Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Joseph Beaumont allegorises Hearing, complete with ear wax: Psyche, 1648

I have been lecturing on George Herbert, and this led me to Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche (1648 and 1651), where there is a remarkable tribute to Herbert’s poetry placed in a context which shows Beaumont to have been sensitive at some level to Herbert’s own moral difficulties about poetry (‘How wide is all this long pretence!’).
Beaumont wrote much of  Psyche during 1647 when ‘The Turbulence of these Times having deprived me of my wonted Accommodations of Study; I deliberated, For the avoiding of mere Idleness, what Task I might safeliest presume upon, without the Society of Books’. The work (as its title indicates it will be) is a psychomachia: ‘I endeavour to represent a Soul led by divine Grace, and her Guardian Angel, (in fervent Devotion,) through the difficult Temptations and Assaults of Lust, of Pride, of Heresy, of Persecution, and of Spiritual Dereliction, to a holy and happy Departure from temporal Life, to heavenly Felicity.
Beaumont's dedication of his work!

Psyche sounds heavy work, then, but it actually goes rapidly along. As the soul, Psyche is female, and in Canto II undergoes a trauma of temptation nearly yielded to: she goes into a grove, where her conscience falls asleep, and she is assailed by a boar charging straight out of Venus and Adonis, then is rescued into greater danger by Aphrodisias, who seems close to the hyper-verbal wooer in Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint. He lays on thick a tale of her being his destined love, and of offers he has refused in anticipatory fidelity to meeting her at last:
So spake the glorious Impostor; and
Granting commission by a graceful kiss
To his own snowy yet lust-burning hand,
Sent it to treat with Psyche's , and to press
With feeling eloquence that Project He
Hop’d would conclude in tactile villainy …

(What a cad!). Psyche is wavering badly. The boar’s tusk has already torn through her ‘dainty gown’, and she’s unduly receptive: ‘Forgetful Psyche now inchanted quite / By these harmonious Wiles, set ope her breast / To the loose fancies of unclean Delight”, to the extent that she is about to yield to sex before marriage (‘We did wed above’, Aphrodisias has alleged, so they have no need for ‘human ceremonies’) when her conscience wakes up, and she runs home to repent.

Of course Beaumont could not easily have depicted a male soul. But it is remarkable how fervently this celibate Cambridge don throws himself into the assault of the male seducer upon the soul, whose female nature, via the connection with Adonis, can so readily suggest the maidenly male.

Seduction is a very male, and very literary business. Aphrodisias has all the skills of amatory literature: “with no less success
/ I tun’d my heart to those soul-conquring Charms / Which flourish in smooth Numbers”, he boasts.

After this early trauma, Psyche turns very devout indeed, and by Canto IV, ‘The Rebellion’, the senses have had enough of her austerity:

A knot of friends with Her together born,
And brought up under one soft roof of skin,
Began to stomach that imagin’d Scorn,
She heap’d on them…
First, Opsis, sight, speaks of the joys she could offer, and complains of the way she is disregarded
“To some sad blurrèd Prayerbook she ties
My cheerly Spotless sight; or forceth me
To stare so long on th’unregarding skies,
That with dull seeing I forget to see…”
We are very much in Spenser’s Castle of Alma. The interesting part comes when hearing takes over:
She (Opsis) ending thus; impatient Acoe,
Who thought her Sister’s Speech by all too long,
Step’d back into their common Treasury
Kept by Anamnesis, (where lay the throng
Of their ideal wealth,) and bade her make
Ready her Train, whilst she its Prologue spake.

Beaumont is far more anatomical than Spenser ever tried to be: here’s the dwelling of Acoe, complete with ear-wax:

My House is secret; cautious winding ways
And privy galleries into it lead:
By which abstruse state I my glory raise
 …. The outward room’s oblique, that violent Sounds
May manners learn, and not rush in too fast;
And narrow, to protect my private bounds,
Which by no stealing Vermin must be past.
Yet if they venture, I have lime-twigs there
To check their rashness, trusty Wax and Hair.

And at this Chamber’s end is plac’d my Drum
Made of a Parchment soft and thin and dry,
And ready-corded. But the second Room
Is of my active Tools the treasury:
My Hammer's and my Anvil’s dwelling’s there,
By which I forge all Sounds I please to hear.

As you’d expect, Acoe summons up the best things you could hear: oratory comes first, then music, with all of ‘Music’s Utensils’ …. the Harp, the Lute,
The Organ (moderator of all Songs)
The Viol, Cymbal, Sackbut, Cornet, Flute,
The Harpsichord, Theorbo and Bandore,
The gallant Trumpet, and a thousand more.

