Friday, December 31, 2010

"They feel least cold and pain who plunge at once into it" - Abraham Cowley faces up to a New Year

Two melancholy New Year poems. Cowley indulges his usual affectation of being afflicted by love, though he’s a better poet when he addresses getting older, the plangent theme of the second stanza, and the very rational fears of life simply getting sadder (stanza three) – “uncleanly poverty”, as the poem puts it with unsparing accuracy, might arrive in the New Year. The final stanza turns round on the whole endeavour of trying to look forward, imagining what misery it would be if we could look forward at all. The poem finally resolves to just plunge into the New Year – the second stanza was about having no choice but to do otherwise.

Abraham Cowley, ‘To the New Year’


Great Janus, who dost sure my Mistris view
With all thine eyes, yet think’st them all too few:
If thy Fore-face do see
No better things prepar’d for me
Then did thy Face behind,
If still her Breast must shut against me be
(For 'tis not Peace that Temple’s Gate does bind)
Oh let my Life, if thou so many deaths a-coming find,
With thine old year its voyage take
Born down, that stream of Time which no return can make.


Alas, what need I thus to pray?
Th’old avaritious year
Whether I would or no, will bear
At least a part of Me away.
His well-horst Troops, the Months, and Days, and Hours,
Though never anywhere they stay,
Make in their passage all their Prey.
The Months, Days, Hours that march i'th'Rear can find
Nought of Value left behind.
All the good Wine of Life our drunken youth devours;
Sourness and Lees, which to the bottom sink,
Remain for latter years to Drink.
Until some one offended with the taste
The Vessel breaks, and out the wretched Reliques run at last.


If then, young year, thou needs must come,
(For in Times fruitful womb
The Birth beyond its Time can never tarry,
Nor ever can miscarry)
Choose thy Attendants well; for 'tis not Thee
We fear, but 'tis thy Company,
Let neither Loss of Friends, or Fame, or Liberty,
Nor pining Sickness, nor tormenting Pain,
Nor Sadness, nor uncleanly Poverty,
Be seen among thy Train,
Nor let thy Livery be
Either black Sin, or gaudy vanity;
Nay, if thou lov’st me, gentle Year,
Let not so much as Love be there:
Vain fruitless Love, I mean; for, gentle Year,
Although I fear,
There’s of this Caution little need,
Yet, gentle Year, take heed
How thou dost make
Such a Mistake.
Such Love I mean alone
As by thy cruel Predecessors has been shown,
For though I’have too much cause to doubt it,
I fain would try for once if Life can Live without it.


Into the Future Times why do we pry,
And seek to Antedate our Misery?
Like Jealous men why are we longing still
To See the thing which only seeing makes an Ill ?
'Tis well the Face is vail’d ; for 'twere a Sight
That would even Happiest men affright,
And something still they’d spy that would destroy
The past and Present Joy.
In whatsoever Character
The Book of Fate is writ,
'Tis well we understand not it -
We should grow Mad with little Learning there.
Upon the Brink of every Ill we did Foresee,
Undecently and foolishly
We should stand shivering, and but slowly venter
The Fatal Flood to enter,
Since willing, or unwilling we must do it,
They feel least cold and pain who plunge at once into it.

Tennyson’s uncanny poem has far less of mind and resolution in it: no plunging forward into the future for him. He can’t believe in the spirit he claims one can hear, but then again, neither can he personify with Cowley’s utter lack of restraint, so it’s just a spirit who might be ‘Time’, or ‘Death’, or the Old Year, senile and demented. The heavily aspirated refrain makes anyone speaking the poem breathe out to their last bit of breath. The sunflower, the now immobile former heliotrope no longer follows the sun, but looks only down into the earth, Hamlet-like. The suggestion of the coffin below in the ‘fading edges of box beneath’ in this ill-tended parterre, and hanging on syntactically at the end of it all, ‘the year’s last rose’ – all these things could not be bettered. Wild, melancholy, indulgent Tennyson! The flowers just die, or have been hanged like some innocent in the 19th century penal system. A hollyhock produces masses of seed: “the seed is of a quick spirit and cometh up the sixth day” (if you collect and sow in March) notes Stephen Blake in his The compleat gardeners practice of 1664. So does the sunflower. But Tennyson resists all the suggestions of a natural cycle, the old flowers have their own sexton preparing them for their graves.


