Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The mutable James Howell

I had meant to read James Howell’s Dendrologia Dodona’s grove, or, The vocall forest (for a few talking and ambulant trees) as a follow up to my last post, but I rebounded and digressed to another work by the same writer, Therologia, The parly of beasts, or, Morphandra, queen of the inchanted iland wherein men were found, who being transmuted to beasts, though proffer’d to be dis-inchanted, and to becom men again, yet, in regard of the crying sins and rebellious humors of the times, they prefer the life of a brute animal before that of a rational creture ... : with reflexes upon the present state of most countries in Christendom (1660).

The narrative line here is simple. A voyaging prince, Pererius, has reached an idyllic island ruled by the enchantress ‘Morphandra’, who emphatically explains that she is not a witch, but has transformed certain humans into animal shape. He may talk with them, for she can re-imbue them with the power of speech, and, if he can persuade them to give up their animal form, he may sail away with them - and repatriate them should he wish.

So, in the immediate background is Spenser’s ‘Bower of Bliss’ and its enchantress Acrasia, and those concluding stanzas in which Gryll, transformed back from pig to man, repines, and announces that he wishes to remain a pig: ‘Let Gryll be Gryll, and have his hoggish mind’, concludes Guyon’s Palmer (his Reason), and they leave him there. However, Howell’s satiric point involves an inversion of Spenser’s fable: in this version, the human state is far more corrupt than the animal, so not heading back for home and human society is the more moral choice. As Howell’s full title explains, Pererius fails again and again, until finally a hive of bees collectively assent to become once more a nunnery full of nuns – which is curious, as they have just been praised as a model of a perfect commonwealth, intolerant of idleness. If Howell was thinking about this (for he does seem to fall foul of the active life /contemplative life divide), one can suppose that a nunnery constitutes a human community separated from the vices of the world. Howell’s more than slightly odd work ends with the bees intoning a church gradual hymn of praise to God. They might do this better if they waited till they were nuns again. But if your fable has bees that can talk, why not have them singing too?

There’s a lot of fun to be had on the way. The first interviewee is an Otter, who was when formerly human one of those amphibious neither-sea-nor-land Dutch folk. He condemns the human body: human excrement, symptomatically, even smells worse than any other creature’s: “ther is none whose excrements are more faetid, and stinking; the fewmets of a Deer, the lesses of a Fox, the crotells of a Hare, the dung of a Horse, and the spraints that I use to void backward, are nothing so foetid”.

“Well, let’s give over these impertinent altercations pro & con…” says Pererius later in the work, having haggled with a former Venetian courtesan, in her new shape as a white hind with a black spotted ‘shingle’ (her tail). Argument for and against was one way Howell, like so many others of his time, showed his wit. The otter produces a fulminating attack on his former nation, so Pererius conversely praises the Dutch, in terms that make you think of Vermeer’s paintings and all those neat Dutch interiors:

“How much are they to be commended for their neatness? Go to their Ships, they may be said to be as cleanly as a milking-pail; in their Kitchins, the outside of their Utensils are as bright as the inside; ther’s never a room in their house, where so much dust may be found as to draw the name of Slutt upon it.” I like that suggestion of domestic practice: that if you found a dusty surface, maybe it was acceptable to indicate with a finger-tip scrawl what you thought of the maid’s deficient standards.

The ape refuses re-transformation in these terms, as Howell vents his sense of how bad things have become: “Man! Truly Sir, I am sorry the shape I now bear resembleth Man so much, I could wish it were far more unlike, for the horrid and unheard-of sacrileges and perjuries of my own Nation makes me abhor the very name of Man, much more his nature”. Into the ape’s testimony he inserts a Dantean vision of hell. Hell is extensively re-equipped with new instruments for the perpetual torment of the malefactors of the civil war and instigators of the execution of King Charles, both male and female:

“My good Spirit answered, All these, except Ixion’s wheel, are new torments appointed for Gherionian Sectaries, who had destroyed from top to bottom all Government both of Church and State, And as their brains turn’d round upon earth after every wind of Doctrine, so their souls turn here in perpetuall torments of rotation … Couches of Toads, Scorpions, Asps, and Serpents were in a corner hard by; I asked for whom they were prepared, I was answered, for som Evangelizing Gherionian Ladies, which did egg on their husbands to War.”