But things complicate further when King David appears, as an introduction to poetry. It begins to seem as though Acoe may have a point, and Psyche’s austerities may be wrong. Beaumont, who seems at this point to have taken over entirely from Acoe, mentions Pindar, and Horace, then, in a parenthetical stanza, the poetry of Herbert:

(Yet neither of their Empires was so vast
But they left Herbert too, full room to reign;
Who Lyric’s pure and precious Metal cast
In holier moulds, and nobly durst maintain
Devotion in Verse, whilst by the spheres
He tunes his Lute, and plays to heav’nly ears.)

He continues (considering his own level of indebtedness) with a rather ungrateful mention of Spenser:

Yet with a goodly Train doth Colin sweep:
Though manacled in thick and peevish Rhyme,
A decent pace his painful Verse doth keep:
Right fairly dress’d were his wellfeatur’d Queen,
Did not her Mask too much her beauties screen.

He goes on to praise the verse of his friend Richard Crashaw, by this time in exile:

those polish’d Temple Steps, which now
Stand as the Ladder to thy mounting fame;
And, spight of all thy Travels, make’t appear
Th’art more in England than when Thou wert here.

After the writers he approves of, the allegorical context returns with the dismissive mention of merely amatory poets:

Some distance thence, in flow’ry wanton groves
Luxurious Amorosos sate, who by
The thrilling Key of Sports and Smiles and Loves
Effeminated their quaint Melody.
Nimble Theocritus and Naso were
The leading Lords of all that revel'd there.

Acoe concludes mournfully:

‘This vocal Honey, and much more than this
She cry’d, ‘to court and solace Psyche, I
Would gladly drop: but she so sullen is
That what makes all Rocks move and Tempests rest,
In foul disdain she in my face doth cast.
‘She talks indeed of glorious Melody,
Seraphic and Cherubic Anthems : yet
What faith can flame with so much Charity
As to believe the holy Hypocrite…’

It’s all a bit like Satan offering Christ the pleasures of learning in Paradise Regained. Beaumont clearly thinks that he can mark out heavenly poetry from that of ‘Amorosos’. Even so, Psyche thinks she can hear a still superior poetry, and the poem partly endorses this, by indicating that the pains Psyche inflicts upon herself lead to higher (if rather masochistic sounding) pleasures:

For whilst all-ravish’d Psyche, feasts her heart
With amorous sighs and pains, and day by day
Riots and surfeits in delicious smart,
Which relish sweeter to her Soul …
Is Herbert in or out, is Psyche right, or Acoe / Beaumont? It seems to follow Herbert’s own scruples about even the most conscientious religious poetry: aren’t there simpler, yet higher, acts of worship?
The ‘rebellion’ of the senses continues. Osphresis and Geusis follows, the smell and the taste, the latter given a terrific list of the smorgasbord of animal life consumed in this period, while Touch is so rousing that even the other senses are shocked into disapproval:

Soft Ticklings, Courtings, Kisses, Dalliance,
Embraces which no modest Muse must tell;
For all the Company at their first glance
Started and turn’d from that bold spectacle.
Which Haphe marking, insolently cries,
‘Out, out on these demure Hypocrisies...

Joined by Fancy with the Passions, the senses all fall out with one another over leadership, until Disdain chosen as leader. Psyche sends Logos to negotiate, and offer pardons to all those who surrender now. But Logos is subdued and bound, and then the next emissary, Thelema, the will, is subverted. When this happens, Psyche herself wavers once more.

The politics of all this are clear up to a point: it’s a rebellion in the microcosm, and allows Beaumont to talk about rebellion in the larger world. He intrudes into his narrative to do so:

And here I challenge any heart to read
This story’s riddles, and forbear to sigh;
Seeing servile feet tread down the noble Head,
And common Slaves with tyrannous Licence fly
Upon their Lord: O who secure can be,
When Reason must be bound, and Passion free!

But in the larger rebellion, it was the royalist side that had all the followers of the senses and the passions: the psyche of the nation was assailed by austere Puritanism. Beaumont, as poet, is drawn to the side of the rebel senses, he can’t give as much imaginative life to Psyche’s austerities as he did to the pleasures which assail her. But he counted upon his reader, and had apologized in advance for any departures from sound doctrine:
“I will venture to cast my self upon thy Ingenuity, with this only Protestation, that If any thing throughout this whole Poem, happen [against my intention] to prove Discord to the Consent of Christ’s Catholic Church, I here Recant it aforehand.”

My main image is the sumptuous allegory of hearing by Jan Breughel the Elder, working in the studio of Rubens in 1618.

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