Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Herbert's dolphin

“O what a sight were Man, if his attires
Did alter with his minde;
And like a Dolphins skinne, his clothes combin'd
With his desires!”

A quatrain from George Herbert’s ‘Giddinesse’ which recently brought me to a halt. Editors rely on F E Hutchinson’s 1941 text, and the magisterial but un-footnoted footnote, “like a Dolphin skinne. Not the mammal like a porpoise, but the dorado (Coryphaena hippuris), popularly called a dolphin, a fish like a mackerel; its metallic colours undergo rapid changes on its being taken out of the water and about to die, but it cannot be inferred that the changes have any relation to its desires.”

Here’s a 17th century source to substantiate Hutchinson: “The Dorado, which the English confound with the Dolphin, is much like a Salmon, but incomparably more delicate, and hath smaller Scales”. This is from Adam Olearius, The voyages and travells of the ambassadors sent by Frederick, Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia begun in the year M.DC.XXXIII. … Whereto are added the Travels of John Albert de Mandelslo (a gentleman belonging to the embassy) from Persia into the East-Indies ... in III. books ... / written originally by Adam Olearius, secretary to the embassy ; faithfully rendered into English, by John Davies (1669).

But for all I know Hutchinson might have been, or talked to, a game-fisherman, for the dorado is still apparently referred to as the ‘dolphin fish’:


Henry Vaughan can be tracked tracking Herbert, in the characteristically more diffuse reference in his poem, ‘The World’, where he scorns the world by telling it:

Thou art not Truth; for he that tries
Shall find thee all deceit and lyes …
… And when not so, then always 'tis
A fadeing paint; the short-liv’d bliss
Of air and Humour: out and in
Like Colours in a Dolphin’s skin.
But must not live beyond one day,
Or Convenience; then away.

Vaughan makes the idea of rapidity of change more explicit than Herbert. Hutchinson says of these rapid alterations “it cannot be inferred that the changes have any relation to its desires.” The hidden relation, if we have to find one, must be that these changes are linked to death: the dorado loses its gilded coloration when hauled out of the water. Herbert’s perpetually altering humanity, pursuing desires so fatal to salvation, needs God to intervene to escape death. ‘Giddinesse’ ends with the prayer:

“Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
Will not suffice our turn:
Except thou make us dayly, we shall spurn
Our own salvation.”

But I always tend to read Herbert looking for the satanic verses, for the poetry which responds secretly to the pleasures he spurns so dutifully. Dolphins and pleasures in such proximity suggest an echo of a far-greater piece of poetry, one in which the dolphin features as an ecstatic animal:

“His delights
Were dolphin like; they shew’d his back above
The element they liv’d in.”

Cleopatra’s tribute to Mark Anthony, humping along in the ocean of merriment: “O, such another sleep, that I might see / But such another man!” Her inimitable celebration of a man as ‘nature’s piece’ is the ideological opposite to Herbert’s principles. Anthony as marvelously unrestrained brings me to the source of my woodcut image, Thomas Combe’s, The Theater of Fine Devices (1614)] (Combe was translating Guillaume de La Perrière).

The emblem here is of intractability, and applied to women this time: dolphins are as unhappy about being taken from the water as women are if deprived of their will:

A wanton woman and a light,
Will not be tam'd by art nor might.

With greater ease the Dolphin is restrained,
Then wanton women bridled of their will,
Who from their purpose cannot be constrained.
They are so full of craft and subtle skill:
Well may they boast what guerdon they have gained,
That can subject their wives unto their will;
For oft the air of a woman’s smock,
Withstands alone the bonds of chaste wedlock.

This said, the last couple seems to circle back round to the intractability of male desires (a smell-smock seeks out other women: Platonick love! Say Plato kept a whore, / And lost his smell-smock nose by th' French disease” scoffed Nicholas Hooke).

But, revenons à nos moutons, that ‘dolphin’ in the woodcut looks far more fish than mammal, and illustrates the initial confusion of creatures. But I still wonder if the skin of the (mammalian) dolphin doesn’t change when it dies? Is George Barker really talking about a dorado here, for instance?

What I see, then, with
that cloud my witness is
not shapes of the mind or wind
like the slow rainbowings
of the dolphin’s skin as it dies
but, as though from the cloud
I saw my bone walk the shore,
the theology of all things.

George Barker, from ‘In Memory of David Archer’ (1973)

My photograph of the cruelly gaffed dorado comes from

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