J. A. Rivers, who wrote Devout rhapsodies and published it in 1647, was not an anomalous 17th century man with two Christian names, but a Catholic priest and one time Jesuit, John Abbott, who had operated (among other aliases) as John Rivers.
As the ODNB entry on him says, “Abbot is best-known today for his poems about the war in heaven and the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve contained in his Devout Rhapsodies … poems which have been seen as significant contemporary English anticipations of Milton’s Paradise Lost.”
The biographer here refers to plural ‘poems’, as does Abbott’s title, but Abbott also writes about the 1647 publication as ‘this poeme’. ‘Rhapsodies’ points to the digressive and genre-blurring manner of the nine verse ‘sermons’ which make up the work, as Abbott switches between a double fall narrative (Lucifer and mankind), passages of dialogue, moral reflection, satire, and bitter personal experience.
The intermittent resemblances to Milton are indeed surprising. Here, Lucifer tells Eve that she just has to eat the forbidden fruit:
“Behold that goodly Apple, take and eat,
‘The choice of Paradise, delicious meat;
‘This will bestow an immortality,
‘And make you sharers in the Deity.
‘God knows this well, therefore least you should be,
‘Partners with him, he has forbid this Tree.”
The liquorish Woman eyes, and eyes again
The Apple; sees it lovely and would fain
Pluck it, but fears: at last demurreth so;
“If not for use, why did this apple grow?
‘What Aromatic smell? how smooth the skin,
‘And gay? Can any poison lurk within?
‘No sure: God in forbidding has some end,
‘That’s envious, I’le believe my speckled friend;
‘Who gives the world to roam in, and excludes
‘But the least corner, all his gifts deludes,
‘And pens you in a prison. All the trees
‘Of Eden are but toys; forbidding these
‘Choice fruits, what gave God when he gave command,
‘Ore fishes, fouls of th’air, beasts of the land?
‘And then forsooth to say, dare not once touch
‘This Apple; bounty is not valued much,
‘Hedg’d in with limits: I had rather have,
‘What he exempts, then all the rest he gave,
I love her comment about going along with the snake, “I’le believe my speckled friend” – and exactly like Milton is the ready supply of cogent reasons for eating the forbidden fruit that Eve produces, with her the fatal assertion that true liberty admits no restriction: “Who gives the world to roam in, and excludes / But the least corner, all his gifts deludes, / And pens you in a prison”.
Eden becoming a prison because it has just the one restriction touches on Abbott’s most heartfelt subject. Imprisoned in 1637, Abbott spent the last thirteen years of his life in Newgate, dying there in 1650. His poem was written in prison, as he explains in the address to the reader:
“Being for many yeares detained in a miserable and chargable Prison, to divert my minde from too serious thoughts of publick and private calamities, made me undertake this imployment.”
In prison, Abbott had books and any small comforts stolen from him by his captors, cruelties that remind him, in both this epistle and the poem, of the Biblical prohibition against boiling a lamb in its own mother’s milk: there have to be limits to outrage. In a passage which contains a certain amount of inherent tension, Lucifer being placed in Hell after his rebellion against God leads Abbott on to general reflections on prison always corrupting its miserable inhabitants, and how any prison is an image of hell:
But that grand Traitor, Lucifer, what’s done
With him? doe not the conquerors sit upon
The manner of his chastisement? who lead
The dance in this Rebellion, was the head
Plotter, and actor in the treason, shall
Be more severely punished then all
The minor Devils; and one clause they add
To th’rest of’s torments, that makes him stark mad:
Namely, that he who would so high have flown,
With wings of pride, even to Jehovah’s throne,
In a deep dungeon, shut eternally,
Shall a confined slave and prisoner lye.
A hole his goal furthest from Heaven to show,
That as transgressions so must penance go.
The other Fiends have the vast Air and Seas,
And land to range in whensoere they please:
But their great Monarch must in fetters tied,
In lowest Hell perpetually abide.
And this was the first prison made for sin,
A pattern to torment Delinquents in:
Yet no confinements, Fetters, Bolts, and Gives,
Can make the damned wretches mend their lives.
Sure the strange qualities of Alpheus streams,
Are idle Poets or Historians dreams.
How he though disemboguing in the Maine,
Yet midst the brine his sweetness can retain;
Debt, and transgression are conducent gins,
To Prisons, Prisons Colleges of sins.
The noble Sciences profest, and chief
Arts taught, are of the Drunkard, Whore and Thief,
Who were in knavery Freshmen, coming here,
Shall proceed learned Graduates in one year.
Behold the Galleys, and a Prison view,
And they shall fully represent to you
What’s done in Hell; blaspheming every where,
Continual torments, yet they curse and swear
Amidst those torments: Boat-swains, Goalers are,
The Furies that torment 'em and their fare,
Biscuit, Tobacco; trickling tears must serve
To make their meat go down: else let 'em sterve,
What then? too many care no more when half
Are starv’d then Butchers when they kill a Calf.
A Prison’s like the cruel Martichore,
Or Hell it self, still seeking to devour,
It’s always taking, the least favour must
Be dearly bought, nor can you go on trust.
Sweat, labour, for some Goalers, a good turn,
Is never thought of in the following morn.
Best courtesy’s done to them are but their due,
And what’s their Office must be sold to you
French imposts, Spanish taxes are not hard,
If to th’exactions of a Goal compar’d.
Yet heavens forbid all Keepers should be such,
I know some gently bred, who will not grutch
To doe a favour gratis, know the same
Fortune that oretakes others, is not lame,
But may oretake themselves, and they may be,
Their fellow-prisoners in Captivity:
Know what a sin it is, to boil the lamb,
Ith’ milk and sight of the afflicted dam…
Poor Abbott, having to pull himself up short, and put in a passage about the gentler prison keepers, who show some fellow feeling with their captives! Prison as a University where vice is learned was a moral or satiric topic before Abbott. The ever-insensitive John Taylor, writing a mock-encomium that appears to be serious about the benefits of prison alludes to the notion as a false one:
That Jails should be, there is Law, sense and reason,
To punish Bawdry, Cheating, Theft and Treason,
Though some against them have invective bin,
And cal’d a Jail a magazine of sin,
An University of Villainy,
An Academy of foul blasphemy,
A sink of drunkenness, a den of Thieves,
A Treasury for Sergeants and for Shreeves,
A Mint for Bailiffs, Marshall’s men and Jailors,
Who live by losses of captiv’d bewailers:
A Nurse of Roguery, and an earthly hell,
Where Devils or Jailers in men’s shapes doe dwell:
But I am quite contrary to all this…
(The praise and vertue of a iayle, and iaylers With the most excellent mysterie, and necessary vse of all sorts of hanging 1623)
I must check Milton editors on Alpheus, here a river not turned brackish when it flows into the sea, a miraculous resistance to losing purity. I wonder what poor Abbott wasn’t saying explicitly about himself?