Wednesday, October 01, 2008

'The worthles Volume' of Alexander Craig

There’s a special pleasure to be had from a truly bad poet, and I have therefore been enjoying looking at the verse of Alexander Craig (1567?-1627), the Scottish Petrarchist who came south with King James in 1603, hung around at court, and published The amorose songes, sonets, and elegies: of M. Alexander Craige, Scoto-Britane in London in 1606. He then left for Banff, with a curt poem of regret for the time he had wasted (not that he makes court life sound all that bad):

His regrate for the lose of time at Court.

O how Time slips, and slelie slids away,
God is forgot, and woe is me therefore:
I waste the night, and weare away the day,
I sleepe, dres, feed, talke, sport, and doe no more:
Far better were with care to have redemed,
Nor sell for noght the thing I most estemed.

Craig’s big idea was to have multiple poetic mistresses of different natures - “I have in these amorous Sonets and Songes matchles Idea, virtuous Cynthia, grave Lithocardia, sweete Kala, lovely Erantina, lascivious Lais, modest Pandora, liberall Penelopae, painted my Love…” as a way of generating lots of verse, for he seems to have been primarily interested in quantity, and neglectful of quality. He signs off his dedication to Queen Anne with a fine flourish of self-deprecation:

“I am bold (divine Ladie) to borrow thy blessed name, to beautifie my blotted Booke … My Sonnets & Songes are (gracious Princesse) for the most part, full of complaints, sorrow, and lamentations … wishing your Highnes as many happie yeares, as there be wordes in my Verses, and Verses in my worthles Volume: I am Your Maiesties most obsequious Orator, Alexander Craige, Scoto-Britan.”

In this sonnet, my favourite among his works, he has the startling idea of comparing himself to a leper (hoarseness seems to be one of the many symptoms of Hansen’s Disease), and his sonnets to the leper’s begging bowl or ‘clack-dish’, noisily soliciting mercy on his behalf when he can no longer speak himself.

To Idea

The Leper man, whose voice cannot be heard,
With doleful hoarse unpleasant tune will cry,
And crave ‘for love of Jesus Christ’ reward,
And alms of such as chance for to pass by:
But when (alas poor soul) he doth espy
That no man hears, not yet regards his voice,
No longer then takes he delight to lye,
But claps his dish, and keeps his language close.
Right so as curst, and careful is my Cross,
Suppose the Fates have not deform’d my shape,
No words I use for to lament my loss,
But make my Lines to be the Leper’s Clap.
Go Sonnet then and beg, I thee beseech,
Some grace to him, whom fear deters from speech.

If you can ignore its inappropriateness of this to romance, the idea has a kind of appropriateness: a leper would beg for mercy and alms, and use a clack dish if his voice failed. Also, Craig’s sonnets are monotonous and grating. He seems to have meant it seriously: as he tells Idea in another sonnet:

“Thou art that Dame whom I shall ay adore
In spight of Fortune and the frowning Fats,
Whose shining beautie makes my Songs to sore
In Hyperbolik loftie heigh conceits…”

His lines as the 'leper's clap' must have been just one of these hyperbolic conceits. Leprosy seems to have been one of Craig’s pet-subjects. Among his multiple references to Sidney’s Arcadia, the episode where the tyrant Demagoras infects Parthenia with leprosy for refusing his love gets a sonnet all to itself, and Craig kicked off his dedication of the whole book to Queen Anne with something he has picked up about Timur-e-Lang having a programme of euthanasia for lepers:

“Great Tamburlan cloaked his fantasticall crueltie hee exercised on Lazars and Leprous men, with a foolishe kind of humanity, putting all he could find or heare of, to death, (as he said) to rid them from so painefull & miserable a life: Though my Poyems (incomparably bountifull, incomparablie beautifull, and so peerelesse Princesse) be painefull to me, and unpleasant to the delicat Lector; shall I with Tamburlan destroy them?”

In this rather jolly admission, all Craig’s poems are lepers, unpleasant to ‘delicat Lectors’. There’s some truth in it, and if only more poets were prepared to say as much.

Part of Craig’s trouble was his pedantry, his trick of allusions that are so obscure they have to be explained at a length that takes over the poem (“That Ichthiophagic Aethiopian slave, / Who boyls his angled Fish by Phaebus beams / Upon a Rock”) - that kind of thing in a love sonnet. One of Craig’s more moving poems is one ‘TO HIS DEAR FRIEND Mr. AL. DICKSON Mr. of the Art of Memorie who dyed at Winchester in England. EPITAPH.’ Craig suffered as a poet from too much recourse to the ‘art of memory’ at the expense of feeling.

My image is a leper, extracted from Cosimo Rosselli's 'Sermon on the Mount'.

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