Thursday, May 14, 2009

Arbor vitae

A page from the apothecary and gardener John Parkinson’s beautifully illustrated Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, or A garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permitt to be noursed vp (1629).

This shows ‘The Tree of Life’, arbor vitae (figure item 2). Parkinson does not make any great fuss about the naming of this plant: “the French that first brought it, called it Arbor vitae, with what reason or upon what ground I know not: but ever since it hath continued under the title of the tree of Life”. It came, he says, from “that part of America which the French doe inhabit, about the river of Canada, which is at the back of Virginia Northward, and as it seemeth, first brought by them from thence into Europe, in the time of Francis the first French King, where it hath so plentifully encreased, and so largely been distributed, that now few gardens of respect, either in France, Germany, the Lowe-Countries, or England, are without it.”

Parkinson is in many places brusque or dismissive about the traditionally imputed medicinal virtues of a plant. Often, he simply insists on the aesthetic quality of the flower as its real virtue (“the chief or only use thereof is, to be an ornament for the gardens of the curious lovers of these delights”, he says of the fritillary). In this case, however, he thinks that the tree of life has potential: he says that the leaves can be chewed prior to breakfast to treat shortness of the breath, and might work as an expectorant, then says: “Other properties I have not heard that it hath; but doubtlesse, the hot resinous smell and taste it hath, both while it is fresh, and after it hath been long kept dry, doth evidently declare his tenuity of parts, a digesting and cleansing quality it is possessed with, which if any industrious would make trial, he should find the effects”

I thought I would pursue this ‘Tree of Life’ candidate, mainly because Milton’s God is so teasing about the biblical Tree of Life in Book XI of Paradise Lost. (It seems to have been regularly taken to be the case that God was speaking ironically about Adam eating the fruit of the Tree of Life and so living forever.)

Abraham Cowley in ‘The Garden: To J Evelyn, Esquire’ affects to believe that the arbor vitae really is a reduced derivative of the Tree of Life which grew in Paradise:

“The Tree of Life, when it in Eden stood,
Did its immortal Head to Heaven rear;
It lasted a tall Cedar till the Flood;
Now a small thorny Shrub it does appear;
Nor will it thrive too everywhere …”

(But of course, it thrives in John Evelyn’s garden.)

Henry Arthington in his Principal Points of holy profession (1607) ‘The First Point. In Creating all things for our use, and us for his glory’ seems to have regarded ‘The Tree of Life’ as the panacea God put in the Garden of Eden to keep Adam and Eve from dying:

“And, for mans meat, God did provide,
All fruitful trees (save only one)
With every Herb that beareth seed,
For man all times to feed upon.

…. And that man might live in this state,
And never die (unless he would)
The tree of life, thereon to eat,
God planted in that sacred mould …”

R. Fletcher, in the verses, ‘Degenerate Love and Choyce’ from his Ex otio Negotium (1656), explains that God, as well as all the stuff about having it guarded by cherubims with fiery swords, actually hid the Tree of Life after the fall:

“As though when he fell mortal, God had hid
The Tree of Life in earth, which he forbid.”

Robert Herrick, in his fulsome ‘TO THE KING, To cure the Evil’ refers to the notion of a quest to find once more the Tree of Life: but announces that he has discovered it in Charles I touching for the King’s Evil:

“To find that Tree of Life, whose Fruits did feed,
And Leaves did heal, all sick of human seed:
To find Bethesda , and an Angel there,
Stirring the waters, I am come; and here,
At last, I find, (after my much to doe)
The Tree, Bethesda, and the Angel too:
And all in Your Blest Hand …”

Cowley (again) compliments a botanist called ‘Dr Scarborough’ on his identification of all plants: ‘Death’ and ‘Disease’ fear that Scarborough will soon identify the Tree of Life itself, and oust them:

“From creeping Moss to soaring Cedar thou
Dost all the powers and several Portions know,
Which Father-Sun, Mother-Earth below
On their green Infants here bestow.
Can’st all those Magic Virtues from them draw,
That keep Disease, and Death in awe.
Who whilst thy wondrous skill in Plants they see,
Fear lest the Tree of Life should be found out by Thee.”

