Having this day my horse

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De arte Athletica, Paulus Hector Mair, 1540, From Wikipedia

Jousting was already somewhat archaic by the late sixteenth century, seen as a remnant of an older age and not particularly valued by the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but one of the iconic poets of her reign, Philip Sidney, wrote a rather good poem about it:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance 

Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize, 

Both by the judgment of the English eyes 

And of some sent from that sweet enemy France; 

Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance, 

Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies 

His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise; 

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance; 

Others, because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make. 

How far they shot awry! The true cause is, 

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

If there is something anachronistically medieval about Sidney’s poem, in other respects it was very modern. Though the late-medieval / early Renaissance Italians Petrarch and Dante had written their poetry over 200 years earlier, the Renaissance was just getting into swing in England, and Sidney with other poets like Spenser, following the Henrican Poets Wyatt and Howard, was instrumental in bringing the their influence into English poetry. Part of that influence was formal – the form used here is an English adaptation of the Italian form made popular by Petrarch, the sonnet. Part of that influence was stylistic – subtle rhythms, long complex lines, far-fetched metaphors and analogies. And another part of that influence was in subject matter and tone: a tendency towards platonic idealization and the overriding theme of a suitor trying to win the favour of a – usually quite unattainable – woman, the latter a theme the Italian poets had inherited from the troubadour tradition of early medieval Europe. The centre of the troubadour and romance tradition was of course France rather than Italy, and perhaps Sidney is aware of this in the way he values the praise of the French and designates England’s great rivals with the memorable epithet “sweet enemy”.

In this poem, Sidney proves his masterly command of the sonnet. Sidney’s sentences, you’ll notice, are long. The first 11 lines, for example, are composed of one long sentence (or four sentences connected by semi-colons, depending on your definition of a sentence, but they were probably put there by later editors anyway), as Sidney describes his success at the jousting and the competing theories as to why he was successful. At the same time as he balances all those carefully arranged clauses, he is maintaining a mildly modulated iambic pentameter, and a strict rhyme scheme. Not easy.

It is quite fitting that a poem so masterful in its command of language should be boasting of the poet’s (or his protagonist’s) impressive command of a horse. Sidney, besides his poetry, which was not published in his lifetime, had much to boast of. An early favourite of the queen, both sides of his family were families of note, courtiers of Elizabeth’s father and protestant stalwarts, an immensely influential and self-important clique that included in their train the executed Duke of Northumberland Lord Dudley (not a ‘real’ Northumberland like the Percys), the queen’s closest confident the Earl of Leicester, and the later over-reacher the Earl of Essex. He brags about his lineage thus:

because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make

But this is just one in a long line of boasts – even the French agree on his brilliance; he’s a great horseman; he’s strong; he’s skilful, or lucky. Sidney’s (or Astrophil’s) all-round brilliance is the subject of the first four fifths or so of the poem.

A sonnet traditionally has a turn, somewhere near the end of the poem that turns the whole meaning of the poem on its head, or at least that changes the context in which we understand the previous lines. In an Italian sonnet, which is comprised of two quatrains (or an octave) and a sestet, the turn comes with those last six lines. In an English sonnet, where the change in structure is more abrupt – a final couplet after three quatrains, the placing of the turn is less regular – often it is with the third quatrain, sometimes in that pithy final couplet. In this poem, it comes rather late on, in the last line of the third quatrain, thus:

How far they shot awry! The true cause is

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

 Sidney leaves it pretty much to the last gasp to turn the poem on its head, or attempt to.