‘Gherionian’ is Howell’s name for England, and he says it means a ‘land of wool’. Howell had begun his whole work with a couplet addressing the reader “If you will ope this Work with ease, / You must from Greece go fetch your Keys”, but fortunately he had relented, and supplied ‘An Etymologicall Derivation of som Words and Anagrams in the Parly of Beasts, according to the ALPHABET.’

Perhaps the best part of the work comes in the dialogue with the hind, formerly a cortigiana onesta in Venice. They debate views of women, and the hind, though she will refuse to resume her former shape, is smartly feminist. She is keen to assert a woman’s equal part in conception, and takes a swipe at Sir Thomas Browne. Pererius, agreeing with her, has just argued that mules are clear evidence of how both male and female contribute to the mixed nature of offspring. She continues “You may well add hereunto that the child oftentimes resembleth the mother, therfore she must also be an active principle in the formation; If it be so, what a wrong is it to the justice and rules of nature that Women shold be held but little better than Slaves? how comes it that they shold be so vilipended and revil’d? As that foolish Naturalist or Ninny, who wish’d ther were another way to propagat Mankind than by copulation with Women.”

Pererius makes his usual offer: “I told you that Queen Morphandra is willing, at my intercession, to restore you unto your former nature, and I have a lusty Galeon in port to convey you to Marcopolis, that renowned and rare City”. But she says that while she would like, if possible, to retain the power of speech, she would prefer to stay in her form as hind. Deer, she explains, have a blessedly short mating season, and their act of sexual congress itself is quickly over. They are temperate and clean (she testifies, like Marvell’s nymph, to the sweetness of a deer’s breath). Best of all, they do not menstruate:

“But, Sir, touching my former nature, truly I wold desire nothing of it again but the faculty of speech that I might talk somtimes; In all other things I prefer by many degrees this species wherin I am now invested by Queen Morphandra, which is far more chaste and temperat, far more healthfull and longer-liv’d: Touching the first, Ther's no creture whose season of carnall copulation is shorter, for the Rutting-time lasts but from the midst of September to the end of October, nor is there any other creture whose enjoyment of plesure is shorter in the act; moreover when we are full, we never after keep company with the male for eight months; Concerning the second, viz. our temperatnes, we never use to overcharge or cloy nature with excesse, besides our food is simple, those green leafs and grasse you see are our nutriment, which our common mother the Earth affords us so gently, we require no variety of Viands, which makes that our breath is sweeter than the fairest Ladies in Marcopolis, and our fewmishes with what else comes from within us is nothing so unsavoury; Nor need we that monthly purgation which is so improperly called Flowers, it being such rank poyson that it will crack a tru crystall glass; Nay 'tis observed, that if a menstruous woman come near an alveary or hive of Bees, they forsake their food all the while, finding the aire to be infected.”

Howell’s work is full of points sustained by such unlikely yarns. But he was, among his other activities as a man of letters, a collector of proverbs, and these help prevent his work from becoming intolerably verbose: Well, I find here two Proverbs verified, the one is a homely one, viz. Chanter a un Asne, il vous donnera un pet, Sing to an Asse and he will give you a Bum-crack.”

Actually, he did intolerably verbose pretty well: the ass counter-attacks from the charge of braying with a long account of what laughing does to the human form divine:

“the eyes extenuat, they half shut themselfs, and grow humid, the nose crumples up, and growes sharp, the lipps retire and lengthen, ther is an ill-favor’d kind of gaping, and discovery of the teeth, the cheeks lift up themselfs and grow more stiff, they have pitts digg’d in them during the time, the mouth is forc’d to open, and discovers the tremblings of the suspended toung, it thrusts out an obstreperous interrupted sound, and oftentimes ther is a stopping of breath, the neck swells and shortens it self, all the veins grow greter, and extended, an extraordinary hue disperseth it self over all the face, which grows reddish, the brest is impetuously agitated, and with sudden reiterated shakes, that it hinders respiration, the perfect use of speech is lost, and it is impossible to swallow during the fit, a pain rises in the flanck, the whole body bends … The hands becom feeble, the leggs cannot support themselves, and the body is constrained to fall, and tumble, nay it causeth sometimes dangerous syncopes in the heart, and so brings death.”

