Thursday, January 05, 2012

An elegy on a 17th century centenarian

‘An Elegy upon Dr. Chaderton, the first Master of Emanuel College in Cambridge being above an hundred years old when he died. Occasioned by his long deferred Funeral.’

Pardon (dear Saint) that we so late
With lazy sighs bemoan thy fate;
And with an after-shower of Verse,
And Tears, we thus bedew thy Hearse:
Till now (alas!) we did not weep,
Because we thought thou didst but sleep:
Thou liv’dst so long, we did not know
Whether thou couldst now die or no:
We looked still, when thou shouldst arise,
And ope the Casement of thine eyes:
Thy feet which have been us’d so long
To walk, we thought must still go on;
Thine ears after an hundred year,
Might now plead custom for to hear.

Upon thy head that reverend snow
Did dwell some fifty years ago,
And then thy Cheeks did seem to have
The sad resemblance of a Grave.

Wert thou e’re young? For truth I hold,
And do believe thou wert born old.
There’s none alive I am sure can say
They knew thee young, but always gray:
And dost thou now, venerable Oak,
Decline at death's unhappy stroke?

Tell me (dear Sir) why didst thou die,
And leave’s to write an Elegy?
We’are young (alas!) and know thee not,
Send up old Abraham and grave Lot:
Let them write thine Epitaph, and tell
The World thy worth, they ken’d thee well:
When they were Boys they heard thee preach,
And thought an Angel did them teach.

Awake them then, and let them come,
And score thy Virtues on thy Tomb;
That we at those may wonder more,
Than at thy many years before.

~ Possibly the satirist John Cleveland writing in surprisingly affectionate terms about the (very) old Puritan divine, Laurence Chaderton. If it was Cleveland, his subject’s great age, and reverence for the dead, must have granted the subject immunity from the poet’s habitually vehement anti-Puritan satire. It might also be argued that Cleveland would have been writing not so much for himself as for the university, a community which (one gathers from the sub-title) had been reprehensibly slow to organize a funeral (there were probably disputes about details of the formalities the deceased would have preferred, and the normally observed ritual gestures).

Thomas Fuller’s brief biography of the deceased centenarian in his Worthies shares some of the same thoughts: so what we are seeing is, perhaps, the way the old man was talked about in a University then dominated by Cleveland’s wit: “What is said of Mount Caucasus, that it was never seen without Snow on the Top, was true of this Reverend Father, whom none of our Fathers generation knew in the University, before he was gray headed, yet he never used Spectacles till the day of his death.”

Still, there is either something impish about the poem, or perhaps it responds to something impish about great old age. A really old person is mildly subversive, at least of ‘three score years and ten’, liable to be seen these disrespectful times as being a ‘coffin-dodger’. When the elegy suggests, by way of excuse for delay, that they had all half-expected the dead Chaderton to open his eyes again, get up and resume shuffling about, a mental picture forms of the ageless college fellow, sometimes very still, resting a while, but liable to switch back on to full alertness, not having actually missed anything at all.

Cleveland’s imitator ( or Cleveland himself) then allows truth to stretch into hyperbole, though with provocation in this case, for Chaderton was remarkably old. Reasonably enough, the poem observes that there’s nobody around remaining to testify to his youth, if he ever had one. The witticism follows: maybe the Bible patriarchs would have heard Chaderton preach when they were boys. After this faint guying (for Chaderton was “a man famous for Gravity, Learning and Religion”, and would not have treated Old Testament figures so lightly), the poem turns to its final, rather graceful compliment: the young Abraham and Lot might have thought “an Angel did them teach”: if they could return and incise Chaderton’s tomb with the virtues they had witnessed, they would be more wonderful and numerous than his years.

Chaderton’s preaching had been (Fuller says) “plain but effectual ”. Thomas Fuller includes a relatively well known anecdote about those pious times: “It happened that he visiting his friends, preached in this his Native Countrey, where the Word of God (as in the days of Samuel) was very precious. And concluded his Sermon, which was of two hours continuance at least, with words to this effect That he would no longer trespass upon their Patience. Whereupon all the Auditory cried out, (wonder not if hungry people craved more meat) For God’s sake Sir, Go on Go on. Hereat Mr. Chaderton was surprised into a longer Discourse, beyond his expectation, in Satisfaction of their importunity, and (though on a sudden) performed it to their contentment and his commendation.