A spirit haunts the year’s last hours
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.


The air is damp, and hush’d, and close,
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose
An hour before death;
My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves
At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves,
And the breath
Of the fading edges of box beneath,

And the year’s last rose.

Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.

I couldn't find a Tennysonian garden today, but took my photograph in some river sallows near Hambleden.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Protestant meets Catholic on the way to Smithfield

The metynge of Doctor Barons and doctor Powell at Paradise gate [and] of theyr communications bothe drawen to Smithfylde fro[m] the towar. The one burned for heresye as the papistes do saye truly and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre (1548).

So, two imminent martyrs meet on their way to Smithfield: ‘Doctor Barons’ is Robert Barnes(c.1495–1540), a reformer, and Doctor Powell is Edward Powell (c.1478–1540), a Catholic priest (since beatified). The sorry occasion was, effectively, the brand new Church of England declaring itself open for business, and ready to do the business, when on ‘30 July 1540, Barnes, Garrard, and Jerome were taken to Smithfield, where they were burnt at the same time that three Catholics, Thomas Abell, Edward Powell, and Richard Fetherstone, were hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason’ (from the ODNB life of Barnes).

Barnes got himself to the stake for knowing the wrong person (his protector and patron Thomas Cromwell had fallen), and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His Church of England credentials were apparently impeccable, as he asserted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, unlike many reformers. Even so, because of his present and former associates, he was chosen as a protestant ‘heretic’ for this nicely symmetrical auto da fé. Powell could not accept the Act of Supremacy, and died as Sir Thomas More had done before him.

These nuances, however, are lost or ignored in the verse pamphlet about their meeting. The anonymous writer tantalized by having a good basic idea: his work, delivered in tumbling verse, is cast as a dialogue between the two doomed men. But an exploration of the ironies of a shared fate in the two different victims was outside his range. The publication date is a minor mystery: the work is mentioned by the ODNB as appearing first in 1540, but it’s only in EEBO from a 1548 text (the work refers to Edward VI, so this clearly is the proper date for this particular edition in EEBO):

“then wold they quicly open the gate

of true doctrine which of late

king henry did bring to light

god save kig Edwards noble grace

& send his highness tyme and psace

to continewe forth his godly trace…”

Despite the difficulties John Foxe would later have (says the ODNB life) with Barnes’ actual beliefs, in the verse pamphlet, he is just a protestant martyr, and Powell is his enemy, a ‘papist’.

‘The one burned for heresye as the papistes do saye truly and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre…’ says the title, but the promise of that oddly floating ‘truly’ (between ‘these people truly did call him a heretic’ and ‘they called him a heretic, and it was true’) isn’t sustained.

The interest of the pamphlet is perhaps interest by default: in the utter refusal of nuance, irony, the way the author’s mind cannot perceive inconsistency, and (of course) the selectiveness of the human sympathy. How the three Catholics and the three imputedly heretical Protestants regarded on another on that day 470 years ago can only be imagined: this author didn’t try. Barnes, who had tried his best to land an acceptable recantation, must have felt he was being burned despite holding exactly the same beliefs as his persecutors. In the verse account, the author seems to forget that Powell was also there to be hacked to pieces. The two men argue, with Powell denouncing Barnes as an “abhominable hereticke” and saying that if he carries on abusing the church, he will leave:

“do no longer rayle

for els I will not fayle

to leave thee here alone…”

But this was hardly an option; Powell’s “holi church” was no longer in power, the two men were both there to die; Barnes to be burned as heretic by the King he is made to praise for having opened the gate of ‘true doctrine’, Powell suffering as a traitor.

The stark black letter type of the pamphlet, and the way some of the terse early Tudor spelling looks more modern than high-Elizabethan habits of spelling, contribute a little to the placard-like directness of the text. This author just did not do subtle: his ‘papist’ accuses his ‘Christian’ of ‘railing’ (abuse against the true church), and the text has Barnes do just that, sometimes with macaronic touches:

“o thou popish asse

shall I let passe

the prelates iniquitas…”

Would a man facing the stake refer quite so brutally to that form of death as being ‘fried’? The author doesn’t care:

“it is wel knowne and now espied

by my bloude and other that fryed

in Smithefild god’s word hath tried…”

Finally, Barnes is given a rant against what Catholicism instills in its believers, which:

“make us beleve on stoks and stons

drunken blockes and drye bones

to be all helpers for the nones

for our wicked behaviour

holly bred and holly water

with red letters written in paper

and to the cake as to our maker

to trust they did us teach…”

This comes on [Sig. B2v] – back over the leaf on [Sig. B2], the printer put into a blank space a curiously insouciant note:

“A faut escaping on the other side of this page the iii. line for drunken blockes rede d[ ] kes bloud”

You’d have thought that rather than squeeze this into the forme, it would have been better to correct the type already set. It seems as though Barnes was meant to decry the real presence in the Eucharist, something he actually did believe in. An early owner has written ‘make good’ in the [Sig. B2v] margin. Obviously the compositor setting the passage leapt mentally from ‘stocks’ to ‘blocks’.

But how curiously unbothered! This was the very essence of difference between the shades of faith, but the error is not put straight, even in what seems to be a reprint eight years on.

In fact, the author is as careless about accuracy as the Bishops burning Barnes as a heretic. Perhaps in that sub-title the pamphlet the author really wanted to write peeps out: “The one burned for heresye … and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre”. But an honestly brutal relish at the speed with which these wretched men were dispatched disappeared in the clumsy attempt to re-make Robert Barnes into a different kind of hero.

Hardly a festive season posting, this one. Again!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three score and twelve?

Just a short one for St Lucy’s Day. This is the 1538 Sarum primer, and there she is on her Saint’s Day, ‘saynt lucy vyrgyn’ on ‘xii i’.

But I was more amused by the verses under the woodcut (itself not concerned to end the year with a cheerful Yuletide, but depicting a dying man receiving the last rites from a tonsured priest. An acolyte holds up the service book, a young woman in a fur-edged gown prays, and one has to concede that the persective of the four poster bed has gone wrong, so that they are in front of it rather than on or beside it). These are the verses:

The yere by December taketh his ende

and so dooth man at thre score and twelve.

Nature with aege wyll hym on message sende

The tyme is come that he must go him selve.

‘Three score and twelve’?! This seems a little high-handed in the face of the much cited witness of King David (as they would have considered it) in Psalm 90:

9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

I gave the whole context rather than the single verse, because verse 9 reminded me of Macbeth, the text which also ha:

“Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange.”

Back in the Sarum primer, the two year extension in ‘twelve’ is the first B rhyme in the ABAB quatrain, so hardly looks forced by having to find a rhyme (‘ten’ anyone could rhyme to, after all). Perhaps it stemmed, rather, from wanting to tie the life of man more closely to the twelve months.

I chased ‘threescore and ten’ for a while: into Thomas Hardcastle’s Christian geography and arithmetick (1674), reflecting lugubriously “that our Dayes are numbred does denote the shortness of them; Eternity cannot be numbred, what ever is in God is incomprehensible and innumerable, the Dayes of God are not to be numbred. We say he is a Poor man that can number his Flock, that can tell how many sheep and cattel he has, the Dayes of a Man are soon told they are quickly reckoned up, he that hath but a little skill in Arithmetick, may cast up the number.”

I liked this epigram about desire outliving performance in Henry Parrot’s Cures for the itch (1626):

Old Limpus faine would live & see good days,
Fully attain'd to threescore years and ten,
Who though from wenching much his strength decays
Yet has he will as well as youngest men.

Richard Steele published a comprehensive guide to the topic in A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction, caution and comfort of aged persons (1688):

“The Antediluvians lived eight or nine hundred years. Those which were born after the Flood, did scarce live half so long; for Arphaxad, who was born after it, lived but 440 years, Gen 11. 13. And in the time of Peleg his Grand-child, the Age of man was shrunk half in half shorter; he lived only 239 years, Gen. 11. 21. And in the Age of Nahor, great Grand-child to Peleg, it fell to 150. Gen. 11. 25. And so the ordinary term of mans life was by degrees curtail'd, that in Moses time, the dayes of his years were reckon'd at threescore years and ten…

And the formula appears reliably often in comic drama, as when Old Gerald announces his plans to marry a fifteen year old in that excellent farceur Edward Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist:
The Sham Doctor (1697):


No Sir, if you had been contemporary with the Patriarchs, you had been counted now a very youth, but in this short-liv'd age we live in, Sir, you are, as one may say, worn to the stumps.

Old Gerald.

Hold your prating; Threescore is mans ripe Age.


Yes, and his rotten Age too; but you, if I mistake not, are threescore and ten.

Old Gerald.

No more of Age: 'Tis a thing never to be inquired into, but when you are buying Horses.


How? Not in Marriage Sir.

Old Gerald.

Not if a man be very rich.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I have ended the teaching term with a session on Donne’s Anniversaries, a trial of endurance alleviated for the students only by a dole of sherry and mince pie. Preparing the session led me to look for works of the same kind, and so I found my way to the mournful (sorry!) The honour of vertue. Or the monument erected by the sorowfull husband, and the epitaphes annexed by learned and worthy men, to the immortall memory of that worthy gentle-woman Mrs Elizabeth Crashawe (1620).

The situation here was all too typical: a godly young wife, dying in giving birth to her first child. But it wasn’t, in the main, the anniversaries of Donne that I was reminded of, but his verse epistle ‘To Mr Tilman, after he had taken orders’, with its candid address to the social status of the clergyman in a society which, while officially giving the church the greatest respect, evidently never forgot birth and social rank when it came to the individual cleric.

For Mistress Crashaw was a ‘gentlewoman’, as the memorial pamphlet says in its title. The little publication, its type carefully set out in places like the carving of a memorial inscription, can be thought of as a substitute for the canopied tomb her status would have secured, had she not married down, to a clergyman, a widower of twice her years.

The pamphlet repeated mentions this signal act of virtue. The funeral sermon of Doctor James Ussher (no less) is paraphrased, and it enumerated her virtues:

“2. Being yong, faire, comely, brought up as a Gentlewoman, in musicke, dancing, and like to be of great estate, and therefore much sought after by yong gallants, and rich heires, and good jointures offered, yet she chose a divine, twise her own age. 3 Her extraordinary love and almost strange affection to her husband, expressed in such excellent and well tempered passages of kindnesse, as is too rare to find in one of her age, person, and parts…”

…. “6. her husbands discretion being questioned by some, for such a choice; and it being the common conceit, that by this marriage they had lost a good Preacher: contrariwise her comeliness in attire, and excellencie of behaviour graced him everywhere; and her zeale in religion, her kindnesse to him, her care of his health, and her honorable estimation of his profession, encouraged him to do more than he ever he did…”

Or, among the elegies, my near namesake ‘R. Boothe of Cantab’ (wrong University, though) similarly cannot quite get over the choice she made:

“Religion was her soules delight,

Good workes her Recreations were

To’th’poor as free as aire and light,

That shedd their comforts everywhere.

Young, faire, wise, comely, yet refus’d

Both youth and braveries golden Rayes

And dubble her owne age she chus’d,

With a Divine to spend her dayes…”

Altogether, the tributes paid to Elizabeth Crashaw give an impression of the godly rallying round. William Crashaw the husband had been, rather hearteningly, chosen by the ‘Rara avis in terris’ (‘CW of the Inner Temple’, writing in Latin and English, actually uses the Juvenalian phrase). God had taken her away, and maybe there’s a slight insecurity behind their effusions – the very best go first, they affirm, anxious not to suggest that those whose marriages flout the social rank God had seen fit to place them in are also susceptible to an early departure.

But in the end the longest elegy in the book did look like the work of a writer who had read the Anniversaries. The italicized first couplet in the quotation below is repeated a later points, as though Donne’s ‘She, she is dead, when thou knowest this’ couplets were being imitated. The poem is impersonal, unsigned, but it might conceivably be by her husband: its extra length makes it prominent, and the writer appears really worried about his grief. Here are some extracts, with a few comments:

‘An elegie, or mournefull meditation upon the uncertainty, and vanity of this life, occasioned upon the untimely and deplorable death of that thrice worthy Gentlewoman Mistress Elizabeth Crashawe: of whom the world was not worthy.’

