Thursday, July 17, 2008

Paul III as Volpone in Barton Holyday's 'Survey'

The morale of the harpooner at Early Modern Whale has been boosted by the blog here managing to make the cut in Ralph E Luker’s selection of blogs ‘without which, history education on the internet would be seriously impoverished.’ (Can he really mean me?)

My incidental reading for this week has been A survey of the world in ten books by the royal chaplain and archdeacon in Oxford, Barten Holyday (1661). I was intrigued to see by what means our pious author shrank such a large subject into 118 pages. He did it by following one of the few contemporary verse writers he admires, who happened (alas!) to be Thomas Tusser. Holyday writes his ‘survey’ in exactly 1,000 distiches, neatly dividing them hundred by hundred into the ten books, which cover these topics:

“Of inanimate Creatures; Of living Creatures; Of Nations; Of Languages and Arts; Of Philosophers and Historians; Of Physicians; Of Lawyers; Of Kings and Other Worthies; Of Politicians; Of Divines”.

The result is a series of moralised reflections (he calls them meditations) on everything that seems to him important. He can do a survey of the world because he lives within such a simple intellectual framework: the world, of course, is coeval with man; and everything in it was made for man. Everything exists in a divinely ordained order – order is life, he tells us:

Relations must be Own’d: Husband and Wife;

Father, Sonne; Master, Servant: Order’s Life.

Each section works in general from the past to the present, from Bible history, through classical, and so down to contemporaries, to the effect that the work also becomes a kind of mad bibliography, in which Holyday mentions all the writers he approves of – writers on the law and divinity mainly. Part of the out-of-the-way charm of the book is to see Holyday backing all the wrong horses: if only he could have written a couplet on Shakespeare or Donne, he’d have been quoted, and known to specialists. He does allude to two of Ben Jonson’s creations, but only for a satirical jibe at a pope and a famous cardinal:

Paul the Third and Morone (they so compact)

At Rome and Trent, Volpone and Mosca act.

There aren’t enough of these asperities, where Holyday’s distiches become epigrammatic.

Generally, he chooses to praise an array of names that could have come from Tristram Shandy.

Holyday does not always warm to new ideas: so he generally disapproves of astronomy – Copernicus having the sun stand still to escape doubts, has merely made new doubts; others dare to see spots blotting the sun itself – in the end, ‘the Art of starres who knows, but He that made them?’ (‘Copernicus does erre with great pretence / Of Art: but Galileus erres by sense’ is distich 389, returning to this general disapproval.) In each book, Holyday starts with the big things in creation, and works down. Book 1 starts with the heavenly bodies, and more or less ends with garlic. Similarly Book 2 (on animals) starts with some distiches about early modern whales, which are undeniably large in his account of them:

To see Nine hundred foote of Whale, may make

One think, Iland for Fish hee does mistake

But Holyday sometimes gets a quirkier observation than the time-honoured tale of whales being mistaken for islands:

The Whale’s Mouth’s a Portcullis, but Inverted!

Th’under jaw’s teeth into Holes above inserted.

My own little menagerie made me notice how he moralises the parrot:

A Parrot learn’d the Creed: may not such, greeve,

As can not say’t, or can not it Beleeve?

How anyone ever got the idea that camels particularly hate incest I cannot imagine, but here it is:

Much’t is the Afrique Camels Long can fast:

More, that they Incest hate, admir’dly chast!

‘Of nations’ critiques the English for love of two characteristic vanities:

Fashions and Prophesies are England’s staine:

Lets not bee Mad too, though wee have been vaine.

‘Of physicians’ shows Holyday at his most receptive to a new idea: William Harvey is another Columbus in the magnitude of his discovery:

Blood Circles from the Heart unto the Heart:

Man’s New America speakes Harvie’s Art

Elsewhere in the list of physicians, Holyday again shows his prejudices when he denounces the doctor and anti-demonologist Johan Weyer for not believing in witchcraft:

From Physique did Wierus runne to Evil?

Shall wee begin in Art, and End in Devil?

‘Kings and other worthies’ includes a couplet in appreciation of Charles V’s renunciation of his empire:

Charles the Fift scorn’d Glory, Pleasure, Pelfe:

Turn’d Court-Monke and the Emp’rour of Himselfe.

Among the English monarchs, Holyday makes only this cryptic remark about Henry VIII:

Henry, Our Eight, few Painters have well made:

Some give him too much Light, some too much shade.

I suppose that he might be implying that Henry VIII is either portrayed as better, or worse, than he actually was.

His take on Philip II is as a connoisseur and arch-plotter:

How Philip in his Gallery views his Mappes!

Consults! Intents in Mystery hee wrappes!

Among his politicians, Holyday was excited by Machiavelli, and actually pauses over him for several couplets; though his attitude is a predictable one:

In sadnesse Macchiavel thou didst not well

To helpe the World to runne faster to hell!

So, some of the 1,000 couplets are reasonably lively. Just occasionally, he can sound like an early modern version of Hilaire Belloc. Here he is on one of his theologians (I assume St Bernard):

Bernard so happily imploi’d his thought,

Hee scarce had time to thinke of what was nought.

Ah, that is so like me, also so happily employing my thought I scarce have time to think of what is nought. But next week, I disappear off on holiday, once again to America, a tour in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

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