Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Was John King the person addressed in Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’?

John King, Bishop of London, c.1559-1621

‘The Anniversary’ (text after Robin Robbins)
All kings and all their favourites,
         All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
    The sun itself, which makes times, as they pass,
    Is elder by a year now than it was
    When thou and I first one another saw.
    All other things to their destruction draw:
         Only our love hath no decay.
    This, no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday;
    Running, it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

         Two graves must hide thine and my corse:
         If one might, death were no divorce.
    Alas, as well as other princes, we
    (Who prince enough in one another be)
    Must leave at last in death these eyes and ears
    Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet-salt tears;
         But souls where nothing dwells but love
    (All other thoughts being inmates) then shall prove
    This, or a love increasèd there above,
When bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove.

         And then we shall be throughly blessed,
         But we no more than all the rest.
    Here upon earth we’re kings, and none but we
    Can be such kings, nor of such subjects be:
    Who is so safe as we? where none can do
    Treason to us, except one of us two.
         True and false fears let us refrain:
    Let us love nobly and live, and add again
    Years and years unto years, till we attain
To write threescore. This is the second of our reign.

Well, there they all were at York House. Sir Thomas Egerton has a new domestic chaplain in John King, and John Donne is installed as a private secretary (Egerton, beside his hard work and personal probity, could certainly pick talent). The niece of Egerton’s wife is also present, Ann More, a young woman of 17.

According to the story promoted by E. E. Duncan-Jones and Robin Robbins after her, that emotionally labile man John Donne then falls into a state of deep and lasting personal attachment not just to Ann More (which we know about), but also to John King. Being able to give your heart more or less at once to a girl twelve years your junior and a man twelve, or maybe thirteen years your senior takes some crediting, but love is broad, and perhaps it truly was especially broad in the early modern period.

This is Robbins’ summary of the case for ‘The Anniversary’ being about Donne’s friendship with King: “The parity of the partners in Anniversary, contrasting with the inequality affirmed in the same analogy in [‘The Sun Rising’], where “kings … all here in one bed” lie but it is the man alone who is “all princes”, suggests an exclusively male relationship. E. E. Duncan-Jones … argues persuasively that, since the gender of the addressee is not specified, Donne may in the thrice-repeated “kings” be punning on the surname … of John King (1559?-1621), a lifelong friend, with whom his relationship was termed by Walton “a marriage of souls”.

But how persuasive was E. E. Duncan-Jones? In her letter to the LRB (October 1993), we see every sign of wishful thinking, as she promotes once more an idea that she just can’t let go (despite, as she admits, having been brusquely told by her colleague and friend Helen Gardner to “Forget it”): “When Walton calls this friendship ‘a marriage of souls’ in his life of Donne it is so apt a description of the subject of this poem that Walton might be covertly alluding to it.” Her phrasing, “in his life of Donne” seems to me to bend the facts ever so slightly: that striking phrase about the marriage of souls, seized upon by Robbins, appears only in a letter of dedication to the second edition of Walton’s Life of Donne. In the 1640 version, Donne, acceding to the king’s wish that the author of Pseudo-Martyr become a churchman, is described as “declaring his intentions to his deare friend D. King the then worthy Bishop of London”.

By 1658, dedicating the second edition of his Life of Donne to Sir Robert Holt, Walton improves on ‘deare friend’:  “For, Sir, Dr. Donne was so much a part of your self, as to be incorporated into your Family, by so noble a friendship, that I may say there was a marriage of souls betwixt him and your reverend Grandfather, who in his life was an Angel of our once glorious Church, and now no common Star in heaven. And Dr. Donne’s love died not with him, but was doubled upon his Heire, your beloved Uncle the Bishop of Chichester, that lives in this froward generation, to be an ornament to his Calling. And this affection to him was by Dr. D. so testified in his life, that he then trusted him with the very secrets of his soul; & at his death, with what was dearest to him, even his fame, estate, & children.”