The writer and critic John Williams divided the poets of the sixteenth century into nativists and Petrarchans, and Sidney is naturally classed as a member of the latter – perhaps the defining member. He comments of the Petrarchan style that, ‘subject and theme have drawn so far apart that only by an act of rhetoric can they be reunited.’* The subjects are various – here it is the poet’s own horsemanship, but the theme is always the same – love, the courting of the lady, or her all conquering brilliance. The Petrarchan poet’s tenor and are such that their similarities will not be immediately obvious to the reader, but rather persuaded out by the skilled poet. You could complain that such techniques are artificial, but you could also admire the very artifice that unites such disparate things, or uses an unlikely parallel to draw out an interesting truth. In this poem the subject may be Astrophil’s superb jousting, but the true theme is love, and the realization we are brought to is that commonplace of medieval romance, that the knight‘s brilliance is a reflection of his love’s heavenly beauty.

Somehow, I don’t quite buy it. I can’t shake the feeling that what Sidney really wants to talk about is his success at the tilt yard – nothing wrong with that, as there is something satisfying about his swagger, but the stuff about Stella is merely a bit of pretty dressing (or dressage) at the end. When Dante and Petrarch put Beatriz and Laura at the heart of all their poems, as mad as it may seem considering that both hardly knew their muses, it comes across as nothing but absolutely sincere; but when Sidney does it, and so many that follow him, it seems something of an affectation. Then again, Sidney pulls it off with panache. That ingratiating turnaround at the end is the poetic equivalent of a grand, ostentatious bow to the lady watching in the stands that the jouster makes after dismounting.

Sincere or not, it’s still a splendid poem – and Sidney did actually develop a more interesting and realistic attitude towards love later in his career, as I’ll explore in my next post.

* In his “English Renaissance Poetry”, most recently published by NYRB publishing, New York, 2016

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It’s Madness

I must start the year by marking the passing of a friend, the poet Cynthia Jobin, who died peacefully the December past. Cynthia was a greatly talented poet, whose poetry touched those who had the luck to discover it. She was also, as I got to know through her visits to my site, and mine to hers, a warm-hearted and generous person.

Cynthia started posting her poetry on WordPress late in life after the death of her husband, some of which she had written earlier in her life and some of which was new. She was never picked up by a publisher, but she self-published a collection of her poetry a couple of years ago and was pondering a second publication when she learned of her illness. If proof were needed that in the great 21st century glut of self -published and online-published literature there exists some great undiscovered talents, then Cynthia is that proof. Although it should be said that she certainly had been discovered by those who regularly visited and enjoyed her blog, leaving sincere appreciations of her poems.

I know a lot of the people reading poetry or blogs about poetry online are aspiring poets – and I guess about half of those who read this blog are. They could do a lot worse than look to Cynthia as a model. Her poetry was technically and formally polished: the syllables well weighted, the rhyme impressive, sometimes virtuoso, the tension between natural rhythm of speech and the demands of a traditional form perfectly balanced. She had felt her way around several traditional forms, from the sonnet to the rondeau, and experimented with some lesser known ones to good effect, most recently the ghazal. Her language was rich, yet controlled, her vocabulary enviably wide; and she was at home in of a range of registers, from the mildly whimsical to just short of sombre.

It was obvious that she was well read in poetry, and her reading stretched far and wide, both geographically (as her use of the Arab form, the ghazal attests) and temporally, being at home as much with 15th century French poets as 20th century Americans. Like many of the best poets her influences were evident, but not overpowering, and of her own voice comes through, rooted in her own place, in her case northern New England, whose colours and textures she captures so well.

Her poetry touched people because it so well expressed those thoughts and feelings that are so hard to express. She was frank and honest on the hard parts of life, yet delicate too, never wallowing in sadness or grief, but acknowledging it. Her poems on the loneliness and sense of absence after her husband’s death were as affecting as Hardy’s. And she wrote inside other people’s experience too – she has a poem touching on Alzheimers which is the best I have read on that difficult topic. AS well as the deep stuff, she could capture more fleeting, marginal feelings – the strange mourning of an aunt you hardly knew, our strange feelings towards our pets and the foreboding of an oncoming winter; one of her poems on the latter was also a meditation on her sense of the approach of death.

