Saturday, February 17, 2007

O my Newfound-land!

A detail from a sumptuous still life, late 17th century, by Willem Kalf - that wonderful nautilus cup, modelled into a monster with a man fleeing its jaws, a porcelain covered dish with figures modelled in high relief - that ornate spoon goes into a condiment just as exotic, I feel sure. Radiant wine, and an orange: with wonders and wealth like this to be had, no wonder the colonial adventure happened.

But this is the luxury end of the cultural exchange. The little autobiographical poem below captures the formative moment in a life, when the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world gives a little boy an orange, and his blessing, in the street in Totnes:

Of the Great and Famous, ever to be honoured Knight, Sir Francis Drake, and of my little-little self.

The Dragon, that our Seas did raise his Crest,
And brought back heaps of gold unto his nest,
Unto his Foes more terrible then Thunder,
Glory of his age, After-ages wonder,
Excelling all those that excell’d before;
It’s fear’d we shall have none such any more;
Effecting all, he sole did undertake,
Valiant, just, wise, mild, honest, godly Drake.
This man when I was little, I did meet,
As he was walking up Totnes long Street,
He ask’d me whose I was? I answer’d him.
He ask’d me if his good friend were within?
A fair red Orange in his hand he had,
He gave it me, whereof I was right glad,
Takes and kissed me, and prays, God bless my boy:
Which I record with comfort to this day.
Could he on me have breathed with his breath,
His gifts Elias-like, after his death,
Then had I been enabled for to do
Many brave things I have a heart unto.
I have as great desire, as e’re had he
To joy; annoy; friends; foes: but 'twill not be.

The little boy, possibly as young as four, was Robert Hayman. Though he disclaims any achievement on his own part, that stray allusion to Elijah does suggest a lurking sense of a great mission having been handed on to him, and Hayman had become governor of a plantation called Bristol's Hope, near Harbour Grace, in Newfoundland. There, he wrote his Quodlibets, published in 1628, a crowded and generally sterile set of epigrams, on all the usual topics (baldness, cuckolds, marriage, women, wigs, Protestantism, etc) which suddenly spark into interest when he writes about himself. He does some early modern PR for the colony too:

'To all those worthy Women, who have any desire to live in NewfoundLand, specially to the modest & discreet Gentlewoman Mistris Mason, wife to Captaine Mason, who lived there divers years'

Sweet Creatures, did you truly vnderstand
The pleasant life you'd live in Newfound-land,
You would with tears desire to be brought thither:
I wish you, when you go, faire wind, faire weather:
For if you with the passage can dispence,
When you are there, I know you'll ne'er come thence.

Not sure that the final sentiment is entirely well judged for his purpose. He even defends the climate:

'To a worthy Friend, who often objects the coldness of the Winter in Newfound-Land, and may serve for all those that have the like conceit'

You say that you would live in Newfound-land,
Did not this one thing your conceit withstand;
You fear the Winters cold, sharp, piercing air.
They love it best, that have once wintered there.
Winter is there, short, wholesome, constant, clear,
Not thick, unwholesome, shuffling, as 'tis here.

Annie Proulx has terminally prejudiced me against his judgement. Hayman was to die, in 1629, of a 'burning fever', and was buried beside
the Oiapoque River, which separates Guiana from Brazil, and which the UK Foreign and Commonwealth safety advice says remains a high risk area for malaria. I wonder if, in that final delerium, he saw Sir Francis Drake appear to him again, with a hallucinatory double of that fatal first orange.

I add my very best wishes to one of my occasional commentators, 'Decidedly Bookish', and wish her a speedy recovery.

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