Walton is reminding his dedicatee of close relationships between Donne and both the Kings, father (John) and son (Henry). He reaches rather self-consciously (“that I may say”) to the florid affirmation, which seems likely to have slipped into his memory from Jeremy Taylor’s high-flown discourse on friendship to that great oracle of Friendship, Orinda, Katherine Philips:
“There are two things which a friend can never pardon, a treacherous blow and the revealing of a secret, because these are against the Nature of friendship; they are the adulteries of it, and dissolve the Union; and in the matters of friendship which is the marriage of souls; these are the proper causes of divorce…” (Jeremy Taylor, A discourse of the nature, offices, and measures of friendship with rules of conducting it written in answer to a letter from the most ingenious and vertuous M.K.P. by J.T. 1657). 
So, the “marriage of souls” phrase was Walton’s later hyperbole, when talking up the Donne/John King relationship in a dedicatory epistle, and taken from the typical discourse of Katherine Philips’ precieux circle.

Gauging the depth of that dear friendship is hard: in certain aspects of character, one would not think John King to be Donne’s type, for King was fiercely anti-Catholic. (That might initially have been the point: Donne, the former Catholic, associating himself with a man whose opinions made him a good guarantor that Donne really had switched persuasions.) Their long-continued acquaintance became a professional one: it would be John King, as Bishop of London, who ordained Donne.

So anti-Catholic was John King that he was victim of a very successful posthumous libel by a Catholic writer, who interjects as a truth a story that King renounced the Protestant faith and his own ministry as false in the last days before his death. Richard Broughton (The English protestants plea, and petition, for English preists and papists to the present court of Parlament, 1621) might have believed what he wrote, a victim of misinformation or wishful thinking, or might have deliberately concocted the lie and placed it in his book. But it was noticed, and there was clearly an urgent inquiry into this scandalous allegation, to the result that John King’s eldest clergyman son gave a funeral sermon that goes into a very detailed account of his father’s departure from this world, and makes candid appeals to a sense of likelihood. This was printed along with a denial of the imputed apostasy that had been obtained from a Catholic.

I find John Donne oddly absent from this sensational business. He isn’t mentioned, and as far as I know he doesn’t mention it. E. E. Duncan-Jones ended her letter with a fact and, coupled to that fact, a passing remark from a later sermon that she thinks shows Donne being conscious of his dearest friend being in a grave close at hand:  “King died in 1621 and was buried in St Paul’s. On Easter Day 1630, preaching in St Paul’s, Donne speaks of ‘a love … that will melt one’s bowels if he do but passe over or passe by the grave of his dead friend’.” This is striking, but in context, Donne is reaching out as he often did to wider experiences in his congregation, rather than delivering a personal note that isolating the sentiment produces: “There is a love that will make one kisse the case of a picture, though it be shut; There is a love that will melt ones bowels, if he do but passe over, or passe by the grave of his dead friend.” 
To sum up, the relationship between John Donne and John King is not something R. C. Bald makes much of, while Donne’s more racy biographer John Stubbs tells the story of the posthumous slander of King for its own sake without adducing anything to show Donne was personally concerned.
King was an anti-catholic to the extent that the Catholics mounted a posthumous propaganda coup exploiting his reputation. Donne, apparently silent on this matter concerning his friend, does himself have bad things to say about ‘papists’, but that simply went with the territory of being in the 17th century English pulpit. Donne is more himself when saying things to bring his congregation up short, as when he told his listeners that he was a papist himself (and a puritan too!):
therefore, if when I study this holinesse of life, and fast, and pray, and submit my selfe to discreet, and medicinall mortifications, for the subduing of my body, any man will say, this is Papisticall, Papists doe this, it is a blessed Protestation, and no man is the lesse a Protestant, nor the worse a Protestant for making it, Men and brethren, I am a Papist, that is, I will fast and pray as much as any Papist, and enable my selfe for the service of my God, as seriously, as sedulously, as laboriously as any Papist. So, if when I startle and am affected at a blasphemous oath, as at a wound upon my Saviour, if when I avoyd the conversation of those men, that prophane the Lords day, any other will say to me, This is Puritanicall, Puritans do this, It is a blessed Protestation, and no man is the lesse a Protestant, nor the worse a Protestant for making it, Men and Brethren, I am a Puritan, that is, I wil endeavour to be pure, as my Father in heaven is pure, as far as any Puritan.
Donne prefers to place himself between Catholic and Calvinist-Protestant extremes.
Is ‘The Anniversary’ about Donne’s feelings for John King? Even E. E. Duncan-Jones has difficulties with:
And then we shall be throughly blessed,
         But we no more than all the rest.