But her poetry was full of joy, too. The joys of nature, of gardening, of reflection and thinking and wordplay and even of poetry itself. She did whimsy exceptionally well – even in many very good poet’s hands it can quickly grate, but she had a skill for it. I always learned something from reading Cynthia’s poems – a new word, or an unknown piece of flora or fauna, sometimes a poetic form, or, through reading people’s responses and her replies, a poet to look up. And from some of her poetry, I could even learn a little about – how to say – life itself, how to approach it, how to live it. The poem I have chosen to feature is a perfect example of that. ‘It’s Madness’ was inspired by a quotation from the Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz, ‘It’s madness to live without joy.’ I can’t quite believe I didn’t comment on it at the time – she was a more generous commenter than I was – but reading through her book recently, I saw it a second or third time, and it seemed a particularly apposite poem for the new year.

It’s madness to live without joy, to will
to wake and look forward to nil,
to drag a dull clod through the day
with little to give or to say,
to keep going nowhere, uphill–

That’s the first stanza. Please read the rest here… and stay a while to get to know Cynthia Jobin the poet, whose poetry will endure.

As for Cynthia Jobin the person, she is no longer with us and I will miss her. Although I only ever spoke to her online, I came to think of her as a friend. Along with the other regular commenter here, John Looker (another published poet), she made blogging seem like something more than an indulgent hobby. She was a thoughtful reader, a generous commenter (always replying to comments on her own blog as well) and a wise and witty conversationist. May she rest in peace.

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Where the wild thyme blows…

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Heath-Robinson’s illustration for a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Via Wikipedia

I have not often succeeded in being topical here on Sweettenorbull, but with 2016 having marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it appropriate to include at least one post on the Bard this year. So, here is my belatedly topical, and very unseasonal, take on one of my favourite passages in Shakespeare. A mid-winter day’s take on some lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

That’s Oberon, the king of the fairies, or faeries, explaining where he will find his wife, Titania, the queen of the fairies, on whom he is going to play a rather mean trick. The soliloquy of which this is the beginning sets the scene for this trick and the action that follows. It is light-hearted stuff compared to many of Shakespeare’s other famous soliloquies: it is fair to say it worries at none of the great themes – life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, justice, fate, none of that. It is a bit of atmospherics, a means of setting the scene for a play that is essentially a bit of enjoyable nonsense.The purpose of the passage is to enchant the listener, and, for me at least, it does so every time.

It is a little fey, I know. We are talking about a passage full of flowers spoken by a great big fairy: not altogether manly that.I’m more into the flowers than the fairies, but I suppose that in itself is something of an admission. A few years ago that great journal of earthy British humour, the Viz, ran a memorable cartoon where Biffa Bacon is chastised (that is, beaten to a pulp) by his parents for reading the Guardian newspaper instead of the Sun. He has just about managed to persuade them that the Guardian isn’t just for ‘snurbs and short-liftaz’ when a free supplement falls out of the paper, ‘Fifty Poems about Flowers’. Biffa’s parents are enraged by this basic affront to decent Geordie reverse-snobbery and duly pummel the poor lad senseless.

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From the Viz comic, via The Guardian

Actually, I understand where they are coming from (Newcastle, of course, which is also where I come from). For a long time, I would hazard from the early 19th century all the way through to the late 20th century, flower imagery was the standby of mediocre poets and poetasters, which may have fixed in the public’s mind, even those, like the Bacons, who would never read poetry, the idea of poetry as something blandly decorative, stuffily middle class and rather effeminate. But this view and all that bad poetry were merely unfortunate by-products of what is actually a great tradition in English poetry of poems about flowers, running from early poetry to the modern day.

(but if you’re not convinced, my site has plenty of posts on poems of a more masculine nature… tools! drinking!)