After this particular dialogue, Morphandra twits the prince about his success in bandying arguments with the ass: “I saw you somwhat earnest in banding arguments with that Asse, but how have you sped? doth he desire to be disasinated, and becom Man again, as I promised he should be, provided his will concurred therunto?” I love that nonce-word, ‘disasinated’.

Therologia was a fable about mutations. In my favourite passage from his letters, Epistolae Ho-elianae, Howell reflects on a less obvious form of mutation, on how we mutate into ourselves. He is in Venice, and is prompted to reflect by seeing the Doge’s state barge, the Bucentore. Like Lord Nelson’s H.M.S. Victory at Southampton, it exists as a continuous reconstruction of itself, or as a reproduction of itself. This makes Howell reflect on himself, brilliantly: is he really continuous with his former self, or has his bodily selfhood completely changed?

“I fell, I say, to consider whither our bodies may be said to be of like condition with this Bucentore; which though it be reputed still the same Vessell, yet I beleeve ther’s not a foot of that Timber remaining which it had upon the first Dock, having bin as they tell me, so often plank’d and ribb’d, caulk’d and peec’d: In like manner our bodies may be said to be daily repaired by new sustenance, which begets new bloud, and consequently new spirits, new humours, and I may say new flesh, the old by continuall deperdition and insensible transpirations evaporating still out of us, and giving way to fresh; so that I make a question, whither by reason of these perpetuall reparations, and accretions, the body of man may be said to be the same numericall body in his old age that he had in his manhood, or the same in his manhood, that he had in his youth, the same in his youth that he carried about him in his childhood, or the same in his childhood which he wore first in the Womb: I make a doubt, whither I had the same identicall, individually numericall body, when I carried a Calf-Leather Sachell to School in Hereford, as when I woar a Lamskin Hood in Oxford, or whither I have the same masse of bloud in my Veins, and the same Flesh now in Venice which I carried about me three yeers since, up and down London streets, having in lieu of Beer and Ale, drunk Wine all this while, and fed upon different Viands; now the stomach is like a crusible, for it hath a chymicall kind of vertue to transmute one body into another, to transubstantiat Fish and Fruits into Flesh within, and about us; but though it be questionable, whither I wear the same Flesh which is fluxible, I am sure my Hair is not the same, for you may remember I went flaxen-hair’d out of England, but you shall find me return’d with a very dark Brown, which I impute not onely to the heat and ayr of those hot Countries I have eat my bread in, but to the quality and difference of food; but you will say, that hair is but an excrementitious thing, and makes not to this purpose; moreover, me thinks I hear you say, that this may be true, onely in the bloud and spirits, or such fluid parts, not in the solid and heterogeneall parts: But I will presse no further at this time this Philosophical notion which the sight of Bucentore infus’d into me, for it hath already made me exceed the bounds of a Letter.”

“The same identicall, individually numericall body…” Are we ‘individually numerical’, can we be counted just the once, was he the unique James Howell, or is he in effect a sequence of ‘fluxible’ James Howells? He sees his selfhood as a series of processes. Nor does he jump to the soul as a reassuring answer. In Therologia, none of the mutated humans worry about being soulless (as animals), indeed the otter refers to the Turks believing that we also sensitive Cretures have a better World provided for us after we have run out our cours here”: that animals have souls (and that they obey divine laws, rather than transgress them).

Therologia reads as hyperbolised satire, a rhetorical display of condemnation. But it may also hint, alongside the passage about his own mutating body, at a deeper philosophical gloom in Howell.

(Throughout this post, I have retained Howell’s own spelling. Usually, I lightly modernise my early texts, but Howell was a spelling-reformer, who believed that English would only spread beyond its narrow use in the world if it were made easier for other nationalities to learn, so it should be spelled as it sounds, without confusing superfluous letters. His printers did not always heed his dictates, but the spelling is his own as given.