“The rather unregenerate hint that in heaven the two will not be quite so happy because others will be as happy as they are at least marks the poet’s total content and zest for living.” I don’t get the impression that Dr. John King was someone to whom you sounded unregenerate notes of any kind.
The “content and zest for living” is just too radically anti-Calvinist to imagine Dr. King indulging: Donne promotes the exclusive joy of human love against the democracy of shared delight in heaven. Duncan-Jones also tries this argument: “The part played by ‘bodies’ in this relationship is strikingly small. What will be lost in death will be ‘eyes’ and ‘eares’, the sight and speech of the loved one: ‘Oft fed with true oathes, and with sweet salt teares’.” Here, the critic conveniently forgets that Donne doesn’t itemise body parts or properties in the Songs and Sonnets: breast, skin, red, white, soft, neck, leg, foot don’t feature – this was, after all, the love poet of ‘lovely glorious nothing’, and body parts beyond the face are usually his (‘The Fever’ is an exception, but there the purported illness makes him write about the body, the ‘beauty, and all parts, which are thee’ of the beloved.)
Duncan-Jones’ comment was about:
    (Who prince enough in one another be)
    Must leave at last in death these eyes and ears
    Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet-salt tears …

This language of tears and oaths does not strike me as different enough from the other (male to female) Songs and Sonnets.

But the clincher is meant to be in:

    Here upon earth we’re kings, and none but we
    Can be such kings, nor of such subjects be

This parity between the lovers has to make them, at least so Robin Robbins seems eager to conclude, both men. He distinguishes this poem from ‘The Sun Rising’ on that basis. To remind the reader, the male speaker there addressed the sun:
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me, 
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine 
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me. 
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday, 
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She's all states, and all princes, I, 
Nothing else is. 
The argument goes that in these lines the male speaker entertains a fantasy of himself as ‘All [kings]’ because she is ‘all states’, especially she is the inexhaustible source of wealth of both the Indies, he being the doubly fortunate ruler of both east and west. Yet the poem possibly just wavers towards the notion of their parity: all the world’s kings now compacted into the two of them in bed together. This might be taken as a preliminary to the stronger statement of equality in ‘The Anniversary’. As ‘The Sun Rising’ ends, the speaker joins in the new geography of the world that is now contracted into this bedroom. The ageing sun’s duty is to warm the world, and happily, ‘that’s done in warming us’. The (male) speaker seems to have forgotten the notion that he is world ruler, but joins his beloved as a new world. He promoted her, for a moment, to kingship with him, he now moves himself down to worldship with her.
It is worth questioning as well whether it is likely that Donne would have made an argument for equality if the relationship with John King were his subject. Donne regularly exploited a distinction between love’s adepts and the general ‘laity’. Real clergymen, when they are his subject, prompt him to ingenious assertions of their superiority – God’s ambassadors on earth, and all that other stuff, as seen in his poem to Mr Tilman. To celebrate his friendship with Dr John King in ‘The Anniversary’ in terms of equality would have been a solecism.
There is another angle on all this. By a coincidence, it fell to Bishop King to give the sermon when Princess Elizabeth was married to Frederick, Count Palatine, in 1614. Donne wrote his best epithalamion for the event. Bishop King was placed in circumstances in which he had, as a matter of politics, to make the bride equal with the groom. It would not have been possible to read to the Stuart Princess a sermon of woman’s subordination: to do so would have been to slight the Stuarts, who had just lost their Prince Henry and so unlikely to be receptive to further diminution of the dynasty. Frederick, Count Palatine, was not the prime prince of Europe. King rose to the requirements of the occasion, with a marriage sermon about the worthiness of women, equality of partners as essential to a godly marriage, and the superiority of marriage to friendship.
As I indicate, it was a contingent discourse, but King puts all his theological weight behind it, he could not sound as though he is advancing a paradox or problem case:
A woman is, he said:
“the gate of entrance into liuing. Hence began the world; God buildeth the woman (aedificat costam, finxit hominem: man was figmentum, woman aedificium, an artificiall building) and from the rafter or planke of this rib is the world built. Therfore was Heva called mater viventium, the mother of the living; quia mortali generei immortalitatem parit, she is the meanes to continue a kind of immortalitie amongst the mortall sonnes of men. No sooner was man made, but presently also a woman; (not animal occasionatum, a creature upon occasion, nor mas laesus, a male with maime and imperfection, (philosophy speaketh too dully:) but out of the counsel and skill and workemanship of almighty God; aedificat, a goodly frame:) and no sooner a woman, but presently a wife. So that man, and woman, and wife are simul tempore, of the same standing; and the first vocation of man was maritari, to be an husband. Mulier propter virum, The woman was made for the man to be his wife: so that, according to the Hebrew prouerb, Cui non est vxor, is non est vir, A man without a wife is not a man. Vir and vxor, man and wife, are primum par, fundamentum parium, the first originall match of all others. All other couples and paires, as father and sonne, maister and seruant, king and subject come out of this paire.
Happy, thrice happy these that keepe this bond without breach. Amicus & socius commodè conueniunt, sed utrum{que} antecessit vxor iuncta viro. A freind and a companion come together at an opportunitie, but above them both is a wife with her husband. And the whole infelicity of marriage for the most part, that Iliade of evils which accompanieth some matches, is when this sicut is wanting; when men choose not similes their likes, when matches are made of such as match not…”
The writer of the ODNB life of John King represents these as his general opinions, understands this as sincerely said. It might have been. This raises the possibility, then, that in talking to his dear friend John King, John Donne had previously heard something similar: that the fleeting moment of parity between the lovers in ‘The Anniversary’ – who are a man and a woman – might have owed something after all to John King, from whom John Donne might have heard an ameliorative discourse, a possibility that he could entertain.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Herrick parting, Donne valedicting