Laurence Chaderton’s ‘native country’ was Lancashire, where he had been born at Chatterton ‘about the year 1546’. The county that clung to Catholicism, and his parents were Catholics. Sent to the Inns of Court to learn law (something always useful for any Catholic family under recurrent state-backed legal assault), the young Chaderton switched faiths, began to study divinity, and had then been disinherited: “his Father disliking his change of place and studies, but especially of Religion, sent him a Poke with a groat in it, to go a begging withall; further signifying to him, that he was resolved to disinherit him, which he also did.” Despite the groat, Chaderton did well. He represented non-conformity at the Hampton Court conference in 1604 (though in dignified silence rather than in any outspoken engagement for his cause), and was one of the 1611 AV Bible translators. As the first Master of Emmanuel, he used a network of sympathetic contacts to build up the thinly-endowed foundation. His methods of assessing his college’s students were far more sensible and rigorous than anything that ever happened to me: “After he was Master of Emanuel, his manner was not to suffer any young Scholars to go into the Country to Preach, till he had heard them first in the College Chapel”.

I have blogged before about Thomas Sheafe’s Vindiciae senectutis, or, A plea for old-age. It was most appropriately dedicated to “THE WORTHY AND LIVELY Pattern of a good OLD-AGE, Mr. Doctor CHADERTON, all the blessed comforts of it: and after it, everlasting happiness.”

Among the poems attributed to Cleveland in the 17th century are many elegies, in Latin or English. Some are about other heads of Cambridge colleges, others are highly political and very angry (Archbishop Laud, and of course, those about the King). Mid-17th century England was a great time of elegy-writing, as the studies by Dennis Kay and Gary Pigman testify, and Cleveland was for a while the master to follow. Cleveland himself had the dubious pleasure of having elegies written on him during his own healthy lifetime, by elegists who jumped the gun and tried to be witty on the topic of the passing of the reigning ‘monarch of wit’. One ‘J Parry’ wrote verses about ‘The Elegy made upon Mr. John Clevelands Death cry’d i’th’Streets, he being then in good Disposition of Health’ (in the 1687 Works of Cleveland): “He whom the Muses have forbid to die / Durst Ignorance (Arts Enemy) belie, / To rhyme him dead? …” So there’s the faint chance that the lines about everyone expecting Laurence Chaderton to carry on as he always had as long as anyone could remember were suggested by Cleveland having himself been reported dead, and found to be alive.

The elegy was rejected by Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington from the 1967 Clarendon Press edition of Cleveland, on the grounds that it didn’t get reprinted (after its appearance in 1651) in the 1677 text of ‘Cleveland’s genuine poems’. Nor is it ascribed to the satirist in any manuscript, say the editors, but the poem only seems to have been transcribed in one manuscript anyway. I’d like to think Cleveland could turn off the satire and acknowledge some virtue in a puritan. Mainly, I’d like the poem to have an author, so it can be a 17th century pairing to John Betjeman’s ‘I.M. Walter Ramsden’, another ever-so faintly satirical poem about a revered old college fellow (Betjeman talks about his poem with some anxiety to assert that he meant it sincerely: his metrical innovation of long lines mixed with lines consisting of a single metrical foot (a superb mime of truncation) just sound a bit bouncy, perhaps.

‘I.M. Walter Ramsden ob. March 26, 1947, Pembroke College, Oxford’

Dr Ramsden cannot read The Times obituary to-day,
He’s dead.
Let monographs on silk worms by other people be
Thrown away
For he who best could understand and criticize them, he
Lies clay
In bed.

The body waits in Pembroke College where the ivy taps the panes
All night;
That old head so full of knowledge, that good heart that kept the brains
All right,
Those old cheeks that faintly flushed as the port suffused the veins,
Drain’d white.

Crocus in the Fellows’ Garden, winter jasmine up the wall
Gleam gold.
Shadows of Victorian chimneys on the sunny grassplot fall
Long, cold.
Master, Bursar, Senior Tutor, these, his three survivors, all
Feel old.

They remember, as the coffin to its final obsequations
Leaves the gates,
Buzz of bees in window boxes on their summer ministrations,
Kitchen din,
Cups and plates,
And the getting of bump suppers for the long-dead generations
Coming in,
From Eights.

My images are from Simon Goulart, The wise old man or A treatise touching the miseries incident both to the bodies and mindes of old men, 1621, and, as Walter Ramsden liked to read them, his own obituary from The Times Thursday, Mar 27, 1947.

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