Unsurprisingly, Du Bartas had a lot to say about the trees of Eden (du Bartas had a lot to say about everything). Unlike the apparently naïve view taken by Arthington, Du Bartas seems to have regarded the Tree of Life not so much as a panacea to keep the un-fallen inhabitants of Eden in perfect health, but as a kind of political air-freshener, that would have prevented any dissent among the burgeoning population of a continued, un-fallen paradise:

“Now of the Trees wherewith th’immortal Power
Adorn’d the quarters of that blisful Bower,
All serv’d the mouth, save two sustain’d the mind:
All serv’d for food, save two for seals assign’d.

God gave the first, for honourable style,
The tree of Life : true name; (alas the while!)
Not for th’effect it had, but should have kept,
If Man from duty never had mis-stept.
For, as the air of those fresh dales and hills
Preserved him from Epidemic ills,
This fruit had ever-calm’d all insurrections,
All civil quarrels of the cross complexions;
Had barr’d the passage of twice-childish age,
And ever-more excluded all the rage
Of painful griefs, whose swift-slow posting-pace
At first or last our dying life doth chase.”

For writers with any kind of Catholic sympathy, the Tree of Life was inescapably connected with Christ and his mother. Notice in Ralph Knevet’s poem, ‘The Conception’, how the furor hortensis Marvell’s Mower inveighed against is here a positive, the miraculous act of grafting of the divine onto the human root stock:

“The glorious sun forgets his birth,
And couples with the humble earth,
Her womb impregnates with warm showers,
Producing fruits and flowers:

This an unequal match may seem:
Then what was that? when Jesse’s stem,
Was overshadow’d from above,
Courted by divine love:

Here Immortality vouchsaf’d
On mortal stock to bee ingraff’d,
And Jesse's root produc’d a rod,
Even Jesus, our great God.

Th’Egyptian Gods in Gardens grew,
False were their Gods: But ours is true,
From Heaven, transplanted to the bed,
Of a pure Maidenhead.

This is a plant which never dyes,
A med’cine for all maladies,
A Tree of life, whose fruit is bliss,
(Lord) let me taste of this.”

Or there is Robert Southwell writing about the B.V.M., ‘Her Spousals’:

Wife did she live, yet virgin did she die,
Untaught of man, yet mother of a son,
To save her self and child from fatal lie,
To end the web whereof the thread was spun
In marriage knots to Joseph she was tide
Unwonted works with wonted wiles to hide,

God lent his Paradise to Joseph’s care
Wherein he was to plant the tree of life,

His son of Joseph’s child the title bare …”

Unsurprisingly, this was too mariolatrous for most 17th century English verse writers, and Phineas Fletcher in The Locusts, or the Appolyonists, produces a variant in which ‘The Tree of Life’, indignantly referred to here by the devils, is the Gospels, flourishing in England, and (in a neat reversal of the importing of arbor vitae from America, the gospel ‘tree of life’ is now transported back to America, formerly securely part of Satan’s kingdom:

“That little swimming Isle above the rest,
Spight of our spight, and all our plots, remains
And grows in happiness …

… There God hath fram’d another Paradise,
Fat Olives dropping peace, victorious palm,
Nor in the midst, but every where doth rise
That hated tree of life, whose precious balms
Cure every sinful wound: give light to th’eyes,
Unlock the ear, recover fainting qualms.
There richly grows what makes a people blest;
A garden planted by himself and drest:
Where he himself doth walk, where he himself doth rest.

… Nor can th’old world content ambitious Light,
Virginia our soil, our seat, and throne,
(To which so long possession gives us right,
As long as hells) Virginia’s self is gone:
That stormy Ile which th’Ile of Devils hight,
Peopled with faith, truth, grace, religion.