Herrick sends a tear downstream

I was scrolling through the text of Hesperides one day – there’s a first sentence that sounds like an academic’s awful version of the famous old-time music hall song – when I came across Herrick’s poem, ‘The parting Verse, or charge to his supposed Wife when he travelled’. As I am currently teaching my special author course on John Donne, I thought I might write a little about this poem, so clearly inspired by Donne. I will quote the whole poem, with some comments.

As Herrick’s title reveals, to a charming or artless effect, this is a completely gratuitous composition. Herrick did not have a wife to write a poem of valediction to (nor do I imagine him ever getting out of Devon), but Herrick liked writing poems, and he is aware that there’s this sub-genre, attractive to him as being both intimate and reflective, which Donne has re-created in a contemporary way. So he wants a part of the action, and gamely offers what he would say, if he were married, and if he were parting from his wife for lengthy travels.

It’s interesting that Herrick clearly understands Donne to be personally present in the Valedictions, writing them to his wife. This is how Izaak Walton read the famous ‘Valediction: forbidding mourning’, and really, all said and done, he was probably right. Robin Robbins, whose scholarship I am inclined to revere, dates the more famous poems of valediction to 1605, when Donne was setting off abroad and leaving Ann. Robbins’ amazing effort to date the ‘Valediction: Of my Name in the Window’ to late August-early September 1599 deserves to be right too.

I’m not sure that Robbins does note anywhere that ‘Valediction’ looks likely to be a word with Donne’s stamp on it. The OED has it from 1614, when Donne thought to print his poems as his “valediction to the world, before I take Orders”. But Donne probably invented the word in 1599 or 1605 (he later uses it a lot in sermons too). It was rapidly taken up, and we can imagine it propelled into usage by Donne’s superlative poems, which I believe Donne did call 'Valedictions'. EEBO finds it first, antedating the OED, in a sermon of 1607 by Robert Crakanthorp. Poems with ‘Valediction’ as their title or part title follow from the usual mob of Caroline gentlemen who wrote with ease: Sir Robert Ayton, Charles Cotton, William Cartwright.

