Friday, November 10, 2006

Laying it on thick

I’ve been reading the Miscellany Poems (1691) of Thomas Heyrick. In themselves, quite interesting, but surpassed in artistry by his prefatory material dedicating the collection to Katherine, Countess of Rutland. Being a clergyman obviously gives you a certain edge when it comes to the art of flattery (all that practice, after all), and Heyrick laid it on shamelessly:

“When I first intended to Dedicate these Poems to Your Name, beside the Thoughts of their Unworthiness, I was chiefly deterr'd by the Consideration of these Two Things, the Greatness of Your Quality and the Perspicuity of your Judgment: But then I was a little Encourag'd again, when I reflected, that the Meanest Creature was not debarr'd making Address to the Highest of Beings, but was rather commanded it …”

Isn’t that excellent in its kind? The cleric reflects that we are commanded to pray to God, and so (he humbly insinuates) this gives him an excuse for addressing her. There’s more, much more:

"… I confess even there what belongs to Me is full of Weakness; but it could be no otherwise, since in Subjects so Sublime, as Your Self, the most Towring Flights must of necessity flag, Things too High above Us not admitting a Definition; and as in Beauteous Faces there is something, We cannot Name, that exceeds the Pencil's Art, so in Excellent Personages there are Vertues, of which Common Souls have no Notion; but they Soar above the Description of the Loftiest Fancy … And doubtless though Poetry is usually suspected of Flattery, yet any One, who considers the Charms of Your Beauty, the Sharpness of Your Wit, the Depth of Your Judgment, the Candour of Your Temper, and Nobility of your Birth, will acknowledge, that You are plac'd above the reach of it; that, which would be Flattery to another, not measuring the least Part of Your Perfections."

In case her attention flagged when the poems themselves started, Heyrick followed up with another effusion, this time a rhapsody in verse:

‘To the Right Honourable Katherine Countess of Rutland.’

the bold Artist, that of You would speak,
Should Patterns from Celestial Natures take;
And stamp his Soul in an Angelick Mold;
Er'e he Your Vertues should attempt to' unfold …

… He that, how Good, of Great You are, would show,
Had need the Depth of Heavenly wisdom know:
For all we deal with here doth flag too low.
Angels the Mighty work should undertake …

… Had but the Early Centuries, that could find
The Vertues and the Graces Woman-kind,
Seen the Fair Draughts of Your Celestial Mind:
New Sexes to their Deities they 'had given,
Nor left one Single God to rule in Heaven.

This imagining of a heaven filled with Goddesses all modeled on her seems to leave reference to Olympus behind, and half-indicate that he is ready to worship her in place of God. As he has been doing: that he’s a clergyman just adds to the value of it all. Then he gets started on her children.

I’ve since been browsing on the MLA database, and really, there doesn’t seem to be enough scholarship on what was, for the early modern author, a most important form of writing. Among the potentially interesting pieces are Andrew McCrae on ‘The Poetics of Sycophancy: Ben Jonson and the Caroline Court’ and Frank Whigham on ‘The Rhetoric of Elizabethan Suitor’s Letters’, but there seems to be a large gap in relation to the master himself, John Donne, and no obvious single study. But it is the kind of thing that early criticism did remark upon: I recall Dr Johnson weighing up whether Dryden or Aphra Behn was the better butterer.

Maybe there have been conferences (and what fun they would have been, if everyone rose to the subject in an orgy of co-laudation). My picture is of course Van Dyck doing the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham as Venus and Adonis.

No comments: