Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The slimy burgers of this earthly ball: Edward Browne and his troubles.

This image is of Edward Browne, a compulsive self-publisher and brooder upon his own wrongs, who busily published his recantations for ever publishing, and generally repeated offence he had already given in the course of his many denials of ever having meant to cause offence. He rushed into print with manic frequency between 1640 and 1642, and, in his self-absorption, was unable to see that 1641 was probably not the best time to put out a long prose meditation on the Virgin Mary. His magnum opus, conceived as a product of his own experience of that ‘soul ravishing and heavenly Muse’, du Bartas’s Urania, was A description of an annuall world, or, Briefe meditiations upon all the holy-daies in the yeere. But it was ‘not approved but greatly disliked contrary to my expectation’. He had based his work on the Church Liturgy and its holy days, but woke up late to how some would anyway term the Book of Common Prayer ‘The English Masse-booke’. His ‘Pharisaicall’ detractors said ‘It is papisticall and to be cast away as an Idoll’.

The woodcut Browne had made of himself is him creating his own image: a scholarly young gentleman, well dressed, at ease with his two pious children. He’s just writing ‘Finis’ to one of his works. Some of his problems, though, are exposed in the accompanying poem about himself, ‘A Phantastick Lover’. For writing was, in Browne’s case, Renaissance Un-self-fashioning, advised against by his employers, destructive to his fortunes, catastrophic to the marriage he had wanted to make, and putting him at odds with his time.

His story is told throughout his publications and re-publications. Sent out into the world to make his own fortunes, he became clerk to Sir James Cambel, who was senior alderman of London, had oversight of the French merchants in London, and was in charge at the ‘Staple’ in the wool and cloth trade. Browne was not able to go to university. He read widely in the Bible, largely for purposes of self-identification, and saw Sylvester’s translation of du Bartas as the best thing in poetry.

Now, clearly, Browne was at times difficult employee. He seems to have left and then resumed his service, he occupied himself with writing his books, against his employer’s advice, and he seems (this is me reading between the lines) to have attempted a socially ambitious marriage to one Rachel Bright. He never names her but broadly hints at her identity. This marriage may have been prevented; Browne blames his own writings: “I confesse it was not wisely done in me, to seeke the favour and good will of a young Damsell to be my wife, by making good Books.”

In February 1641 Sir James died aged 72, and he left a most spectacular will, one which fissured Browne entirely: for it was extraordinarily pious, but it did nothing substantial for his servant of sixteen or eighteen years. Despite his very mixed feelings, Browne launched into A rare paterne of iustice and mercy; exemplified in the many notable, and charitable legacies of Sr. Iames Cambel, Knight, and alderman of London, deceased: worthy imitation.

The details of the will are worth repeating: Cambel left 1,000 marks to start a free school in Barking, £2,000 to the Bridewell prison ‘for a stock to keep such at labour and work in Bridewell’, £1,300 to poor freemen of the Ironmongers company, £500 to Christ’s Hospital, £1,500 to St Thomas’s Hospital, £300 to the ‘poor, blind, lame, diseased and lunatic’ in three London hospitals, £1,000 to redeem captives from the Turks, £1,000 to redeem hopeless debtors from debtors’ prisons, £500 to poor ministers, £250 for a new bridge at the ford in Wanstead, £500 worth of coals to warm the poor, £1,000 towards the repair of St Paul’s Cathedral, and, rather revealingly, £200 to beggars ‘to avoid trouble on the day of his Funeral dinner’. The estimated £10,00 more of ‘overplus’ Cambel which thought might be realised in the winding up of his estate (bad debts allowing) were to go to other charitable works as his executors thought fit.

Oh, and he left £20 to Edward Browne his clerk, among £300 to be given out among his former servants.

The executors must have drawn a deep breath when they saw this will, which conspicuously fails to make provision for his wife of 24 years, Dame Rachel, who was his ‘relict executrix’ (with two others). Then they must also have been taken aback when Browne, torn between admiration and being aggrieved, rushed all this into print as a rare example of charity. I imagine there might have been some thought about challenging the will: Browne had publicised it in all its munificence, alerting all kinds of interested parties.

Browne, making the best of his own situation, makes it far worse:

If Sir James ‘had given me a large portion of wealth, I should have been proud and idle, but being due so small a portion for my long service, it hath made me humble and industrious to publish his charitable Legacies’.

He describes, with apparent enthusiasm, Sir James’s monument for St Olaves Church in Old Jewry (in my other composite image, with the portrait): Sir James to ‘lie there is stately sort / Clad all in armour like a Martiall man’ (with his aldermanic robes over the armour), Justice at his feet, Mercy at his head, ‘Close by him kneels his lady’, pleurans, while an angel descends from heaven.

But Browne seeks through the Bible for a precedent for his situation, and meditates obsessively on himself as Jacob, Sir James as Laban: that account in Genesis of long service and being cheated. ‘I will write of Laban, as a Serpent. I will divide him into three parts: first his head, secondly his skinne, and last of all his Sting’. In an autobiographical poem, he says he was ‘still employed to rub, to scrape, and sweepe’. We keep getting a subversive image of his posthumously munificent employer as tight fisted in his lifetime. After eighteen years of service, ‘eleven pounds is paid my due’. His sexual disappointment is mixed in with all this, of course: ‘Leah was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful’ says the Bible, but Browne felt himself defrauded of Rachel Bright, and that Laban in his case ‘cheated him with blear-ey’d Leah’. This unwanted other partner must have borne the two children in the woodcut of the poet: Browne does not mention her, and maybe she died early, for he continues to say ‘I only want a wife’.

This double-edged tribute to his late master caused Browne no end of trouble. In his Potent Vindication for Book-making, prequel to his A compendious and patheticall retractation for book-making very usefull for these distracted times (1642, 1643), he has gathered nineteen signatories to a testimonial that ‘he did not these Bookes with any intent to dishonour his said Master’, and bitterly declaims against those who ‘say [now] as they did to my late Master, that I seeke his and their dishonour by bookmaking, and therefore not worthy to be harboured in an obscure chamber upon my owne bedding, as I have been this eight yeares, and upwards’. You see, even as he denies, he confirms his real feelings.

Browne’s untroubled capacity for being in utrumque partem about himself is also apparent in his long self-conflict over his publishing. In writing his works, he ‘lost Pretious time … I lost my Love who is lately married to another’, and, what grieves him most, he lost money. It cost him £20 to put his Annual World, his Sacred Poems, his Star, Meteor and the pattern of Justice and Mercy into print, and ‘I believe if I had surceased from printing books my Master would have bequeathed me £200’ (this is from his Sir James Cambels Clarks Disaster by Making Books, Nov 15th 1642).

Browne couldn’t help loving his own works. He planned a complete edition: ‘I did lately joyne all my labours of love together in the volume with marginall note and annotations, and offered them to the press. But no executioner, I mean a Stationer or Printer had the heart to undertake the work’. If he had got his legacy, he’d probably have blown it all on vanity printing.

I will end with some of his verse, in his manner after du Bartas. He’s writing about the creation of the fish in Genesis I 20-22:

“Th’Almighty Father, as of watery matter

It pleased him make the people of the water,

So of an earthly substance made he all

The slimy Burgers of this earthly ball.”

As poor Browne says in self-vindication, Francis Quarles, George Wither and John Taylor the Water Poet encouraged him in his writing. Yes, that makes sense.

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