But this is a digression: Herrick wasn’t willing to measure up quite so directly to Donne, and so he goes for the unpretentious ‘Parting Verse’. Memories of Donne fill his opening couplet (especially Donne’s simpler poems, his songs):

Go hence, and with this parting kisse, 
Which joyns two souls, remember this; 

So, what does Herrick want his imaginary wife to remember? First of all, that ‘she’ is ‘married’ to him. It seems to me typical that Herrick then wants to write about her erotic power. This imagined addressee, this fantasy young wife, could have thousands of lovers pursuing her, at the smallest effort. Herrick likes this thought, with the proviso that her desire remains confined to him. In a Donne-derived thought (I mean, of ‘all’ quickly becoming nothing), the very multiplicity of these potential admirers cancels them all out:

Though thou beest young, kind, soft, and faire, 
And may'st draw thousands with a haire: 
Yet let these glib temptations be 
Furies to others, Friends to me. 
Looke upon all; and though on fire 
Thou set'st their hearts, yet chaste desire 
Steere Thee to me; and thinke (me gone) 
In having all, that thou hast none. 

Herrick continues, though, in a kind of mental dialogue with Donne’s prior poems. They clearly seem to him to border on sequestering the beloved, once she has been so reluctantly left. Herrick, pleasing himself with the thought of all that frustrated desire aroused by his ‘wife’, is happy to imagine her out and about, setting hearts on fire, but then, returning to the Donne mode, wants to direct her thoughts: think of him, see him in her thoughts.

Nor so immured wo'd I have 
Thee live, as dead and in thy grave; 
But walke abroad, yet wisely well 
Stand for my comming, Sentinell.
And think (as thou do'st walke the street) 
Me, or my shadow thou do'st meet. 

Her returns now to reflections on how she must deal with all her admirers. Once can see the example of Penelope hoving into view well before the inevitable allusion is made:

I know a thousand greedy eyes 
Will on thy Feature tirannize, 
In my short absence; yet behold 
Them like some Picture, or some Mould 
Fashion'd like Thee; which though' tave eares 
And eyes, it neither sees or heares. 
Gifts will be sent, and Letters, which 
Are the expressions of that itch, 
And salt, which frets thy Suters; fly 
Both, lest thou lose thy liberty: 
For that once lost, thou't fall to one, 
Then prostrate to a million. 
But if they wooe thee, do thou say, 
(As that chaste Queen of Ithaca 
Did to her suitors) this web done 
(Undone as oft as done) I'm wonne; 

Herrick imagines the imaginary wife he is addressing to be both alluring, and young, and wise enough to see through the flattery that will come her way, know it for what it really intends. He makes room for a very standard reflection on how jealousy and mistrust are the worst ways to secure fidelity:

I will not urge Thee, for I know, 
Though thou art young, thou canst say no, 
And no again, and so deny, 
Those thy Lust-burning Incubi. 
Let them enstile Thee Fairest fair, 
The Pearle of Princes, yet despaire 
That so thou art, because thou must 
Believe, Love speaks it not, but Lust; 
And this their Flatt'rie do’s commend 
Thee chiefly for their pleasures end. 
I am not jealous of thy Faith, 
Or will be; for the Axiome saith, 
He that doth suspect, do’s haste 
A gentle mind to be unchaste. 

The next three couplets are all over the place: she is to live to herself, but this falls far short of doing what she pleases. He wants her thoughts, and her bed, to be cold. The bed becomes a Donne-like sphere, and she might wake up to find him – what do you expect? – rather bathetically sleeping by her side. Imagined partners come to bedsides in Donne, and it is all tension and drama. Imaginary Mistress Herrick wakes up, and finds her Robert reassuringly asleep at her side (it’s easy to imagine Herrick snoring with sonority through his magnificence nose, as seen in that portrait of the poet in profile):

No, live thee to thy selfe, and keep 
Thy thoughts as cold, as is thy sleep: 
And let thy dreames be only fed 
With this, that I am in thy bed.
And thou then turning in that Sphere, 
Waking shalt find me sleeping there. 
At this point, the poem wanders off into some very surprising lines. He now thinks to advise her on what she mustn’t do if the very worst thing happens. Suppose that there is some terrible breakdown of domestic security or misplacement of trust, and she is forced into having sex? Herrick does not want imaginary Mistress Herrick to follow the Lucrece route, and kill herself:

But yet if boundlesse Lust must skaile 
Thy Fortress, and will needs prevaile; 
And wildly force a passage in, 
Banish consent, and 'tis no sinne 
Of Thine; so Lucrece fell, and the 
Chaste Syracusian Cyane. 
So Medullina fell, yet none 
Of these had imputation 
For the least trespasse; 'cause the mind 
Here was not with the act combin'd. 
The body sins not, 'tis the Will 
That makes the Action, good, or ill. 
And if thy fall sho'd this way come, 
Triumph in such a Martirdome. 