My images are of Howell himself, communing with a tree, and the illustration of Morphandra, the Prince, and his animal interlocutors from 'Therologia')

Friday, May 13, 2011

Meetings with remarkable early modern trees

I recently bought a copy of Gillian Tindall’s The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in reality and imagination (2002). An odd book, a composite of a biography and a Tracey Chevalier style narrative. In many of Tindall’s fictionalised passages, she tries to give a voice to the women in Hollar’s life. I suppose that one could agree that women were an important subject for Hollar, and that he treats them with great sympathy, never pruriently (not even when illustrating Juvenal). The author must have been tempted to try to bring to life the women Hollar knew.

But I was most interested by her small illustration (on p.124) of the Hollow Tree on Hampstead Heath. It took me a while to find it, as it doesn’t seem to be in the apparently comprehensive (and undeniably excellent) University of Toronto Hollar Digital Collection:

I traced it finally in Robert Codrington’s single sheet (double-sided), The dimension of the hollow tree of Hampsted (1653). EEBO does us proud here, with a transcript of the text, the page images, and all the minor contributors to the publication indexed.

As we are having a meeting with a remarkable early modern tree, let’s have the statistics of the tree itself first. It was an elm tree: “The Bottom above ground in Compass is 28 foot; The Breadth of the door is 2 foot; The Compass of the turret on the Top is 34 foot; The Door in Height to go in is 6 foot 2 Inches; The Height to the Turret is 33 foot; The Lights into the Tree is 16; The Steps to go up is 42; The Seat above the Steps, Six may Sit on, and round about room for fourteen more. All the way you go up within the Hollow Tree.”

This isn’t as hyperbolic in size as Codrington’s verses make it sound. The ‘lights into the tree’ are the windows for the spiral staircase cut inside the trunk.

Codrington’s poem is charmingly of its time. It’s cast, largely, in a vein of high compliment to the tree, treated as a ‘wooden majesty’. From the top of this quasi-royal tree he looks to the forlorn royal palaces, now uninhabited. It’s loco-descriptive, as Codrington enjoys the view from the top in the manner of Denham, especially the section about the distant Thames, and it makes one remember Marvell:

‘Of the height and hollowness of the great Elm at Hampstead.

What shall I call thee who so great and high,
Present’st thy self unto my wondring eye?
Thou Travellers 'fence, and guide, the Enterlude
O’th ranting storms, and giant of the wood!
How in thy summer’s robes doest thou appear,
The Sylvans’ joy, and honour of the year?
How the bold winds play with thy lofty locks!
How doest thou scorn, and makest them but thy mocks,
Deaf to their sighs, and whispers! Let me here
(So please thy Wooden Majesty) draw near
To thy first door, and looking up discry
Where Hall, where Parlor, how thy Chambers lie.
Essex’ Broad-Oak (which twenty miles we see
And more) is but a twig compar’d to thee;
So vast a compass doth thy might command,
That a whole Grove within thy self might stand,
And spread and flourish, and may fruitful add
To thee a growing progeny: which had
No doubt been so, but that thou thought’st not good
To leave out Men, to entertain a Wood.
Art here, and Order do in one engage
To make this Round complete, their Equipage
Extols thy greatness, in less room I find
With all his trusty Knights King Arthur din’d.
As yet more high upon the stairs I rise,
What are these windows which enrich mine eyes?
Happy you lights, whose air so pure and thin
The morning courts to let the Sun come in,
And drink it, to refresh his heavy head
Sick with the vapours of moist Thetis’ Bed;
For which (not staying) he with all his wealth,
Gilds this blest place, and thanks it for his health.
Now is my progress finish’d, to the height
Of all thy Turret I am come, and straight
Here on the world’s Redeemer think, when he
(Set on the Temple’s Pinnacle) did see
All Kingdoms of the earth at once, so stand
The Towns now subject to my eyes command,
Which to repeat the Muse forbears, for why?
The Towns would often give the verse the lye,
Whose names as Churlish as themselves are known,
And will endure no Numbers but their own.
Six neighbouring Counties do on tip-toe all
Gaze on thy mighty limbs, and seem to call
Unto thy patient Greatness, when to wait
To pay thee homage for thy nobler height,
But only Harrow on the Hill plays Rex,
And will have none more high in Middlesex.
And yonder the familiar Thames (the more
To grace thy prospect) rolls along the shore
Her Crystal treasures, and doth seem to me
Softly to murmur 'cause so far from thee.
See how the Ships in numerous array.
Dance on her waves, and their proud wings display
More white then Snow, as now the Thames did carry
A moving wood i’th’midst of January.
Not all Meander’s Swans, nor those on Po,
Join’d with her own, make half so fair a show:
Nor all the beauteous Ladies that have been
These twice three summers on thy Turrets seen.
But what amongst these various objects, what
Is that which so much takes my eyes? 'tis not
Thy leavy Antlers, nor thy shoulders, high,
Though one would brush, and th’other bore the sky;
Nor thy five hundred Arms by which we see
Briareus only was a type of thee,
Arms which vain winds doe twist in every storm
And fain would put them in akimbo form.
Tis not thy ample body, though it be
So full of pleasure, and humanity,
That as to the quick a Palace would be found,
So to the dead their Coffins, and surround
Their loose and crumbling dusts. Tis not thy feet,
To cover which so many Acres meet:
Tis not those stately structures where the Court
Had late their mansions, when our Kings would sport;
Of whom depriv’d they mourn, and desolate
Like Widows look on their forlorn estate.
Tis not smooth Richmond’s streams, nor Acton’s Mill,
Nor Windsor’s Castle, nor yet Shooters hill.
Nor groves nor plains which further off do stand,
Like Landskips portray’d by some happy hand:
But a swift view which most delightful shows,
And doth them all, and all at once enclose.

