Sunday, September 03, 2006

Actually, I'll gather the roses later on, thanks.

I have to write a first year lecture on 'To His Coy Mistress', and this made me start thinking about 'carpe diem' and 'carpere flores' poems. This (of course) is the quintessential version of the theme:

Robert Herrick, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time.

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he's a getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And nearer he's to Setting.

That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

My doctoral dissertation was about misogamistic sentiment in the literature of early modern England - all those versions of Beatrice and Benedick, expressing their morbid aversion from marriage. This was fun (and therapeutic) to write, and from that accumulated expertise, I post this (I think little known) answer poem to Herrick's classic lyric:

'The contented Batchelor'

Rose-buds that's gather'd in the Spring,
Can't be preserv'd from dying,
And though you'enjoy the wisht for thing,
The pleasure will be flying;

The glorious Lamp that mounteth high,
And to his Noon arriving,
Must not stay there continually,
But downwards must be driving.

The last is best, for though that time
With Age and Sickness seise us;
Yet on our Crutches do we climbe
Until a light shall ease us:

Then though I may, yet will I not
Possess me of't, but tarry;
He lives the best that hath forgot,
What means the word ‘Go Marry’.

It appeared in John Gamble's Ayres and dialogues (1659), and was obviously intended to be sung to the same simple strophic setting that had served for Herrick's poem. Songs and answer songs were popular at the time, though this is male voice answering male voice. Gamble's books of music are full throughout with 'seize the day' sentiments, but his circumambient culture readily supplied corresponding 'I don't want to pluck the roses' sentiments to his unknown lyricist. The basic Epicurean sentiment gets countered by a re-emerging Christian consolatio.

The painting - thanks again to the Web Gallery of Art - is by Bernardo Strozzi, from about 1615. She's meant to be an example of growing old disgracefully, but can be imagined - if you focus on the rose which she still holds - as a Beatrice who held on to her first principles. 'Contented spinsters' are inevitably a little harder to document. For all the feathers, mirror, and suggestions of (horror!) cosmetics, the picture isn't totally fierce: at least the lady is being dressed by young women rather than demons. The kind of scene you can get ground floor in any branch of John Lewis, in fact. Go it, girl.

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