Saturday, July 14, 2007

Robert Heath's 'On the cripple soldiers marching at Oxford'

I have (as everyone interested in the 17th century should, and in my own case especially after the urgings of Natalie Bennett at ‘Philobiblon’) been reading Diane Purkiss’ The English Civil War: A People’s History.

I add my tuppence worth to that book’s scholarly riches with a posting on the poet Robert Heath’s Civil War poetry. Heath presents himself in Clarastella (1650) as the man moyen sensuel, versifying some distance after Herrick, Jonson, Carew (and other writers) in the approved Cavalier manner on every opportunity literary convention or the accidents of real experience offered. So we have Clarastella’s busk, fan, the mole on her cheek, her singing, dancing. The usual stuff, just occasionally sparking into something amusing: I liked the title To Clarabella complaining of my long kisses. (The poem itself starts with an off-colour joke about women usually liking long things.)

But Heath soon gives up on ‘passionate love’, writing a poem to say farewell to it, and (if we assume a general compositional sequence, which does seem to be implied) embarks on what he published as ‘Occasional Verses’. Many of them are prompted by the war. Here we have elegies on the inevitable casualties: Nænia: Upon the death of my dear friend T.S. Esquire, slain at the first fight at Newbery, 1645, Upon the Death of the truly valiant Sir Bevil Grenvil slain (Diane Purkiss tells Grenvil’s story), Elegie Upon the death of that thrice valiant Lord, the Lord Bernard Stewart, slain in the fight near West-Chester (the dashing leader of the King’s life-guard: Charles saw him die in a sally from Chester ‘and bore it with extraordinary grief’). Heath is elegist to a civilized tradition he sees dying as those who sustained it perish. On the Death of that most famous Musician Mr W. Lawes, slain in this unhappy Civil Warr reflects, with a multiple pun:

But e’r sin'
Our Lawes expir’d, this Common-wealth hath bin
Quite out of tune

This elegy concludes, hyperbolically, but with some feeling too, that “earth hath lost her harmonie”.

Heath writes with little political rancour. Apparently a non-combatant, he makes conventional noises about the bravery of Royalists who have died, but is just as engaged, maybe more engaged artistically, with the smaller disasters of war:

On the loss of Mr N.W. his three fingers cut off at the battle of Edgehill, he being both a Poet and a Musician.

By some it hath been said,
That the best Music is by discord made;
But here, (I grieve to see)
By discords we have lost our harmony.
How cruel was that hand
Depriv’d thee of thy cunning fingers? and
At one unhappy blow
Cut off an Orpheus, and a Poet too?
How sadly the strings rest
E’r since those fingers which before exprest
On them such lively art,
Were thus dissected from their constant part?
Yet though these joints be gone
To quiet ease, two fingers still are on,
Which with dexterity
Can write the Epitaph o'th' t'other three.
And though you cannot play;
Yet still both sing, and versify you may.

Like almost everybody else, he wishes it were over, and yearns for the end of hostilities. These lines from To a Friend wishing peace capture (in my view) the kind of quality of life issues Diane Purkiss writes about and documents. Heath is imagining peace, when

… wee
Enlarged as the winds may breath
Each where, and as in Jubilee
Live free from fear of sudden death.

In the Kings highway then we’ll ride,
(Not skulking lest we should be spi’d
In private lanes or by-ways cut
By hardy Pioneer) a gentle pace,
In stead of marching to a hut
Or hedge, unto some warmer place.

O'th' week-days then we’ll bowl and chat
Of our dear loves, and you know what,
But not one syllable of State,
Amidst our pleasant mirth…

- a little glimpse there of the civilian population, traveling in furtive dashes along the obscurest routes.

But the main poem which I wish to exhume in this post does not show a sympathetic side to our poet. Heath wrote in a tradition of wit which produced such poems in poor taste as Beaumont’s elegy on Lady Markham, or Cleveland on the drowning of Edward King: poems where the writer lose sight of the human loss in the manic desire to show off. Vindice-poems, you might say. Here, Heath has seen something remarkable, that I do not think Diane Purkiss picked up: late in the Civil War, Charles’s bedraggled regiments in Oxford, and, still on the muster, and still ready to fight, the men crippled at Edgehill:

On the Cripple soldiers marching in Oxford in the Lord Treasurer Cottington’s Company.