Herrick has pursued his reverie into imagining these melodramatic circumstances. Really, it’s all rather strange. He wants his imaginary life-partner to be as provoking as possible, of general or even of dangerous desire, provided that she consents to nothing. The only way this invented woman might have sex would be if she were forced, but if that case did somehow arise, she must not take the Lucrece route out of an intolerable life. The poem is, in the end, a signal instance of that tendency in Donne for telling a woman (as the imagined or real recipient of his poem) what to think. Herrick dreams her up, to admonish her. The poem becomes a charm, even an instrument of control. It is like a compressed version of a sermon to her:

I will not over-long enlarge 
To thee, this my religious charge. 
Take this compression,

But it also seems, mysteriously, to have some occult power to inform him whether the next kisses she will give him, at his return, are not mentally directed elsewhere, and really meant for another.

so by this 
Means I shall know what other kisse 
Is mixt with mine; and truly know, 
Returning, if't be mine or no: 
Keepe it till then;

I’m not sure how this works. In Massinger’s play, The Picture, a portrait has the power to indicate the fidelity of the person depicted, and maybe Herrick was impressed by that fanciful idea of the art object as an infallible informant. His poem ends with a gesture to that Donne topic of the beloved having some power of destiny over her lover/husband. In his return, he hopes to prove that indeed, somewhere lives a woman true and fair (it’s this imaginary wife he has in his head):

and now my Spouse, 
For my wisht safety pay thy vowes, 
And prayers to Venus; if it please 
The Great-blew-ruler of the Seas; 
Not many full-fac't-moons shall waine, 
Lean-horn'd, before I come again 
As one triumphant; when I find 
In thee, all faith of Woman-kind. 

And finally, Herrick, dreaming over Donne, seems to have absorbed a notion that your laudatory poem might end most effectively with a bit of a barb. The fantasy wife must not imagine that she herself has virtue: all she can hope for is to have assimilated virtue, from ‘Virtue’ itself as an exterior embodiment of good, or from the ‘virtue’ that’s in him:

Nor wo'd I have thee thinke, that Thou 
Had'st power thy selfe to keep this vow; 
But having scapt temptations shelfe, 
Know vertue taught thee, not thy selfe. 

So, Robert Herrick, dressing himself up poetically to resemble John Donne, and discovering in himself as husband a capacity to be wise about everything a husband might have to be wise about, broad-minded up to a point, and gravely appreciative of a young woman’s power over other men. To say nothing of him assigning a subordinate nature to women: in the end, he is essentially aligning himself (after all this instruction) with virtue.

My image, which I found slipped into my text of Herrick, was drawn years ago to accompany a facetious article I had written about Staines, Middlesex (latterly, ‘Staines-upon-Thames’) as it features in literature. Staines is not a romantic town. But this did not deter Herrick from seeing its potential as a site for erotic mourning:

The Tear sent to her from Staines
Glide, gentle streams, and bear
   Along with you my tear
      To that coy Girl;
      Who smiles, yet slays
      Me with delays;
   And strings my tears as Pearle.

   See! See! she's yonder set,
   Making a Carcanet
      Of Maiden-flowers!
      There, there present
      This Orient,
   And Pendant Pearle of ours.

  Then say, I've sent one more
   Gem to enrich her store;
      And that is all
      Which I can send,
      Or vainly spend,
   For tears no more will fall.

   Nor will I seek supply
   Of them, the spring's once dry;
      But I’ll devise,
      (Among the rest)
      A way that's best
   How I may save mine eyes. 
   Yet say; sho’d she condemn
   Me to surrender them;
      Then say; my part
      Must be to weep
      Out them, to keep
   A poor, yet loving heart.
   Say too, She wo’d have this;
   She shall: Then my hope is,
     That when I'm poor,
      And nothing have
      To send, or save;
   I'm sure she'll ask no more. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton at The Swan, Stratford

I rolled up to the Swan at Stratford on Wednesday 19th with a party of students who will be taking my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course next term to see the current production of The Witch of Edmonton. These are a few notes of my impressions, and no doubt pedantic. As I was saying subsequently to a colleague, if I were directing any such play, my cast would have to act all the footnotes, and the production would last four and a half hours.

