Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beneath the cacuminous thick Beeches

I have a seminar to give on sections of Tennyson’s In Memoriam,

and this led me back to William Lathum’s Phyala lachrymarum. Or A few friendly teares, shed over the dead body of Mr Nathaniel Weld Mr of Arts of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge who in the short journey of his life, died betwene the five and sixe and twentieth yeare of his youth, (1633).

I don’t think much is known about Lathum, and don’t recollect that Bruce Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England book does anything with such putatively gay elegies. Like Tennyson’s, his long poem is a broken-hearted lament for an idolized friend. Lathum veers between his personal loss, and the loss to everyone who knew Weld. To him, it feels as though death has broken off a marriage:

“… two true hearts in love united fast.
For well his tongue and 'haviour could indeed
Of faithful love a learned lecture read,
And well him love became, who loyal was
Unto his love; (unhappy love) alas,
Which when both hearts, and hands, and friends consent
Had all clapped hands with infinite content,
And all things ready to enjoying, had
(Save publication) death the Banes forbad.”

But these special feelings were (perhaps reassuringly) shared by everybody:

“… Oh my dear WELD, whose conversation was
So lovely unto me …

… how lovely wert thou (living) unto all?
All, for thou wert not sullen-cynical,
Nor of a supercilious-haughty eye,
But affable, and full of courtesy,

Well pleas'd with mirth, and harmless merriment,
Which (but injuriously) can ne're be shent.
How did all hug thee, and embrace, for thy
Thy (hardly-sampled) self, and company?”

That little stutter ‘thy / Thy’ is not a misprint in the text. ‘Hardly-sampled’ means something like ‘unequalled’; the modern sense of ‘sampling’ is not yet in the language. Lathum follows this with a passage in which the winding sheets, coffin, and earth, personified as female, receive Weld’s body with sensuous delight in embracing him.

Tennyson, quizzed about the matter, asserted that he had never even kissed Arthur Hallam, and Lathum celebrates in his sublime friend the “single Caelibat of his chaste youth”. My quotations so far make the poem look more physical than it is: Weld’s body seems to have been imaginatively off-limits, sex only comes to him in the embrace of the winding sheet.

Does Lathum know what his feelings (at least, as we would understand them) were? I looked at his (earlier) translation of Virgil’s Eclogues - which will always crop up in these contexts - and his version of ‘Formosus pastor Corydon’. He starts off, perhaps, a touch defensively (‘this idle stuff’):

“The Shepherd Corydon erst dearly loved
His Master’s darling, young Alexis faire:
But in pursuit thereof he still improved,
Not having what he hoped; but reaped despair,
Though every day alone he did repair,
And 'mongst the cacuminous thick Beeches shade,
In vain, this idle stuff, to hills, and woods bewray'd.”

(‘Cacuminous’ is that joy of the absolute pedant, an OED antedating, for the dictionary doesn’t have it till 1871. It apparently means formed into a pyramidal shape.)

But in his commentary, he can expand on Corydon’s overpowering feeling as ‘the instinct of [his] nature’:

“The meaning is … deal with me as you think good; avoid my company, disdain me; nevertheless I know not by what propensity of inclination, I am (will I, nill I) haled on to affect your Love: neither will I alter my desire herein, howsoever you demean your self towards me: For I must confess, I am led by the instinct of my nature thereunto, as pronely, as the Wolf is to the Kid, or the Kid to the bushy shrubs; and as every thing in the kind, is drawn by sense, to follow that which they find to bee agreeing, and most fitting to their natures.”

The much lamented Nathaniel Weld is represented as an early victim of tobacco, and Lathum has quite a lively passage of dirae on the herb that robbed him of his beloved, who seems to have been smoking when he suffered what one guesses was a tubercular haemorrhage:

“ 'twas this unsavory fulsome weed,
That traiterously conspir'd his death indeed;
Provoking him to cough, which broke a vein
Within his lungs, first causer of his bane.”

An interesting poem, antecedent to the Lycidas collection. The image is a Raphael double portrait.

No comments: