Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Early Modern and Modern

I offer one of my favourite poem-pairings. When I happened across the Samuel Rowlands poem I mentioned in my last entry, I was trying to find analogies for William Browne’s famous last line in his epitaph on Mary Sidney – Donne’s ‘Death, thou shalt die’ goes close, but doesn’t have the idea of Time slaying Death with his own weapon of choice. Rowlands’ Death sarcastically offers his dart to Time (‘Why what a bragging and a coile do'st keepe? / Best take my dart, be Time, be Death and all’), but they make up before falling to blows.

This is William Browne of Tavistock:

On the Dowager Countess of Pembroke

UNDERNEATH this sable hearse

Lies the subject of all verse,

Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother;

Death, ere thou hast slain another

Fair and learned and good as she,

Time shall throw a dart at thee.

The ODNB more or less explains that Browne was a kind of elegist-in-residence at Wilton, practicing on every Sidney as they came available, and that practice made perfect in 1621.

Alongside it I put X J Kennedy’s wonderfully adroit neo-Jacobean ‘Little Elegy’

Little Elegy
for a child who skipped rope

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now
And for her sake trip up death.

I can’t think that any 17th century writer used so perfectly a decorum so attuned to a child.

More about X J Kennedy at

The image is the tomb of Elizabeth Nightingale, by Roubiliac (1758 she died, the monument was completed in 1761) – in Westminster Abbey. It strikes me as quite a late appearance for a Holbein-like Death. Mr and Mrs Nightingale – we can imagine them the moment before as a complacent Gainsborough couple - suddenly intruded upon by this impolite and archaic horror from a different style of representation. The modern hospital has (in most cases of mortal illness) robbed Death of his sudden dart, though he remains on his bony feet.

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