Jay Simpson as Tom the Devil-Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer, and set design.

First, the stage setting is excellently well conceived, simple and effective: the apron part of the stage bare, but textured, the rear part of the stage a thicket of stylised reeds or withies. This brilliantly suggests a margin, a wilderness, a world that’s just outside the Christian parish. From here, Elizabeth Sawyer emerges, and the devil Tom, or it is where the villagers conduct panicky searches.

I was less entirely persuaded by the costuming. Eileen Atkins is in suitable grey. I had some feeling that, having come up with the stage set, and the splendid attire for Jay Simpson as the devil dog, the designer took rest on her laurels. Specifically, I thought Frank Thorney was inattentively costumed: too down-at-heel for a character who is indeed a servant, but who aspires to be more than that, a pretentious talker who would be more conscious, in his attire, of the image he’s projecting.

Jim Dale in Carry on Stabbing, no, apologies, Ian Bonar as Frank Thorney

So to the direction by Gregory Doran, which has been much praised by the critics. It did seem to me that the audience were getting the point of Frank – as, quite early on, in the laughter at his ‘Am I a talker?’ This even though that character and his tangled affairs must come as a challenge to all that part of the audience that don’t know the play. I hadn’t really noticed just how close to a confession to Susan Frank gets (prior to the actual murder).

A director works with what she or he has, and in this case, Doran had Eileen Atkins out of retirement to play the role of Mother Sawyer. Atkins has the presence, the age, and the ability. But I was surprised that her Sawyer was so lucid, so wry: Atkins makes her intelligent, wary of the devil when he first appears, gives her soliloquies as steady exposition direct to the audience. I anticipated a Mother Sawyer wrapped up in her own anger, a fury who will bring the devil down on Edmonton. “Be not so furious”, says the Justice to her during their crucial conversation in Act IV. But Eileen Atkins was not being ‘furious’, but perceptive, witty, even low-key.

Atkins as Mother Sawyer

I can imagine that at her years Eileen Atkins has the right to set her own pace and tone. But her refusal to tear a cat made for a strange balance in the production, for a lot of the characters in the sub action are involved in the moral melodrama Ford wrote for them, with much pointing and shouting. Winifred, for instance: I don’t think I had ever really registered just what an extensive role that is in the play. I don’t think any performer could make sense of it all, Shvorne Marks seemed to me involved more in taking up some of the shouty slack left to hand by Atkins’ low-key Mother Sawyer and missed the occasional chance to suggest that Winifred can be aware of what clap-trap she talks.

Ian Bonar had the Frank Thorney role, and has been praised by the reviewers. I think neither he nor his director had really seen through to the unpleasant depths of Frank. He is played as young man in a frightful mess, and distressed about what he has stumbled in to. Frank Thorney deserves closer scrutiny than that: you can see him thinking about murder quite unprompted (as in his ominous protestation to Susan, "thou art so rare a goodness, as death would rather put itself to death, than murther thee"). He might also be suspected of a half-formed notion that once his father has settled his inheritance, he might find a way to off his old dad before any changes get made to the favourable settlement.

Doran’s direction is chiefly to blame. Unaccountably, with Tom the devil dog half-hidden in the reeds, the diabolic insight that (about Frank’s murder) ‘The mind’s about it now, / One touch from me soon sets the body forward’ was NOT followed up by any touch from the devil. This baulks at the clear requirements made by the text. One of my students objected reasonably enough that a touch was an inadequate representation of the devil taking control. But through the whole text the importance of the devil’s touch is apparent, as in these passages and stage directions:

1.      Sawyer  … first upon him I’ld be reveng’d.
Thou shalt: Do but name how.
Go, touch his life.
I cannot.
Hast thou not vow'd? Go, kill the slave…
Dog. …His Cattle
And Corn, I'll kill and mildew: but his life
(Until I take him, as I late found thee,
Cursing and swearing) I have no power to touch…

2.      .....
Dog. Now for an early mischief and a sudden:
The minde's about it now. One touch from me
Soon sets the body forward…
3.      Sawy.
Touch her.
Radcliffe. Oh my Ribs are made of a paynd Hose, and they break.
4.      SD: dog rubs him
5.      SD As they whisper, enter at one end o'th' Stage Old Carter and Katharine, Dog at th' other, pawing softly at Frank.