I would argue that at least a passing acquaintance with the English countryside and its flowers heightens ones appreciation of this poetry; at the same time, reading the poetry improves one’s enjoyment of the countryside. Well, this is true for me, at least. About seven years ago, I lived for a couple of years in Durham, and at about that time, after years of serious novel reading, I was getting very into English poetry. Three poets who I read a lot at that time were William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas and the American William Carlos Williams, in all of whose poems flowers feature prominently, usually with the flower named. Partly to know the flowers in their poems better, and partly because I lived near a rather nice meadow park (like many parks and meadows along the Tyne or the Wear, actually a reclaimed coal mine), and had started to notice flowers whose names I didn’t know, I bought an old Reader’s Digest guide to wild flowers at a car boot sale, and started to casually familiarise myself with the names of those I most often saw. After a couple of years I could identify most of the common flowers I’d come across, and recognise them when they came up in the poetry I was reading, and just walking the countryside I would notice and appreciate flowers much more whether I knew their names or not.

That first line of Oberon’s captures he very real wonder one feels when one comes upon a bank of wild flowers while wandering the woods or countryside. Myself, I know a hillock in Durham where cowslips sprout some years, and, mysteriously, some years they don’t. I know a wooded roadside bank that is carpeted with violets a couple of weeks each spring. In the nearby Finchale Priory there is a reliable bank of anemones on the north bank of the river. When we moved a little north to Prudhoe in Northumberland, my wife and I gradually found comparable scenes – another bank of anemones, a patch of teasels, a riverside outcrop of reeking ramsons, a field of mixed white and red clover. Finding such scenes and remembering them became one of the pleasures of walking.

Paul Auster the novelist and and sometime critic wrote of an interesting difference between English and French poetry. In French poetry, he claims, flowers tend to be described simply by the word flower – fleur, while in English poetry they are given specific names. I can’t quite remember where he went with that (I read it a long time ago and do not have it to hand), but I think he went on to generalise from this that the French think in the abstract, while the English-speaking peoples favour the specific and concrete, perhaps that the English like to categorise while the French philosophise. And maybe there is something in that. The English value the poetic power of particular names. Look at the first four lines of Oberon’s speech: it contains the names of six different flowers. Just the names of those flowers take up thirteen of the lines’ forty syllables. The last two plants take up six of the last lines’ ten. A great deal of the lines’ beauty inheres in the sound of those names alone. I wonder if Shakespeare, if indeed most people of his time, could reel off the names of plants like that, when plant lore was still a living tradition. Perhaps he asked around his fellow playwrights and actors at the Angel.

We tend to imagine A Midsummer-night’s dream taking place in an English woods – it certainly sounds like one and it has a couple of bona fide English myths wandering around in Puck and Robin Goodfellow. But of course the play is set in a wood outside Athens – it seems the characters wander into the wooded paradise of Arcadia – since that place was mythical I suppose Shakespeare was quite at liberty to model it after the woods of his homeland. Poets in the sixteenth century tended to use a classical setting for their pastoral poetry, as well as their love poems, which is why shepherds and maidens alike had names like Lycidas, Cynthia and Clarissa, rather than Roger, Mary and Lisa. This was a matter of convention, but it also gave them a bit of liberty from the rigid social mores of the sixteenth century. Titania is acting in a way that might have had a contemporary Englishwoman up before the church courts, ‘lulled ‘by ‘dance and delight’, sleeping in the open air in the most sensuous of settings.

There is a faint echo of Middle English poems in these lines, where ‘blow’ retains its Middle English meaning of ‘bloom’, and might remind some readers of the line ‘bloweth mead’ in ‘Sumer is ycumen in’. Eglantine is another word with a medieval ring to it, carrying the scent of Norman French: the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was called Madame Eglentine, and gently mocked by the narrator for her old-fashioned Norman French pronunciation. Critics have commented much on Shakespeare’s propensity to use earthy Anglo-Saxon words in conjunction with Latin derived words (examples here would be nodding violet, enamelled skin and, arguably, luscious woodbine), but there is there is also here the mingling of modern and archaic English words. It all adds to the sense in the play of the past and present mingling with the eternal, of the familiar morphing into the strange and foreign, and of reality blending with fantasy.