Codrington dates his poem 24th July 1653. Then there follows a set of distiches by four other visitors, who also date their poems to the same day. I just give the English version of each poem, but each one has a Latin version of itself (again, like Marvell sometimes does). English couplets, moralising and making religious reflections, mixed with Latinity takes us a bit closer to what was going on here among these early modern Hampstead intellectuals:

Upon Hampstead Elm.

Although the heart of this fair Tree be out,
Yet it doth spread its branches round about.

(Roger Coleman)

Upon Hampstead Elm.

As in this Tree we go through dark to light,
So Saints ascend through death to heaven bright.

(John Lee)

Upon Hampstead Elm. Psalm 52. 13. 14.

God’s Tree and this do differ in one thing,
That shall not, this will cease fruit forth to bring.

(Moses Browne)

In Ulmum Hampstedensem.

Here all may see this stately Elm to bear
An Apple strange, which it brings ev’ry year.

T. W.

These writers scarcely experience the tree directly: what they see and do is related to their religious inner life. John Lee finds a symbol, Moses Browne is reminded of the cross, T.W. somehow finds an apple (an elm rarely fruits, and the fruit body is small and papery). We had at the start of the ascent a set of ‘Verses on the DOOR.’ These are part-Herrick, part Herbert – or rather, Herbert will be clearer at the top. So it’s a climb from a sinful world to a greater proximity to heaven (and divine scrutiny):

Civil people, you welcome be,
That come to view this Hollow Tree.
Debaucht Drunkard, Ranting Whore,
Come no such within this Door:
Wanton Boys and ranting Rigs,
Cut no Bowes, break no Sprigs.

Verses on the Top of the TREE in the TURRET.’

Now you are ascended up on high,
Think here upon Eternity.
Take heed what you do morn or ev’n,
The Son will see’t and tell’t in Heaven:
What ever you think, or speak, or say,
You answer must at Judgement-Day.

I think that the ‘verses on’ simply meant, as usual, ‘verses on the subject of’. But it is also possible that the poems provided might have been transcribed on placards for visitors like the lady visitors Codrington’s verses mention. This whole production was ‘Printed by E. Cotes for M. S. at the Blue Bible in Green Arbour, and are to be given or sold on the Hollow Tree at Hampsted.’ ‘M.S.’ was Michael Sparke, the bookseller. So the work was a promotional flyer, but one that has, as we might say, its own agenda too.

Now hollow trees, if you trace them through early modern literature, are places in which people hide (after the model of Aeneas in his flight from Troy), or hide letters (in romances), and they were where early ornithologists and poets like Carew thought cuckoos over-wintered. But a large tree could shelter a religious meeting. Hollow trees are mentioned being used this way in satire (because of the ludicrous cuckoo associations, I think), as in the title Some small and simple reasons delivered in a hollow-tree in Waltham Forrest in a lecture on the 33. of March last by Aminadab Blower a devout bellowsmender of Pimlico; shewing the causes in generall and particular wherefore thay doe, might, would, should, or ought, except against and quite refuse the liturgy or Book of Common-Prayer (1643).

