful to him or not’ (reference, p. 51).

Nicols is not a very original thinker: he generally compiles from his authorities (‘Langius’ and others), but this causes a series of little crises, for he is reluctant to admit some of the more grandiose claims made for gemstones and their secret powers. Rather, he takes the line that it is not the gems, but demons inhabiting them, that might exert these powers. Again, a genuinely time-honoured belief that could serve as an interesting pitch for the new age rock dealer to try on the 21st century customer:

“Some do impute such vires [powers] to produce such effects to them, as these creatures cannot possibly be capable of … But such have been the errours of the great searchers out of the secrets of nature, as that they have attributed to inanimate creatures which are of the lowest orders of all natures productions, powers supernaturall, and vires which their natures are not capable of producing” (p. 19 – he cites Albertus Magnus claiming that the Opthalmius allows you to be invisible, and many others).

Though gems as being materiall mixt bodies, cannot by their own proper power and faculties produce such admirable and supernaturall things … yet they may be said to be continent causes of such effects, if we grant them what some affirm, namely, that oft-times they are the habitacles of daemons and intelligences” (p.31).

An interesting thing about the book is the way Nicols gropes towards (or rather, away from) a systematic understanding: all he has is a prose style founded on an extensive vocabulary (which imparts a certain shaky authority to what he says), and an unshakeable basic neo-Platonism, in which everything is somehow alive. Gems grow underground, and so they are a bit like plants:

“They (as the opinion of some is) have vegetative souls, or lapidisick spirits infused into them from above, by which they live and draw the likenesse of their substance, their lapidisick juice, their proper nourishment, for their sustentation, for the preservation of their being, and for their further growth and increase of their own proper substantiall moles, masse, or lump. Herbs draw their fructifying juyce from the circumjacent earth by thready roots, thereby to sap their bodies and their branches…” (p.2)

Many of Nicols’ stories about gemstones deal with them in connection to heat. These precious stones come from the tropics, for they need the tropical sun to come into being (p.9), and they can induce all kinds of temperature-related effects, either to heat or to cool. By the story he tells, a jewel-loving and credulous outdoors type (if such a combination is possible) might nowadays make a perfect customer for a ‘heliotrope’, on the basis that, being a gem of the sun, it will make a pan or water into which it is placed boil rapidly (p.142). Or, conversely, a chrysolite will so rapidly cool down scalding hot water that you can drop one into boiling water, and then plunge your hand “without any hurt or danger into that water which even now with the fervency of heat boiled up” (pp. 105-6). This discourse extends into more metaphorical forms of heat: gemstones can rouse or soothe the passions, and have major roles in matters sexual. The sapphire “if it be worn by an adulterer, by loosing its splendour it will discover his adultery: and that the wearing of it, doth hinder the erections that are caused by Venus.” (Nicols reports these beliefs, but thinks that the demon Asmodeus must have more to do with untoward erections – pp. 84-5).

Here he is at his best, enthused by the ‘emerald or smaragde’:

The Emerauld is a precious stone or gemme of so excellent a viridity, or spring-colour, as that if a man shall look upon an Emerauld by a pleasant green meadow, it will be more amiable then the meadow, and overcome the meadows glorie, by the glorie of that spring of viriditie which it hath in its self: the largeness of the meadow it will overcome with the amplitude of its glory, wherewith farre above its greatnesse it doth feed the eie: and the virescencie of the meadow it will overcome with the brightnesse of its glory, which in it self seemeth to embrace the glorious viridity of many springs. This stone is known by its apparent coldnesse in the mouth, by its gravity being weighed: and in this, that being cast into a fire, it will not burn, nor send forth any flame; and that in the brightnesse of the Sunne, it will keep its excellent viridity and greennesse (p. 91).

My image is his fold-out chart classifying all rocks: which starts, wonderfully, from ‘Stones are either small, [or] great’. I must show this to my geological society and see what they think.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

His winged Monitor

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Matthew, 2, 13-5

I suppose I had seen this painting before on the WGA, but came across a far better scan of it on the excellent Giornale Nuovo,

Elsheimer’s (now I see it properly) beautiful ‘Flight into Egypt’. The WGA also has other artists handling the theme, while Olga’s gallery at

includes the subject in the topical index.

