Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Itch of Learning

I ought to be forging ahead marking essays (thirty-odd first year students falling over themselves in an effort to sound like Emeritus Professors of Literature while discussing any two of Milton’s sonnets). Instead, I have been reading every Renaissance flea poem on the LION database. If someone has to do it, then why shouldn't that someone be me? As I pottered, the project shaped up into another of my visionary critical studies. Primo Levi would be my guide (because of his essay, ‘The Leap of the Flea’: “only a few decades ago [the flea was] part of European civilization and folklore”). But then I remembered Steven Connor's disquisitions on flies

and decided that fleas were clearly just too large a project to take on.

I'd been reading Thomas Heyrick’s Miscellany Poems of 1691, when I found that it includes, rather bafflingly, the following extravagance by one Joshua Barnes:

'On a Flea presented to a Lady, whose Breast it had bitten, in a Golden Wire, Extempore 1679.'

Here, Madam, take this Humble Slave,
Once vile, but, since your blood is in him, Brave!
I saw him surfeit on your Lovely Breast;
And snatch'd the Traitor from that precious Feast.
For his Attempt sure He by me had died;
But the respect I bore your Blood deny'd.
The Gods forbid, fair Madam, that by me
Your Blood be shed although in this poor Flea!---
'Twas Sacrilege in him those Drops to draw;
But now that Treasure in his skin doth lie,
It consecrates his Life and strikes an awe;
That no bold Nail dare make the Traitor die.
Nay if a Quaff of Nectar once could make
Mankind Immortal, as the Poets feign,
This Flea can never die for that Drop’s sake,
Which he hath suck'd, sweet Madam, from your Vein;
At least no human Power his life can spill,
(Which lies in your pure blood, that can't decay:)
But You, whose Property's to save and kill,
As you did lend that Blood, may take't away.
Then lo! ---this Royal Slave in chains of Gold,
Here I submit most humbly to your doom:
Either let Mercy him your Prisoner hold,
Or let your Ivory Nail prepare his Tomb!
Oh! could he speak, I'm sure the Wretch would crave
A Prisoner's life, to be confin'd with You:
Nay he could be content to meet his Grave;
If by your Hand death might to him accrue.
Go, happy Flea! for now to One you go,
Gives Bliss, if She's your Friend, and Glory, if your Foe.

I guess that spotting a flea springing from a lady friend was just one of those things that might happen - William Cavendish, a man not unfamiliar with a variety of bed companions, regards fleas as something that ‘females are moste given to’. Maybe such an incident was one of those mildly embarrassing moments of common frailty which it was polite to laugh off, like wind or a gurgling stomach. So Barnes’s poem makes gallant fun of it all, in a vein of comic exaggeration. If the Donne poem is in the background, it stays there, and any memory of its naughtiness served to render Barnes’s poem harmless fun (in the knowledge that the topic could have been exploited so much more insidiously).

I thought I’d done quite well to include in the notes to my Donne edition the other flea poem attributed to Donne (it begins ‘Madam, that flea which crept between your breast /I envied…’) and John Davies of Hereford’s try at this sub-Ovidian genre. But I missed William Drummond (who did two), this by Barnes, and many more references.

But that’s computer databases for you. I suspect that LION, and what it can do, is by now a bigger influence on what we study and write than, say, Stephen Greenblatt. Or maybe that's just me betraying my foibles.

The picture is Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s rather charming ‘The Searcher for Fleas’, of about 1730. The artist did two flea pictures, but Georges de la Tour’s take on the theme is the most famous. It’s on the Web Gallery of Art, whose estimable compiler takes a wild interpretative swing at it: “No authentic De La Tour depicts such an obviously banal theme without a deeper meaning. The only symbol in the picture is the solitary candle burning on the chair, and it is surely not too speculative to suggest that the picture might represent the pregnant Virgin, isolated by Joseph when he discovers that she is with child, the candle thus symbolizing the forthcoming Christ as the Light of the World.”

Which reminds me to get back to my year one essays.

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