Monday, July 26, 2010

'Kissing the Rod'

The OED cites this phrase from Sir Philip Sidney writing circa 1586:

a1586 SIDNEY Arcadia II. (1867) 190 Yet he durst not but kiss his rod and gladly make much of his entertainment. 1628 SHIRLEY Witty Fair One I. iii, Come, I’ll be a good child, and kiss the rod.

But it’s of an earlier invention, and a search on EEBO traces it back to a likely originator, William Tyndale, and that unusual but characteristic work, The Obedience of a Christian Man, 1528. There’s a chance Tyndale came up with this first, as he was such a great maker of memorable phrases and idioms (notably in his New Testament translation, of course). But this other work, once so highly regarded, also strikes me as a likely source because The Obedience of a Christian Man is so appallingly masochistic. Tyndale seems to have wrenched his mind (and the minds of his readers) free from the grip of obedience to the Catholic church at the cost of an unlimited pay-off in cringing obedience to any other authority God might mysteriously have set over you. Politically, it’s a counsel of despair: you are a child in respect of your ruler, good or bad, and you have to learn to kiss the rod with which you are chastised. Here’s the context, slightly edited:

“Let us receive all things of God whether it be good or bad … let us not take the staff by the end or seek to avenge our selves on his rod which is the evil rulers. The childe as long as he seeketh to avenge himself upon the rod hath an evil heart. For he thinketh not that the correction is right or that he hath deserved it neither repenteth but rejoyseth in his wickedness. And so long shall he never be without a rod: yea so long shall the rod be made sharper and sharper. If he 'knowledge his fault and take the correction meekly and even kiss the rod and amend himself with the learning and nurture of his father and mother then is the rod take away and burned. So if we resist evil rulers seeking to set ourselves at libertie we shall no doubt bring ourselves in to more cruel bondage and wrap ourselves in much more misery and wretchedness … If we submit ourselves unto ye chastising of god & meekly 'knowledge our sins for which we are scourged and kiss the rod and amend our living: then will God take the rod away, that is he will give the rulers a better heart.”

I surmise (perhaps unsafely, but I think the thought is worth entertaining) that from this particular work, ‘kissing the rod’ spread explosively across early modern English culture. It is even possible that what Tyndale meant metaphorically was adopted as a literal prescription, by those made sadistic by the idea of the quasi-divine righteousness of punishment:

“You have heard sometimes of schoolmasters which make their boys kiss the rod, wherewith they were beaten…” observes Robert Parsons, in his A discoverie of I. Nicols minister (1581). The basic, cruel idea was then susceptible to refinement: apparently, a father might make his child go out and select a rod to be beaten with, and restrain the child with ties so frail and easily broken that that preservation was a sign that the child had been patient throughout his chastisement:

“I have sometimes seen an indulgent father
Make his dear child, rods for himself to gather,
And then his wanton liberty restrain,
Nay make him fetters of a slender twine,
Sharply correct him, make him kiss the rod,
Tries his obedience: And just thus does God
With his dear children, (if well understood)
Wise parents know 'tis for their children’s good.”
From ‘Upon a true contented Prisoner’ in Characters and elegies. By Francis Wortley, Knight and Baronet (1646).

Tyndale directed his prescription of acceptance of punishment to all Christians. Inevitably, it was a sentiment women heard from men. Here, a puritan spiritual director addresses a ‘Gentlewoman troubled in minde’:

“12. Beware of a discontented mind in any case: yea, be contented to have your desires denied you of God: and if your prayer be not heard of God, vex not your self too much, neither vehemently covet, nor be grieved for any thing, saving the having or loss of the favour of God.

13 Labour for meekness and patience, and be ready to kiss the rod, and to offer up all to him of whom you have received your self: for if you struggle, it will fare with you as with a Bird in a Gin, the more she striveth, the faster she is.” (Short Rules sent by Maister Richard Greenham to a Gentlewoman troubled in minde, for her direction and consolation, 1612).

Here, in Stephen Denison’s The monument or tombe-stone: or, A sermon preached at Laurence Pountnies Church in London, Nouemb. 21. 1619 at the funerall of Mrs. Elizabeth Juxon, the late wife of Mr. John Juxon. By Stephen Denison minister of Gods word, at Kree-Church in the honourable citie of London (1620), the minister deploys this serviceable thought when accounting for poor Mistress Juxon having cried out in the agony of her final illness (there had apparently been some adverse comment on this evident failure of Christian patience):

“was grief and smart irksome and troublesome unto Job himself? Then it was the great mercy of God, to give patience unto this our sister in any measure. And let us not think it strange if she roared and cried with pain at some times; but let us rather fear, that if we had been in her case, and had tasted her sorrows, we had been like to fall into greater extremity then ever she fell. It is the property of a good child to cry whilst he is a-beating, as well as of a bad. But here is the difference; a good child, when the smart is gone, will kiss the rod, and love his parents, and be sorry for his fault; whereas a wicked child will murmur against and hate his parents. Now this our worthy sister showed her self to be a good child; for she cried when she felt the smart: but when she had any mitigation, she condemned her impatiency, and justified God, kissing his rod, by showing a very tender affection of love to God, whensoever she thought or spoke seriously of him.”

Shakespeare, however (and thank goodness), uses the phrase only in a far more rousing context, as Queen Anne rebukes Richard II for his supinity:
What is my Richard both in shape and mind
Transform’d and weaken’d? hath Bullingbrook,
Deposed thine intellect? hath he been in thy heart?
The Lyon dying thrusteth forth his paw,
And wounds the earth if nothing else with rage,
To be ore-power’d, and wilt thou pupil-like
Take the correction, mildly kiss the rod,
And fawn on Rage with base humility,
Which art a Lion and the king of beasts?

These are just some of the occurrences an EEBO search turns up. It’s an idiom which is so expressive of how they thought, of their sense of powerlessness. I will cite two final, related examples: perhaps both were written by the author named in the first as George Elliott, though the latter example was published anonymously. In each, the personified city of London is speaking, first about the great plague visitation of 1665, and then about the Great Fire. In each instance, ‘London’ is made to draw the almost inescapable conclusion: God is punishing you, and your business is rod-kissing:

“…Although I suffer Punishment awhile;
I willingly submit my self to God,
And with Humility will kiss the Rod…”

London’s lamentation: or, Godly sorrow and submission. By George Elliott, author of God's warning-piece to London. 1665

“My Sins have forc’d this Vengeance from my God,
Shall I then kick? No, I will kiss the Rod…”
LONDON Undone; OR, A Reflection upon the Late DISASTEROUS FIRE 1666.

I recollected how in 1988 Germaine Greer and her collaborators gave the title Kissing the Rod to their Virago Press collection of 17th century women’s verse. The end of the introduction says this:

“Before publication we were already hearing shock reaction to the title we have chosen … whether the rod is wielded by the paternal authority, the male establishment, a husband, the king, Cromwell or God himself, women have always been obliged for their own survival to humble themselves before it, and to flatter it”. And they cited Torriano’s Proverbial Phrases (1666), who explained: “taken from children, who when they do amiss, and are punished, they are made to vent their vexation no otherwise than by kissing the rod with which they were punished”.

The Virago press printed this anthology on a paper that has yellowed dramatically: it looks like 1888, not 1988, was the publication date. Even 1988 seems a long time ago…

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