But I don’t think that any approach the quality of Elsheimer’s version, with the Holy Family benighted, beneath a sky which seems to me to be ostentatiously unsupernatural. It is the night sky as people must have known it then (the painting dates from 1609), with the Milky Way very apparent: but no glories, no angels, nor cherub heads. Many painters take their cue from the angel that appears to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, and add in a set of celestial companions. This Holy Family are alone, traveling rather than resting, and heading for the painting’s left border (rather than the right). But they are certainly travelling South: the Great Bear, accurately seen at the top right, points as it must to Polaris over their shoulders. Elsheimer gives Joseph more dignity than the rather blockish (bald, bearded) senior citizen most artists come up with when prompted to imagine a Jewish carpenter married to the B.V.M. I cannot work out what it is that, held like a pen, Joseph is holding near the child’s hand.

Odd, too, are the shepherds with the fire at the left: that swaying ascent of sparks, and the goat on its pinnacle of rock, combine make these otherwise quite innocent figures look like an allusion to a witchcraft scene. A full moon reflected in water, wind-burnished stars, dark trees, sparks from an open fire: by these means Elsheimer communicated mystery and peril to the viewer. A New Historicist would say that a circulation of social energy makes the fireside scene at the left resonant.

There's a lot of scholarship on the painting: Anna Ottavi Cavina was interested in the faint chance that Elsheimer knew something extra about the Milky Way from Galileo, who would publish his telescopic findings in the year after Elsheimer's work, and Keith Andrews riposting in a long series of commentaries. Apparently Elsheimer would never part with this picture.

Not a common subject in poetry: there’s a Southwell poem on the subject, and I found in Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche, Canto 8, ‘The Pilgrimage’, a long excursus by the poet on his namesake’s biggest biblical moment:

Now therefore as in Slumber's arms they lay
(For 'twas high midnight) Joseph's winged friend
Rousing his soul up by a mystic ray
Bids him his speedy flight to Egypt rend;
For Herod's spite contrives to slay, said he,
The Infant, and in him thy Wife and Thee.

This said; his nearest way the Angel took
Homewards, loud fluttering as he mounted up:
The noise made Joseph start; who strait awoke;
But his wing’d Monitor had gain’d the top
Of heav’n, and in the spheres inclosed was
Ere Joseph's following eye could thither press.

Yet by his blessed influence left behind
Th’instructed Saint the Spring entirely knew;
The privileg’d eyes of his religious mind
Had long acquainted been with Him, and now
He doubts not but 'twas his dear Guardian, who
Had taught him oft in straits what he should do.

Whilst by her sable curtains Night as yet
Muffled up Heav’n, and kept the World in bed;
Into his cloths he leapt, and made all fit
For his long journey: On the Ass he spread
His Coverlet, and his best Pillow (sweet
And cleanly hay) afforded him to eat.

The Beast thus baited; He his Axe, and Saws,
His Planes, Rules, Mallets, and his other store
Of busy honest Implements bestows
Close in his Bag, the treasury of his poor
Industrious subsistence; which he ties
Fast to his staff, and on his shoulder tries.

Which done; two bottles (all the good man had)
Fresh filled at a neighbour fountain, he
Hangs on his girdle, with his pouch of bread:
With all things thus accouter’d, reverently
He stepped to the bed where Mary lay,
Crying, Arise; Heav’n calleth us away.

When She the business heard, and saw how He
Had all his honest sumpture ready made;
Far be it, she replied, that I should be
At any hour to follow Heaven afraid:
Or loitering for the morning’s light should tarry,
Who in my arms my fairer Day shall carry.

I can be nowhere lost, dear Babe, while I
Travel with Thee, who never canst depart
From thine own home: so far thou canst not fly,
But thine own Land will meet thee still, who art
By thine eternal Right, the Prince as well
Of Ham, and Egypt, as of Israel.

… This early Master thus the noble Art
Of Patience 'gan to teach his world below;
To sanctify all Persecution’s Smart,
And make it by his owning glorious grow:
Who but new-born, designed is to die,
And long ere he can go, is fain to fly.

… O pity then thy Lord … who though
Spurr’d on by fear, was forc’d to use a pace
Below the name of speed; whilst Joseph, who
Himself was laden, leads the heavy Ass.
He led him, and although he made no stay,
Alas his very going was Delay.

For on his breast a thousand massy Cares
More sadly sate, than on his back the load
Of all his Tools: what thoughts of Herod's fears!
What studies how to 'scape the full-eyed Road!
What tenderness to keep the Mother warm!
What dainty dread that God should take no harm!

… There did the careful Mother light, to give
Her Son his diner from her lovely breast;
Whom with right seemly welcome to receive
Kind Earth those sweetly-swelling Cushions drest.
Where’r you see th’officious flowers meet
In such a junto, know it was her seat.

