Monday, June 04, 2012

"I pray you, remember the porter"

My image comes from the church at Wing in Buckinghamshire. This church is famous for the Dormer tombs, which are indeed spectacular. But the gentry commemorated themselves in more or less every parish church: this wall brass commemorates Thomas Cotes, whose life was spent as porter at the nearby Ascott House: ‘Set up at the apoyntment and charges of his frend Geo Houghton’. He died on November 20th, 1648.

Cotes is depicted at the moment of leaving his life-long office behind: he extends his hands towards heaven, and we can imagine that he is seeing the divine light. Falling from him are the markers of his purely temporal role: his beaver hat (which gave him status and warmth), the great key to Ascott Hall, and his staff. At Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, the false genius as porter holds a staff ‘in hand for more formalitee’. But that’s at a place without any proper restraints; it’s always a bad sign in Spenser if simply anyone can get past the porter, as is the case with ‘Malvenu’, the porter at the House of Pride ‘who entrance none denied’. A proper porter’s duties obviously involved regulating entry into the house, but he would also have been in charge of throwing people out – the drunk, the unruly, anyone who had been or threatened to be offensive – so the porter’s staff is sturdy and long, a super-truncheon. There is a faint piquancy about an image of a man who regulated entry depicted at the instant of admission into the most exclusive premises of all.

I will transcribe the verses:

Honest old Thomas Cotes, that sometime was
Porter at Ascott=Hall, hath now (alas)
Left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have
A roome in heaven, This is that good mans grave
Reader, prepare for thine, for none can tell
But that you two may meete to night, Farewell.

Two further possible nuances strike me: is there perhaps a suggestion that Cotes, so excellent a porter, might simply slip into his old role in his new heavenly mansion? The reader is enjoined to think that their end might come suddenly, and that they might meet Cotes in charge of ingress at the gate of heaven.

And the whole plaque says, in a different sense, what Cotes may well  have spent his life saying: ‘I pray you, remember the porter’.

I sought another early modern text about porters (this little project rapidly turning into another unwritten monograph, ‘The Porter in early modern society and literature’), and soon found Ianitor animae: the soules porter to cast out sinne, and to keepe out sinne. A treatise of the feare of God. Written by William Price, Batchelour of Divinitie, and vicar of Brigstocke in Northamptonshire (1638).

This little treatise took its inspiration from St Bernard: “The feare of God is the porter of the soul, that casts out sinne, and keepeth out sinne, so Bernard”, with a side note: Ianitor animae, Bern. Thomas Watson liked the same figure: “St Bernard calls Holy Fear Ianitor Animae, The Door-keeper of the soul’. Spenser does not directly allegorise the Porter at the House of Temperance in the Faerie Queene II ix, who has an alarm bell. He is of course the tongue, with his rows of warders as his assistants the teeth, but there may be a sense that this well-regulated tongue that excludes ‘utterers of secrets’, ‘babblers of folly’ and ‘blazers of crime’ may in part be ‘the fear of God’, Janitor Animae.

William Price’s treatise about the fear of God is a typical early 17th century performance, with masses of carefully made distinctions strenuously fighting against the essential repetitiousness of the theme. I was pleased to see an early version of the academic gambit that says piteously that ‘hardly anyone has written about this topic’: “though many have brief essays, yet few, or none, have done this Royal Grace the honour, or right to allot unto it a Compleat full treatise”.

Price wrote in a carefully sustained plain style: “Wherein I have studied plainness to leave the lowest capacities without excuse”, and some of the most expressive parts of his work come when he uses a simple analogy: a Christian between flesh and spirit “is like a peece of iron between two lode-stones”. A good person may be shaken by a sudden terror, but should recover: Price uses the analogies of oil gradually separating out if it has been shaken with water, and then the needle of a shaken compass settling back on its north. The Soul standing on Grace, Love, Joy and Hope is like “a four square stone, whichever way soever you cast it, it falls upright”.

Only rarely does he forget simplicity: the poor Christian might “oscitantly demeane himself”: from the Latin for yawning, and this adverbial use is narrowly an OED antedating over a line cited from Henry More: “Which those drowsie Nodders over the Letter of the Scripture have very oscitantly collected.” A delightful word, expressive of a very 17th century disapprobation (“was not Ruffinus, as learned men observe, a very careless and oscitant Historian?” – from a EEBO keyword search).

Price dedicated his work to a later William Cecil. Whoever introduced Nathaniel Tucker’s Theophosoi [as EEBO adds – ‘sic’] theophiloi: God's fearers are God's favourites, or, An encouragement to fear God in the worst times delivered in several sermons in 1662 had clearly looked at it, but Tucker himself seems free of plagiary.

Back in Price (to conclude), isn’t “the filiall feare of oGd” (as the heading for Chapter 7) one of the better 17th century misprints - and not even corrected in the corrections? The type-setter must have been ‘oscitant’.

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