O Earth, Earth Earth, O all mortality,

Know God is just, and thou mere vanity:

Fooles talke of fortune, lotts, misgiving, chance,

Fooles talke of dreames, and of the fayryes dance:

Trippings of horses, bleeding at the nose,

Itching of elbowes, and rat eaten hose

Tingling of eares, and crosseing of a Hare,

Sparkling of fire, and changing of the ayre…

~ an unexpected opening. The author is talking about all the things we foolishly attend to instead of hearing the truth. I suppose having your hose eaten by rats was as good a token of misfortune as any, but I’d never heard of it before.

He turns on astrologers:

Fooles cast their figures, and believe that true,

And only that which their lewd schem doth shew…

Andhe moralises about our propensity for false worship:

Nothing in earth so deepe, in heaven so high,

But serves for some kinde of Idolatry…

The central consolatory part of the elegy depends on the bare comforts of a cliché:

Oh learne the best go first, the worse remaine

Here rests that Rare One, whose life and death do show

The truth of this to all, that troth will know

Her yeares so few, her virtues were so many…

Her time was short, the longer is her rest,

God takes them soonest whom he loveth best:

For he that’s borne too day, and dyes to morrow

Looseth some dayes of joy, but yeares of sorrow…

A more interesting passage follows, in which the writer expresses his feeling that more of the good are dyin - ‘good Prince Henry’ initiated this unfortunate trend in 1612:

Aske and observe: observe with admiration,

Since good Prince Henry great hope of our nation:

Chang’d this dull kingdom for a shining crown

How many which then stood, are now falne downe

Observe not that alone but this as most,

What they have beene, which since this land hath lost.

What they were like to prove, what need may be,

Of such, in some points which this land may see…

~ the language falters, the writer hardly seems able to say outright what he really means, but the gist of it is clear enough: God is punishing the nation by taking away those the nation needs. There’s some political point at the back of this, one suspects. He continues - and in the following lines his own consolations, as offered earlier in the elegy, are now rejected

Happy those soules (per’anter some may say)

Whose happy lott was first to flie away:

I say not so, I wish it were not so,

Sorrow and griefe may utter too much woe…

Again, he seems disconcerted to be out on a limb like this, and apologetically offers his theory as to what is going on. The hand of God is in these deaths, and that means the worst, God’s anger (he hopes he is wrong):

But sure I am, Gods scourges there are shaken

Whence in short time so many good are taken

And yet it may be I doe err in this,

I thinke I may and pray my feares may misse…

William Crashaw’s little volume in tribute to his beloved young wife, who so cruelly lost her life in delivering one, ends with words assigned to her from the here-beyond, and a return of the usual consolation. It’s in three distiches:

‘HER Answere to them all.’

It is not I that dye, I doe but leave an Inne,

Where harbored was with me, against my will, much sinne:

It is not I that dye, I doe but now begin,

Into aeternal life by death to enter in.

Why mourne you then for me deere Husband, friends and kin

Lament you when I lose, why weepe you, when I win.

Even so, all was not well with this little community of the godly. James Ussher, soon to be made a bishop by the King, had preached at the funeral taking a text from the first book of Samuel, chapter 4 (his text was verse 20, but the context would have been important and understood):

17And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.

18And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

19And his daughter in law, Phinehas' wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her.

20And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it.

21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…

The text chosen was perhaps gloomy enough to have been offensive in anyone else but a revered scholar-cleric, though the godly present in such large numbers at the funeral (“At which Sermon and Funerall was present one of the greatest Assemblies that was ever seene in mans memorie at the burial of any private person. This Text, His Sermon, and that Spectacle, made many a heavy heart, and such a Churchfull of weeping eyes as have beene seldome seen”) would have known their Bibles well enough to understand beyond the text its general context, the lament that ‘the glory is departed’.

I am fairly sure that one could now guess the name of the posthumous child: it would surely have been ‘Ichabod Crashaw’.