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!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Shakespeare Discovery

I am happy to announce the discovery of

‘A New Shakespeare Document’

Cressida’s Letter to Troilus (Troilus and Cressida, Act V)

Editorial matter.

Physical state of the document.

Cressida’s letter, though torn, is quite easy to decipher from the fragments. She writes in a large, girlish hand, graphologically remarkable only for her tendency to ‘dot’ her i’s with little circles, which she intermittently changes into little love hearts, especially in paragraph 3. Various blotches obscure several words in the final PPS, though the half-erased words are easily deduced from context. These marks might be attributable to Troilus weeping.

How is my Best Darling Troy Boy!? I sort of expected to have heard from you by now, so I really have been wondering. Perhaps you have been too busy at war to think of your little Cressida… B.T.W., if you still want to get a message to me – and of course, I so very much hope that you do! – if you can’t get Uncle P. to deliver it for you (after all, I don’t think he’s capable of getting past the guards, so to speak), there’s a funny little man round here called Thersites that you can count on. He does tend to grumble a bit, mind, but he’s a really quite a sweetie once you know how to deal with him. When he saw my gold lamé sandals – you know the ones, that pair with the straps that go criss-cross up to my knees – I thought his eyes would pop out of his head! Anyway, he delivers the letters round here.

Well, where was I? Yes, now don’t you worry about me. Daddy predicted that everything would be fine for me here, and I’ve got to say that for once he was right. I seem to be very popular already and I’ve got to know just about everybody. Actually, the way they greeted me, you’d think they hadn’t seen a woman for years. Though come to think of it, lots of them probably haven’t! Between you and me, I think there is a great deal of (hem) improvising going on, if you know what I mean. Uncle P would love it here! You do know what I mean, don’t you? I mean, you have realised, haven’t you? Well, I suppose most of them have got wives back at home, and I think one or two of the discerning ones have maybe got slave girls at the backs of their tents on the QT. Honestly, the way some girls allow themselves to let go! I’m much more careful, I can tell you. Oh, and yes, I’ve met Menelaus now. I can’t say that I can see what she ever saw in him, but at least he can take a joke at his own expense, which is more than can be said for that stuck-up cow. There, I can say what I like now I’m no longer stuck in Troy! And another thing, I never thought she was that good looking either, though to be fair, I perhaps only got to be old enough to know who she was by the time she was past her best.

I must say, Darling T., that that fellow you handed me over to has been rather pushy. I still don’t know what you were thinking about. Honestly, the way he carries on, you’d think he thinks he owns me. I’ve had to take him down to earth once or twice already. But don’t you worry, his bottom is nothing like as cute as yours! (That is one of your Cressida’s little jokes, by the way).

As for your plan of corrupting the Greek sentries to pay me nightly visits, I’ve been thinking that, as I’m actually here, it will be much easier for me to find Greeks to corrupt than for you to do it. So it makes sense to leave it up to your Cressida, and I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve found some. You know you can count on me to be clever about something deceitf [scored through - Editor] like this.

Thank you again for the sleeve. Every time I find myself thinking of you, I have to blow my nose on it. I hope you aren’t getting cold all down that side without it, by the way. You see, your Cressida does think about you.

Ta ta, and kiss kiss! Be true!


PS When you write to me, as I am so sure you will, try not to use all those long words. It can make you sound quite cross, when I know that you don’t mean to be. Sometimes I used to think that you made them up as you went along to impress your poor little ignorant me.

Send my best wishes to Uncle Pandarus. I bet he’s thinking of a new girlfriend for you already. It makes me so mad to think of it. You know, he really isn’t someone I think you should be spending all your time with. I used to wonder about you two. You were so slow coming on to me that sometimes I wondered what was going on. I know what he is like, anyway, and I worry about where he might lead you…

I’ve just had another thought. If you should ever run into that Ulysses on the battlefield (I know there’s no chance of that ever happening, but I suppose he might wander there one day by mistake while looking for the rest room) well, give him one of your best Trojan chops for me, will you? He was the only person here who didn’t seem utterly thrilled to see me, and I heard him making some nasty remarks while I was talking to someone else that I can’t mention now. If you ask me, he’s just got so used to being the centre of attention, that he can’t cope with there being someone else everyone is more interested in now. Heavens, I think this is the longest letter I have ever written! So bye bye now, and take care!

PPS I seem to have lost one of my gloves. Get Alexander to look for it and send it on, won’t you? It can be quite nippy out here in the tents, especially when you’ve no-one to warm your hands on. As an example, a frightful draught almost blew this letter away at just this very moment!