Thursday, July 16, 2009

March 31st, the festival day of Macbeth

Simon Sheppard is one of the few mid 17th century humourists who remain funny. Saturated in the media in which he worked (ephemeral print journals, prognostications and other pamphlets), Sheppard was an accurate parodist of others’ prose styles, inventive at producing his own absurdities, and adopted a winningly self-deprecating persona (he is usually poor and hung-over). His politics seem to be conservative, but he never seems to write with real animosity about contemporary issues or personalities.

In 1653, 54 and 55 he published (alongside his usual stream of newsletters) three parodic prognostications, Merlinus Anonymus.

My first image is of two of the absurd monthly charts from his prognostication for 1654. In place of the usual feasts and festival days, which would normally feature traditional names like Swithun, Valentine, ‘The 7 Sleepers’, Sheppard fills a column with wildly incongruous names, ‘martyrs quite forgotten by Fox’, as he puts it. Among them are the festivals of Macbeth, Othello (‘Moor of Venice’) and Venus and Adonis. He then, in the next column, gives a silly weather forecast, and finally a ‘micro chron[icle]’, which memorialises a sequence of completely trivial occurrences (‘Mr. E.R. wip’d of his nose with his handkerchief’) with the precise date of these striking non-events.

Sheppard was quite capable of writing well: in his mock prognostication for April 1653: “The JESUITS this month are like Apricoks, (formerly) here and there one succour’d in a great mans House, which cost him dear, now you may have them for nothing in every cottage…”

But Sheppard was probably filling paper at great speed, and his productions are full of unacknowledged quotations. The 1653 and 1654 mock prognostications are seamed throughout with large extracts from John Donne – satires, verse epistles, and the anniversaries, even the mock commendation in verse of Thomas Coryate. The lower part of my image is from his ‘General Prognostication for the year 1653’ in Merlinus Anonymus, where Donne’s 4th Satire, which he first quotes in verse, is turned into prose – Donne’s encounter with the libellous courtier is turned into a meeting with the astrologer Nicholas Culpepper.

It is hard to ascertain the status of these extracts. Sheppard acknowledges none of the lines as being by Donne. Whether readers were meant to recognise them as wittily chosen, or take them to be Sheppard’s own effusions is uncertain. By the 1654 prognostication, Sheppard is lifting quotations from other literary sources, and slotting them around his charts: bits of Thomas Lodge’s satires, Fanshawe’s translation of Il Pastor Fido: a set of verses about money ruling the world, and literary endeavour too, comes from Thomas Randolph’s play, Hey for Honesty!:

Did not Will Summers break his wind for thee,

And Shakespeare therfor writ his comedy:

All things acknowledge the vast power divine,

(Great God of money) whose most powerful shine

Gives motion life, day rises with thy sight

Thy setting though at noon, makes night.

Sole Catholick cause of what we feel, or see

All in this all, are but th’effects of thee.

Sheppard too was writing for money, and probably didn’t care what people thought.

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