Thursday, September 19, 2013

Old Nick and Young Nick in Paradise: Nicholas Billingsley’s 'The Infancy of the World' (1658)


Nicholas Billingsley began working on his The Infancy of the World (1658) when he was only fifteen. It had probably been set aside for some while when, gratified by the reception of his work, Brachy-martyrologia, or, A breviary of all the greatest persecutions which have befallen the saints and people of God from the creation to our present times paraphras'd by Nicholas Billingsly (a versification of Foxe full of hideous relish for suffering, and for divine retributions on the tormentors), Billingsley realized he could delight his new readers with a swift return to the press if he finished his poem on the Creation. I doubt that he did much re-working, he more probably looked back over his early work to check it was clear of unwise theological speculations or lines that might be misconstrued.


As a literary work, it has some interest, mainly negative. There was nothing here for Milton to learn from, but the outputs of eager and pious poetasters like Peyton and Billingsley do remind us that Milton was going to enter quite a crowded literary field. The generation brought up on du Bartas would naturally think of Genesis as a poetic subject. We can learn too from what Billingsley doesn’t do with his creation narrative: the direction he took was towards the pious encyclopaedia, rather than entering into the intellectual drama of the Fall.


The main part of the work consists, perhaps surprisingly, of eight sections – one would have expected six, as he is dealing with the six days’ labours from Genesis I. His sections consist of the start of creation (as in Milton, apparently not ex nihilo, but order created out of a material chaos), and the separation of the waters, corresponding to verses 1-9. Then, furnishing the earth with trees and flowers (Genesis I, 11-13); section 3, the heavens (I 14-5); the sun and moon (I 16-9); the waters populated with fish occupies his fifth section, and the birds in his sixth – the material for both sections comes from Genesis I 20-3. The seventh section is the creation of the animals, and the eighth, of course, Adam and Eve.


To round off what he had achieved, Billingsley ventured into the Fall itself:

An Appendix 
Of God’s resting day. 
Of Eden garden. 
Of Man’s happiness before his fall. 
Of Man’s misery after his fall.


His treatment of the fall borders on the cursory: this is the Fall of Adam. Eve is talking


… What? frownes my Adam ? wilt thou not draw nearer, 
And taste my love, then whom my life’s not dearer 
For Eves sake eat, and know both good and ill. 
Seeing thou invit’st me eat, my joy, I will. 
Ah! we have sin’d in medling with this Tree, 
This cursed Tree; Oh whither shall we flee? 


Like Stanley Holloway’s lion, Wallace, swallowing Albert, ‘ ’E were sorry the moment   ’e’d done it’. Maybe Billingsley had seen one of those depictions of the temptation where Adam turns away, clutching at his throat after his first bite.


As you will have noticed, Billingsley adopted loose rhymed couplets. Here are some examples of him at work:


An authorial interjection (he has just mentioned dolphins):


“Sweet Jesu! beare me to the Port of Sion, 
Be thou my Dolphin, I’ll be thy Arion.” 

Enumerating the varieties of fish:


“A world of Paper, and a Sea of Ink, 
Would scarce suffice to hold them all I think.” 


Some fish are tasty, others are large:


“Are you a hungry, go and catch a Conger 
What fish is larger then the Whale or longer?” 


God himself speaks to Adam:


“Be thou obsequious, thou shalt finde me mild, 
I’ll be thy father, thou shalt be my child.”



The vocabulary has its freakish moments too:


“Under him Scorpio exporrected lies” (a Latinism, ‘stretched out’). 


Phæbus his refulgent face, 
The upper and the lower world doth grace, 
With equal splendor; his irradient beams 
Refresheth all things; his ignivomous teams 

Run restless races…”


(another Latinism, and altogether a typical 17th century English word, well-evidenced in the OED: ‘fire-vomiting’)



That God should address Eve as ‘nefarious woman’ now sounds odd to us, as the word has become comic, but the basic sense of ‘offending against the moral law’ makes perfect sense: 
Nefarious woman, ah! what hast thou done, 
That thus my awful presence thou dost shun?

Billingsley’s mind moves instantly from the examples of God’s profuse creation to the wondrous behaviours these animals exhibit in the postlapsarian world. He isn’t troubled about what the birds, fish and beasts did, behaviourally speaking, prior to the Fall. The author himself had experienced desperate ill-health when young, and is recurrently emphatic of the curative things a provident God has placed in His creation: the congregation of the waters leads Billingsley rapidly onto an enumeration of the curative wells, and it rather sounds as though he had spent his time at Tunbridge and Bath taking the waters, and the herbs are all orientated to cures


Of Tunbridg famous in our Kentish county, 
For casting up their subterraneous bounty, 
Which relishing of Iron, and sulph’ry veines 
Cures well nigh all infirmities and paines, 
Nay lengthens life causing the fates t’unspin 
Lifes drawn out thred, hath any got the spleen? 
The dropsie? the vertigo? or the stone? 
These waters will yield remedy alone. 
Suppose th’art Lunatick, or Planet struck, 
Hear’s that will help thee, if thou hast the luck 
To come and take it …


Gouts, schyaticas, the French-mans pox, 
And what flows from Pandora’s opened box 
These Springs resist…



Here jaundis-cureing, Horehound, which is good 
Against the Asthma; heer is Southern-wood 
Good against Feavours; here the Worm-wood eases 
All Surfeits, drunk’ness, Cholerick Diseases. 
Cough-chasing Rocket, Rue-expelling vapors, 
Which dim the sight …


One thing that had not struck me before about these minor hexameral works – though it’s obvious enough – in both Peyton and Billingsley, their subject allows, even requires, the author to say his piece about Sabbath observance – and they both take a very insistent attitude about the sanctity of the holy day of rest. Milton doesn’t do this. At the end of His week of creation, God returns to elaborate praise in Heaven:


So sung they, and the Empyrean rung,               VII 633
With Hallelujahs: Thus was Sabbath kept.
And thy request think now fulfill’d, that ask’d 
How first this World and face of things began…


And there it is where it should be, biblically speaking, but Milton certainly doesn’t use this as a soap-box to insist on Sabbath observance. Not that this is a surprise in Milton.


Among Billingsley’s lines about the subject of the Sabbath day are these odd couplets – he is describing the waters of the world, and among the rivers, he gets to the Thames. He praises the watermen shooting London Bridge, and then says:


Great London is the Bow, the Thames the string 
The Boats are arrows which about do spring 
The Streams Sabbatical do rest and stay. 
In observation of the Sabbath day. 


He couldn’t really have thought that the tides in London stopped for the Sabbath, could he? Maybe - Billingsley was very pious (he would go on, as a clergyman, to have a lot of trouble conforming to the Church of England), and seems credulous of wonders he had picked up from books.


The largest portion of this whole work consists of a series of rhymed lists of the things and beings God has created. Dealing with the waters, Billingsley compiles seas, rivers, wells, until he admits his reading can carry him no further, and it’s time for him to turn in anyway:

My Muse hath touch’d the chiefest she hath read, 
And tir’d with search, discretion calls to bed. 

Next section, he busily lists trees, herbs and flowers, then on to the constellations and planets, section 5 has a long list of fish, 6, birds, 7, beasts. About all these aspects of creation, Billingsley is fideistic:

Look here, look there, nay turne I where I will 
I see Gods greatness and his goodness still. 

and willing therefore to believe any kind of wonders about whatever aspect it is of God’s mysterious design:


The envious Peacock hideth out of spight 
His med’cinable dung from humane sight: 
Treads softly like a theif, but from his throat 
Yels out a horible Tartarian note …


Pliny asserted that the peacock deliberately devoured its own dung; dried dung of peacocks seems to appear in most of the pharmacopeias. It was more effective if it was white, apparently. (I have a notion that bird poo contains vitamin B12, but this is not an idea on which I am prepared to act.)


Here he retails, quite uncritically, all the old lore about hyenas:


Alternately his sex Hyæna changes, 
His eyes assume all colours which as strange is; 
Such Dogs as on his shadow light grow dumb: 
His feet stick fast whoever sees him come; 
Calling the shepherds from their thatched bowers, 
He slayes them, and their slautered Corps devours… 


The elephant, meanwhile, understands human language, has its own elephantine faith, and is a royalist:


The Elephant next claimeth excellence, 
This beast comes nearest unto humane sense; 
He knows his country speech, he’s us’d in warrs, 
He worshipeth the Sun, the Moon, the Starrs. 
The greatest of all beasts the earth doth hold, 
He’s proud of trappings wrought with burnish’d gold 
Adores the King, his most ambitious spirit 
Aspires to glory, glory to inherit. 