Codrington has another set of verses, in a Procul, O procul este profane mode: we learn in them that this is ‘an elm that’s orthodox’:

‘The Elm it self, to some of the new Religion that would make a Preachment under his reverend shade.’

How numerous and extravagant are these
Thus buzz about me like a swarm of Bees?
Remove your station friends, I’m not so fickle,
To cast a shade for such a Conventicle:
You talk to me of Slaney, How, and Cox,
Why do you vex an Elm that’s Orthodox?
To sort with your complexions, I profess
There are no Elms in all my Diocese;
If only such are for your purpose, know,
You must as far as unto Bordeaux go.

‘How’ would be Samuel How, author of The sufficiencie of the spirits teaching, without humane-learning (1640 and eds.) - the title alone says enough. Now if it’s a surprise to see the old radical bookseller Michael Sparke mixed in with such men as Codrington busily praising orthodoxy, perhaps the connection is respect for learning. For besides orthodoxy in religion at this elm, there’s a lot of instruction going on. In the next verses, Michael Sparke himself, signing his piece as ‘Scintilla’, praises ‘Domino Auriga’ (the name means charioteer), who has delivered a cartload of books to this place. Sparke himself (who would die in December of 1653) lived in Hampstead, and here he seems to be proprietorial, writing about ‘my arbour’:

‘Amico meo fidelissimo Domino Auriga.’

Welcome most learned Waggoner, welcome to me,
That bring’st such loading, to this hollow Tree;
What is thy carriage? Learning, Virtue, Wit.
Here then unlade, this Elm for thee is fit.
This is the Tree, on which such fruit doth spring,
Which made the Muses dance, to laugh and sing:
Such carriage, thou hast brought to this my Arbour,
As never richer Ship came loaden into Harbour.
Twelve virtuous Plants, this exile tutor’d so
Upon this Tree, the like let England show.
Drive on see the youngest Branch so flourish,
That Air, and Hill, and Well, and School may cherish:
And when thy wheels do off thy Wagon go,
In spite of death, thy Plants will fairly grow;
And though by him thou wrapped art in Lead,
Yet Time in spight of Death thy seeds will spread.

Sparke also contributes ‘The Close’:

Blush England, blush, a shame it is to see
An Exile here, to teach civility,
More then some Natives, and for pious care
To train up youth, his pains he doth not spare;
For he on top of all (this Tree) above the shade,
His Scholars taught, where they such Verses made
As spread his honour, and do blaze the fame
Of Hampstead Schoole, I’ll trumpet up the same:
Johannes A Comenius thy Countryman so rare,
For Arts and Parts thou mayst with him compare.
Exile drive on thy Wagon, here take rest,
And all thy carriage be for ever blest.

I think we finally get some chance to understand the set up at the Hampstead Elm. Michael Spark was probably its owner or keeper. Codrington’s verses seem to say that the elm had been equipped with its winding interior stair and platform for six years by 1653. In the very near vicinity, an exiled scholar kept a school, perhaps in the buildings seen behind the tree in Hollar’s etching, which the unworldly and over-worked Hollar perhaps contributed to assist a fellow exile. I think the teacher must have been a follower of the educationalist Johannes Comenius. Comenius gets mentioned by Sparke: he had been in England at Samuel Hartlib’s invitation in 1641, some of his educational writings had been published in England by Sparke, and the Moravian scholar might have established Chelsea College as a Baconian research institute, a ‘universal college of the learned’. The same ideals seem to inform the teaching of this unknown subsequent exile: the tree itself might have been carpentered to meet imagery derived from Comenius, to symbolise an instructive ascent via a Baconian winding stair through darkness to illumination, a Comenian Via Lucis. If the platform on top of the Hampstead Elm was designed as an arboreal classroom, this would have been an idea Comenius would have warmly endorsed, for instruction was in his pedagogic theory always meant to be enjoyed.

And who wouldn’t? Thomas Pakenham, 8th Earl of Longford, a remarkable early modern tree for you!