Stay Gentlemen! and you shall see a very rare sight;
Soldiers who though they want arms, yet will fight:
Nay some of them have never a leg but only Will:
Their Governor, and yet they’ll stand to it still.
The birds call’d Apodes they resemble, and seem
To be without either wing or leg, like them.
Oh the courage of a drunken and valiant man!
For each will be going when he cannot stand!
Then room for Cripples! here comes a company,
Such as before I think you ne’er did see: 10
Here’s one like a Pigeon goes pinion’d in spite
Of old Priapus, the birds to affright:
Another limps as if he had got the Pharse,
With his half leg like a Goose close up to his arse.
Yet mistake me not! this is no Puppet play;
You shall only see the several motions to day.
Ran: tan: tan: with a Spanish march and gait
Thus they follow their Leader according to his wonted state.
A Snail or a Crablouse would march in a day
If driven as led with the white staff as far as they, 20
What I should call them I hardly do know,
Foot they are not as appears by the show:
By the wearing of their Muskets to which they are tied,
They should be Dragooners had they horses to ride.
And yet now I think on’t, they cannot be such;
Because each man hath his rest for his crutch,
To these their Officer need not to say at alar’ms,
‘Stand to your Colours’, or ‘Handle your arms’:
Yet that they are Soldiers, you safely may say,
For they’ll die before they will run away: 30

Nay, they are stout as ever were Vantrumps,
For like Widdrington they’ll fight upon their very stumps.
They have keen Ostrich stomachs, and well digest
Both Iron and Lead, as a Dog will a breast
Of Mutton. But now to their Pedigree;
That they are sons of Mars, most writers agree;
Some conceive from the Badger old Vulcan they came,
Because like him they are Mettle-men and lame,
The moderns think they came from the Guys of Warwick; and
Some think they are of the old Herculean band: 40
For as by his foot he was discover’d, so
By their feet you their valour may know.
And though many wear wooden legs and crutches,
Yet, by Hercules, I can assure you, such is
Their steeled resolution, that here
You’ll find none that will the wooden dagger wear.
They’re true and trusty Trojans all believe me,
And stride their wooden Palfreys well: t’would grieve me
To see them tire before they get
Unto the Holly-bush; but yet 50
If they should faint, at that end of the town,
They may set up their horses and lie down.
Most of these fighters, I would have you to know,
Were our brave Edgehill Myrmidons awhile ago.
Who were their limbs like their looser rags
Ready to leave them at the next hedge, with brags,
That through the merit of their former harms,
They die like Gentlemen though they bear no arms.
Now some will suspect that my Muse may be,
'Cause she is so lame, of this Company: 60
And the rather, because one verse sometimes,
Is much shorter then his fellows to hold up the rhymes;
I confess before Cripples to halt is not good:
Yet for excuse she pleads, she understood
That things by their similes are best displayed,
And for that cause her feet are now Iambic made.

The ODNB entry on Cottington explains that he was left to oversee the surrender of Oxford in June 1646. Behind Heath’s incongruous jesting (he is reminded of the infamous heroic-bathetic couplet about Witherington in the unsanitised version of the ballad of Chevy Chase at l.32), the picture is grim. The defeated in the stronghold, disabled fighting men keeping up the numbers in the depleted regiment, led by a trusted civil servant summoned to service from his retirement.

l. 5: Apodes – see for Philemon Holland recounting some lore about the swift.

l. 13 ‘Pharse’, clearly a colloquial word for an obscene ailment, is not in the OED.

l. 31 Maarten van Tromp was the Dutch Admiral celebrated for a victory against the Spanish fleet in 1642, he would later lead the Dutch fleet against Blake, and die at Texel. l.48 The soldiers are on wooden horses or ‘palfreys’: their crutches.

l. 50: This is the entry on the Holly Bush Inn, Oxford, on that helpful and sometime scabrous website, ‘Beer in the Evening’:

(The point is that the Holly Bush is very close to the city centre.)

My image is a crude photoshop out of a Van Dyck double portrait: one of Heath’s elegiac subjects, Lord Bernard Stewart. For some reason I decided to separate him from his insipid brother.

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