Maybe I am being severe on Billingsley. If Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published in 1646, does not seem to have come his way, even if Browne dismisses the nonsense about the elephant’s legs having no joints, he was himself willing to credit elephants as writers and speakers, as they enjoy a ‘proximity of reason’:

“That some Elephants have not only written whose sentences, as Aelian ocularly testifieth, but have also spoken, as Oppianus delivereth, and Christophorus a Costa particularly relateth … we doe not conceive impossible; nor beside the affinity of reason in this Animall any such intolerable incapacity in the organs of divers other Quadrupedes, whereby they might not be taught to speake, or become imitators of speech like birds; and indeed strange it is how the curiosity of men that have been active in the instruction of beasts, have never fallen upon this artifice, and among those many paradoxicall and unheard of imitations, should not attempt to make one speak; the Serpent that spake unto Eve, the Dogs & Cats, that usually speak unto Witches, might afford some encouragement, and since broad and thick chops are required in birds that speake, since lips and teeth are also organs of speech; from these there is also an advantage in quadrupedes, and a proximity of reason in Elephants and Apes above them all.”

But occasionally Billingsley the fifteen year old appears in his verse:


“The Stockfish is a fish that wil not boyl 
Unless you beat it with a stick a while


Billingsley does not seem to have registered that dried cod needs to be tenderized before cooking, that you can’t just boil it without doing this first seems to have stuck in his mind as a miraculous property of something called a ‘stockfish’.


As I said, Billingsley added an appendix about the Fall to his poem about the Creation. here, he daringly ventures into dialogue.


God and Adam he treats using a figure of the two as landlord and tenant:

Of all the trees that in the Orchard be 
I set them for thy use, one only tree 
Shall be my rent; that tree thou shalt not tast, 
Which in the center of the garden’s plac’d 
The rest are freely thine, by my permission, 
Rent-free: but yet on an imply’d condition: 
What I injoyne be studious to fulfill, 
Touch not the tree of knowledg, good, and ill; 
For by my sacred majesty, I vow, 
And by my venerable name, if thou 
Break but thy Lease, “thy very lips that shall 
“Let in this fruit, shall let in death withal. 
But if thou please me well, this tree shal be 
A sacred pledg between thy God, and thee. 


Adam replies in kind, and sounds up-to-date on property law


                        shall I fail 
To keep from thee thy right? shall my transgression 
Displease the Landlord of my free possession. 
O no, I will obey …


Adam then produces a series of impossibility tropes, including some that show him creditably knowledgeable about the world he has so recently entered:

Sooner shall sun-burnt India grow cold, 
And Icy Zealand hot, and heav’ns grow old. 
E’re I from my first principles retreat, 
And disobey my God, so good, so great… 

But Satan does his thing:

(His) plot the better to accomplish, he 
Goes wriggling up on the forbidden tree: 
Assaults the woman, with his baited gin, 
And thus he drawes the silly woman in:

Great Empress of the world: I humbly sue 
To be resolved of a doubt, which you 
Can satisfie me in: have you indeed 
Your appetite restrain’d? what, mayn’t you feed    
On evr’y pleasant fruit? why so? doth God 
Limit your pow’r? if so, 'tis very odd.


At this point, Billingsley opts to make Satan into a bad Cavalier poet:

Coy woman tast, behold their beautiful 
And cherry cheeks, coy woman do but pull. 
Cannot those mellow-delicates, invite 
Your wat’ring palate, to an appetite? 
Methinkes they should, taste, and you shall have skil, 
To know the diference 'twixt good, and ill. 
Why draw’st thou back?

                                    To the possessed Snake, 
The cred’lous woman this reply did make. 
Wisest of beasts, all that you speak is true, 
You counsel for the best, all thanks be due, 
For your great love your love which doth transcend 
All merit of mine, thanks to my loyal friend: 
My life’s to small to hazard for your ease, 
Friend I could give’t, your speeches doe so please. 
This fruit is marv’lous pleasing to the eye; 
And questionless, 'tis to the taste: I’ll try. 
And eat thereof and give my husband Adam . 
They bow to serve you, at your pleasure, Madam. 
Ah! how delitious is this fruit, how sweet! 
A finer Apple I did never eat …

The commendatory verses Billingsley solicited from fellow students and relatives are kind, and lay judicious stress on his youth. If we made him touch Josuah Sylvester’s corpse, asks William Jacob, would it cry out ‘murder!’? No, not a bit of it. John Swan notes that
Whiles others of thine age mispent their  times
In toys and pastimes, thou in sacred Rhimes
Applied thy self …
D.R. of Merton College says that this ‘accurate’ poem that it confutes Epicurean atomism.

My illustration, of an Adam reacting instantly to the ‘bad fruit of knowledge’, comes from a Book of Hours, Use of Rome, French, first quarter of the16th century

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