Doran needs to read the text he’s directing a bit more closely. Sawyer makes the explicit pact with the devil, Frank’s pact is implicit, but he is weak and wicked enough to allow the devil to prompt his evil. Look how his words to Susan, in rising anger ‘So, I shall have more trouble. Thank you for that’ are made by the touch of the dog into a partial acknowledgement of the devil’s prompting, ‘Thank you for that. Then I’ll ease all at once’:

Speech and SD in the 17th century text

Similarly I think there’s warrant for bringing the devil back into our view at the end of Act IV, for Frank’s closing couplet:

I have served thee, and my wages now are paid,
Yet my worst punishment shall, I hope, be stayed.

Who is Frank talking to, alone here? Obviously, the departing Old Carter, but it could be to the devil he can’t quite see, but who is there (or at least, would be there if an attentive director brought him into sight). The 17th century text was urgently instructive about how we give the devil access to us, if we blaspheme, or have evil thoughts.

Did Doran conceive that the play would be more acceptable to the audience at The Swan if he denied the devil his ‘touch’ on Frank? There may be some reason to suspect that he ducked out of potentially difficult moments. I cannot conceive for a moment why Faye Castelow as the wretched Susan, brought in by her father as a corpse in a coffin, did not, as the text requires, open her eye to glare accusingly at her murderer, Frank, who cries out: 'For pities sake, remove her: see, she stares with one broad open eye still in my face.' Did he not understand it? Did he blench at it? Either explanation is unsatisfactory. Elizabeth Sawyer, as the play mentions in passing, was one-eyed. The moment passes from the evil supernatural of Mother Sawyer, to the dead Susan, now operating in the realm of the good supernatural, like a corpse bleeding afresh in the presence of the murderer. Interestingly, Liz Crowther as the mad Anne Radcliffe did in extremis, see the devil, and that was very effective.

My students were most bemused by the end, unable to believe the level of forgiveness extended to Frank by Old Carter and the other villagers. Once again, I had to feel that Eileen Atkins’ Mother Sawyer, going more or less quietly to her fate, was partly to blame. There wasn’t a strong enough contrast established between her partial repentance (but actually it is quite clear admission of insufficient contrition when she says she wishes she still had Tom to help her) and Frank’s lengthy words before his exit to the gallows. The dramatists overreached, and thought they could finesse this contrast, and perhaps it did work for the audience in 1621, ever willing to hear penitent sinners. For us, it’s just another display of Frank’s glib way with words. The more sincere he tries to sound, the worse he sounds (at least to us).

The villagers were all rather clean looking. Come on now, Old Banks is under demonic compulsion to kiss his cow’s backside every ten times an hour. Can’t he be a bit a bit mucky-faced as a result? The morris dance was superb: an adequate sort of dance was going on until Tom and devil dog gets hold of Old Sawgut’s fiddle, and plays, and then a frenzy descends on all participants and witnesses to the dance. Cuddy Bank's hobby horse was a horse's skull, as in the witchcraft art of Oostsanen or others up to Jan Svankmajer.

Suitably unchristian looking morris men.

 Dafydd Llyr Thomas could have been tubbier still as Cuddy Banks, the role Rowley wrote for himself. The scene where Tom assumes the shape of Kate Carter to lure Cuddy into a pond was surprisingly effective. I think the actress must have filled her voluminous skirts with a mist of dry ice, she floated all the way across the apron stage on wreathes of smoke. The final expository dialogue between Cuddy and Tom was rather wearing. I don’t think it has to be, but that Jay Simpson was coasting on the strength of how super he looks, and Daffyd Llyr Thomas was still too much in role as Cuddy. Both characters are slightly out of their usual parts here, the dog oddly inclined to reveal, Cuddy more intelligent than usual. I think they could have done that dialogue with less performance, and greater lucidity and speed.