Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Francis Quarles and the nappy of his saviour.

Francis Quarles, who was (just about) the most popular poet of the first half of 17th century, and his wife Ursula Woodgate had eighteen children together. So when he came to write ‘On the Infancie of our Saviour’ in his Divine Fancies (1632), he knew a thing or two about babies and infants, and it is clear that he loved them:

Hayle blessed Virgin, full of heavenly Grace,
Blest above all that sprang from humane race;
Whose Heav’n-saluted Womb brought forth in One,
A blessed Saviour, and a blessed Son:
O! what a ravishment t’had beene, to see
Thy little Saviour perking on thy Knee!
To see him nuzzle in thy Virgin Brest!
His milke white body all unclad, undrest;

To see thy busie Fingers cloathe and wrappe
His spradling Limbs in thy indulgent Lappe!
To see his desprate Eyes, with Childish grace,
Smiling upon his smiling Mothers face!
And, when his forward strength began to bloome,
To see him diddle up and downe the Roome!
O, who would thinke, so sweet a Babe as this,
Should ere be slaine by a false-hearted kisse!
Had I a Ragge, if sure thy Body wore it,
Pardon sweet Babe, I thinke I should adore it,
Till then, O grant this Boone, (a boone far dearer)
The Weed not being, I may adore the Wearer.

The infant saviour perking, nuzzling, spradling and (best of all) diddling up and down the room isn’t without parallel, of course, in accentuating the word made flesh: but two of these words are first occurrences in the OED (‘diddle’ and ‘spradling’ under ‘spraddle’). Quarles is letting us in to see a baby-related vocabulary previously excluded from more restrained literature.

But, more radically still, it’s hard to avoid the thought that, when Quarles expresses the wish for one of the rags the baby Jesus had once worn, he really does mean one of the baby Jesus’ ‘tail clouts’, one of the divine nappies. Americans would say diaper.

I can imagine purported relics of the saviour’s infant clothes existed in the medieval period. Quarles writes, though, as a doting sentimentalist, and was far from being a Catholic. In a related poem in the same collection, he explains the curing of the woman with the issue of blood as a product of faith, not as coming from any miraculous property in the garment she touched:

‘On the Woman with the Issue.’

How could thy Soule, fond Woman, be assur’d
Thy long disease could be so eas’ly cur’d?
What? couldst thou think the touch of cloth was good
To dry the Fountaine of thy flowing Blood?
Or was't because our blessed Saviour wore it?
Or why? I read not, that thou didst adore it:
He nere so much as ownd thee, Woman: Sure,
Thy Faith, and not his Garments wrought the Cure.

‘Divine Fancies’ is entirely appropriate to Quarles’ religious poems: like ‘French Fancies’, they are sweet light cakes of poems, iced all over with fanciful designs, words and thoughts. Here he starts off on the Day of Judgement:

O When shall that time come, when the loud Trump
Shall wake my sleeping Ashes from the Dump
Of their sad Urne! That blessed Day, wherein
My glorifi’d, my metamorphiz’d Skin
Shall circumplexe and terminate that fresh
And new refined substance of this flesh!
When my transparent Flesh, dischargd from groans,
And paynes, shall hang upon new polisht Bones!
When as my Body shall re-entertaine
Her cleansed Soule, and never part againe! …

Who could resist the thought of resurrecting with newly polished bones? No wonder readers liked him: only Quarles could think of comparing the various kinds of sin to England’s various types of bad weather:

On severall Sinnes.

Grosse Sinne.

Is like a Show'r, which ere we can get in
Into our Conscience, wets us to the skin:

Sin of Infirmity.

Is like the falling of an April Shower;
'Tis often Raine, and Sun-shine, in an hower.

Sin of Custome.

Is a long Showre, beginning with the Light
Oft-times continuing till the Dead of Night.

Sin of Ignorance.

It is a hideous Mist, that wetts amaine,
Though it appeare not in the forme of Raine.

Crying Sin.

It is a sudden Showre, that teares in sunder
The Cope of Heav'n, & alway comes with Thunder.

Sin of Delight.

Is like a fethered showre of Snow, not felt,
But soakes to th' very skin, when ere it melt:

Sin of Presumption.

Does like a Showre of Hayle, both wet and wound
With sudden Death: or strikes us to the Ground.

The Sin of Sinnes.

It is a sulph'rous Shower, such as fell

On Sodom, strikes, and strikes to th' Pit of Hell.

My nativity scene is from Jeremy Taylor’s Antiquitates christianae, or, The history of the life and death of the holy Jesus (1675).

1 comment:

David C Brown said...

Charming; makes Christ's childhood real;we can get too far into applications.