“I planted knowledge and life’s tree in thee’, wrote Donne about sex in ‘Elegie VII’. Just how transgressive the idea was can be gathered from the existence of such works as Sebastian Franck’s The forbidden fruit· or A treatise of the tree of knowledge of good & evil of which Adam at first, & as yet all mankind doe eat deathLastly, here is shewed what is the tree of life, contrary to the wisdom, righteousness, and knowledge of all mankind (translated into English in 1640). (The two trees here are diabolic and divine knowledge, and we have to heed The Testimony of the Scripture, how we ought to evacuate the Seed of the Serpent his counsel & word, and so vomit up the Fruit of the forbidden Tree, and purge the same away as deadly poison by the Fruit of the Tree of Life.”)

Finally, I was pleased to find in THE Cure of Old Age, AND Preservation of Youth. By ROGER BACON …ALSO A Physical Account OF THE Tree of Life, BY EDW. MADEIRA ARRAIS. (1683) an account of an Indian who lived to be more than 335 by virtue of eating fruits floating down the Ganges from the lost earthly paradise, fruits infused with enough of the virtue of the tree of life as to give him extreme longevity:

For Corroboration whereof there comes very opportunely the History of that Indian, most famous among our Portuguese, who lived above three hundred and thirty five years, as do testify Patres Conimbricenses, our Iohannes de Barros, who may rather be styled the Lusitanian Livy, and our Didacus de Couto a famous Portugal Historian. Several of our Portuguese at their Return from the East-Indies assured me they saw him alive. Nunius à Cunna, when he govern’d India, found him there, and afterwards when Don John de Castro presided Viceroy Anno Domini 1547 he was then alive. And all the Kings of those Parts, before they were subject to the Kingdom of Portugal, and our Governors and Viceroys afterwards, appointed an Allowance for the Maintenance of this wonderful Man.

His Teeth fell several times, others e’re long coming in their room; His Beard, when it was grown all white, as his Age reflourished, grew black again. Some ascribe the Cause of this to certain Fruits, which he found in Ganges, and eat: For at certain Times after Inundations, rowing up and down Ganges in a Boat, he sought these Fruits, which, as they affirm, are brought with the Waters from Earthly Paradise, from whence this River (as is believed) derives its Original.”


Noel Heather said...

Hello Roy,

Good to catch you blogging -- if in passing -- about the big Du B himself. There seems to have been less of this since about, er, 1620 or so. The trees in Eden are a fun-time for Du Bartas the playful Huguenot(he does a lot of this too in the First Week -- though not all of it comes through in Sylvester). There's a main set-piece of 9 'plant' primates/zoophytes (sorry, but this does appear to be what's going on). They're arranged in 3-3-3 formation (centre 3 very +blood etc in classic Christocentric symbolism form). All 9 represent the precise link in the chain between plants and animals and are thus symbols (ie x9, playfully contra Pseudo-A's 9 angel hierarchy, MULTI-rungs-to-God etc) of that ONE true link between man and God etc etc. So there are various levels of play alluding to (a) a precise link of the chain of being x9 as 'in-between', ONE-link, centre point symbols, as well as (b) more traditional symmetrical centre points in terms of the 3-3-3 christocentricty. [I know, you had to be there really.]I've forgotten how this goes on from this now but obviously the 'highest tree' motif is in there somehow. As far as Milton is concerned, in the PL bower scene the centre of the 9 flowers is red and I've attempted to claim (including at Milton Studies conferences) this may recall Sylvester's translation of Eden which does preserve the 'red centre' 3-3-3 of the original.

Ah, Kent Hiatt (sp?) would have been proud -- or perhaps not. Now, where did I put my glasses.

DrRoy said...

Ah, Noel, thanks, I rather think you may have gone more deeply into this than I have... Roy