George Hakewill’s THE VANITIE OF THE EYE, First beganne for the Comfort of a Gentlewoman bereaved of her sight, and since upon occasion enlarged & published for the Common good (1608; 1615) does what it says on the title page (at least for those able to read it), opening out the “disputable question whither we should more regard the benefit of nature in the one (i.e., seeing things we need to see ), or the hazard of grace and virtue in the other” (i.e., being able to see things we ought not to see).
Hakewill set out to write a brief consolatory exposition, but found that the “particular vices, which flow from the eye” offered him the chance of a far more widely edifying discourse than he had at first envisaged, and he went into print with the expanded version.
As you’d expect from a man appointed chaplain to Prince Charles “with special orders from the king never to leave the prince and to protect him from any influence of Roman Catholicism” (ODNB), of the vices which stem from the vanity of the eye “among the chiefest … is Idolatry, which as it had his original from the eye, so is it still nourished by the same”.
The first idolatrous act was original sin: “we find the first outward occasion of it to have been the fairness of the apple apprehended by the woman’s eye, & the punishment first inflicted on it to have been the opening of the eyes, whether of the mind or the body I dispute not.”
When I next have my Longman Annotated Andrew Marvell to hand, I will check if Nigel Smith (that busy annotator!) connected this book to Marvell’s ‘Eyes and Tears’, for Hakewill continues:
“Whence it may be in the Hebrew the same word signifieth as well an eye as a fountain; to show that from it as from a spring or fountain did flow both sin itself, the cause of sin, and misery the punishment of both; and because by the eye came the greatest hurt, therefore God hath placed in it the greatest tokens of sorrow. For from it comes tears, by which the expressing of sorrow is peculiar to man alone.”
The final idolatry is, predictably, that of the Catholic faith, to which Hakewill gives a chapter headed: “That the popish religion consists more in eye service then the reformed” - “Our adversaries indeed, place a great and main part of their superstitious worship in the eye-service; in the magnifike & pompous fabric, and furniture of their Churches and attiring their Priests…”
But fortunately, once Hakewill has got the moral issues sorted out (with this splendid bit of Solomon’s wisdom aptly cited “Thine eyes shall look upon strange women, & thine heart shall speak lewd things”), and adroitly passing by those awkward New Testament moments when Christ takes the trouble to cure the blind, he can digress into a rather entertaining fund of stories. We get the tale of the rat-catcher of ‘Hammel’, drawn in as an instance of the devil’s power to deceive the eye “(I confess I urge it not so much for the fitness, as the strangeness of the story)”. From his secular reading we get Mark Antony exploiting the power of sight by displaying the dead Caesar’s blood-stained garments to the Roman mob, followed shortly afterwards by the story of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester getting the beggar who had falsely proclaimed a miracle at the shrine of St Albans to betray himself by correctly nominating the colours of men’s gowns. It’s a fuller account than in Henry VI Part 2, but the proximity to Mark Anthony perhaps hints that our Oxford fellow knew his Shakespeare, and, in thinking of stories about the dangerous power of sight, and about blindness, recalled these two anecdotes. But it could be a coincidence, for, officially at least, Hakewill disapproves of theatre: “Hither also may be referred, the lewd masking, which the Papists use in their Carnivals, or rather Bacchanals, at Shrovetide; the women marching through the open streets, in man’s apparel, and the men in women’s; as also the Jesuits exhibiting of heaven and hell, God & the divell, the damned, and the elect, upon their stages”. This said, he seems to know rather a lot about it, for instance the “lascivious gross action, which is ever represented, in the French Comedies and dances, and sometimes in our common Mercenary interludes here at home, whereat the greatest part, would surely otherwise rather blush, then laugh; but that they hold that place in a manner privileged…” In a definite literary allusion, he refers to Sir Thomas More’s apologue about pride in the story of how the “Anemolian Ambassadors … thinking to dazzle the eyes of the poor Utopians, with the lustre, and glistering of their chains, & precious stones” (discovered that) “the children playing in the streets, took them for great boys, which had not yet laid aside their brooches, & baubles.”
Hakewill digresses most on the way the eye is deceived. It’s a strange mixture of stories. He mentions many diabolic deceits, as practiced by conjurers like Agrippa and Faustus, a recently reported story of a possessed girl at Frankfort who was apparently able to stretch out an empty hand and pluck real money out of thin air (a simple conjuring trick, one would think), “an old woman in the Dukes of Meckelburges country, who appearing in the shape of a great Mastiff dog the hounds espying her, ran with full mouth upon her, & the country hinds with prongs, and pike staves, fell about her, till at length she being sore wounded, the shape of the Mastiff vanished, and nothing was left to the flake (sic – a hurdle on which to drag a criminal to execution?), but a poor silly old woman, begging mercy & pardon”. But Hakewill also describes common optical illusions and the camera obscura, which he tells you how to make: “The practise is thus; take a study, or closet, where (by closing the wooden leaves) you may shut out all the light: then bore an hole, through the midst of one of the leaves to the bigness of a pease, and cover it with a piece of spectacle glass, and when the sun shines on the ground before the window, hold on the inside right before the hole (to the distance of two foot or thereabout) a sheet of white paper or a large piece of faire linen; and you shall perfectly discern by the shadows; the shapes, and motions of men, and dogs, and horses, & birds, with the just proportion of trees, and chimneys, and towers, which fall within the compass of the sun near the window”.
In its way, Hakewill’s prose has striking moments: here he reflects on the eye not being able to see itself. I normally modernize my quotations, to make them easier to read, but this one I will leave as it appears, as the spelling ‘eie’ appears so much more appropriate than ‘eye’ for the enamourment with self he here complains of:
“nature hauing so framed the eie, as it can neither behold it selfe, nor the face, in which it is set, yet haue men invented for the supplying of that vse looking-glasses, as the artificial eies of pride; the eie being as it were a liuing looking-glasse, & the looking-glas again a dead eie, by means wherof many Narcissus like become enamored of themselues”
The moral point he wants to make leads him into this story, most uncompassionately told to show the dangers of mirrors and the self-love they promote: “I remember I have heard, of a young Gentleman of this University, who being newly recovered from the small pox, & by chance seeing the change of his face in a looking-glass, for mere grief fell into a relapse, and within short time died.”
Hakewill consoles his first audience, the newly blind gentlewoman, and edifies his readership, with a series of accounts of those who have overcome their disability: princes, poets, soldiers, scholars “And lastly for the work of the ministry, my self have seen more then once in this University a blind man in our solemn meetings, making a godly & profitable sermon to the body of the University assembled” (odd that he didn’t switch here to having ‘heard’ this blind man preach). I did not know how the Venerable Bede was supposed to have got his name. Hakewill tells a story from an unspecified life of Bede, about Bede after he had gone blind: “it is a merry jest howbeit seriously related by him who hath written Bedaes life, that his guide persuading him one day as he passed by an heap of stones, that the people (according to their wonted manner) were there assembled to hear him preach; the good old man moved at his speech, was content to give them a sermon, but there being no body present to say, amen, at his conclusion, the very stones cried out amen venerable Priest, by which means being then baptized by the name of venerable, he hath retained it ever since…”
Hakewill argues tenuously that as night is “the mantle of defects & imperfections, and by consequent the mother of union and love; the repose and closing up of the day’s labours … if then the night bring not tediousness with it, why should a day which is like a night be thought to bring it?” But this leads him on to the way that people who are blind can nevertheless excel “in those very sports which seem necessarily to require (sight), as bowling, shooting, quoiting, shoufgrating, & the like”. I wonder what you were doing when you ‘shoufgrated’?
My image is Durer’s drawing of an apostle looking up to heaven, which I chose because Hakewill anticipates an objection to his general argument about sight being morally bad, that God gave man alone “an upright figure of body to the end he might behold the heavens”. It was apparently proved (“as the Anatomists have observed”) to everyone’s satisfaction that humankind has “one nerve (i.e., muscle) more than …Brute beasts, for the turning of the eye upward, to the end he might behold the heavens, and in them … the glory of their maker.” Animals, it was affirmed, can’t look upwards (this reminds me of Adam, Godlike erect in Paradise Lost). But Hakewill explains that such divinely augmented eye control could only have been used properly by unfallen man “I answer that man indeed considered in the state of integrity, might & would have made excellent use thereof; but in the state of corruption the greatest part, either thereby are induced to Idolatry (as hath been before showed)”.