As a reader who has read more than his fair share of poems aboot floo-ahs, as the Bacons would style them, I can’t help but sense a foreshadow of much later English poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. I have already mentioned those other serial flower name droppers Wordsworth, Thomas and Williams. Titania perhaps provided some inspiration for that equally fickle (though nastier) lady of the woods, Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. And the alliteration and unusual syntax of the phrase ‘weed wide’ puts me in mind of Hopkins, who claimed to be reclaiming the old alliterative tradition of Old English. I could go on a lot longer about the richness of Shakespeare’s language and its influence, but a post, like a garden (though unlike a mythical wood) has got to end somewhere…

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To Lord Mounteagle

Here’s a post from a year and a bit ago that I later realised really ought to have been timed for Guy Fawkes Night, that is (Remember, remember) 5th November in Britain.

sweettenorbull

On 26 October 1605 William Parker Lord Monteagle (sometimes rendered Mounteagle) was sitting eating dinner with guests at his home in Hoxton, London, when a servant handed him a letter that a tall, mysterious stranger had just delivered to his door. Lord Monteagle broke the seal and then handed the letter back to the servant to read it out. The letter was anonymous, but supposedly from one of the gunpowder plotters, and started as so:

My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme.

Monteagle was a Catholic member of the House of Lords, a man of divided loyalties – on the one hand to the…

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O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw

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William Davenant was a prominent poet of the Stuart age, his career spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War and Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II. He started a rumour, unintentionally, I think, or jokingly, that he was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare: what he meant to say is that he had drawn his love for poetry and theatre from his reading of the bard’s oeuvre. He was well-known, and good enough to receive royal patronage (and, during the Interregnum, a measure of tolerance from the Cromwellian authorities) and was numbered among those poets classed Cavalier Poets. He was the butt of all sorts of jokes on account of his disfigured – that is, mostly disintegrated – nose, the result of a mercury-based treatment for syphilis, which he contracted from a prostitute. If his poetry is anything to go by (which, of course, it may not be), his disfigurement did not hinder his success with the opposite sex, about whom he continued to write poetry.

The poem below is a lyric from one of Davenant’s plays, which are not widely available these days, so it could be that some details of the poem relate to the play this was taken from. Perhaps the arch tone belongs to a character of that play too, and is not meant to represent Davenant’s own poetic persona. However, the lyric has reached us as a distinct poem, anthologised as such, while the play has been largely forgotten (so much so that where the poem is anthologised, I cannot find the play it is from mentioned by name), so I think it is fair to treat it as such. In any case, it is consistent with the way in which he wrote to and about women in his poetry.

 

O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise;
Open (to keep the sun in awe)
Thy pretty pinking eyes:
And, having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat or dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep
When you have slept enough?
Long since, French boys cried Chimney-sweep,
And damsels Kitchen-stuff.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at’s master’s chamber-door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise! your breakfast stays,
Good water-gruel warm,
Or sugar-sops, which Galen says
With mace, will do no harm.
Arise, arise! when you are up
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle-cup,
Good nutbrown ale, and toast.

The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, Ed. Alastair Fowler, Oxford, 1991

To very sensitive souls, the first line of the poem, ‘thou that sleep’st like pig in straw’ sounds a bit nasty. As someone whose teenage self was called out of bed each weekend with a resolute ‘Get out your pit’, it sounds rather familiar, almost affectionate. And this impression is confirmed in the next seven lines or so: the adjectives used to describe the woman and her dressing are indeed affectionate, though humble and homely – dear, pretty, clean. We’re a distance away from pure and Platonic invocations of ideal love here and firmly in the familiar setting of the home – the bedroom to be precise. There is a nod to the more elevated traditions of the courtly love poetry that so dominated the previous century where Davenant says that the lady opening her eyes will ‘keep the sun in awe’, but this phrase, a parenthesized aside, is surely tongue in cheek, given that the ‘awe’ the lady will keep the awe in is rhymed most contrastingly with ‘straw’.

In any case, lovelorn poets in the Petrarchan tradition are supposed to pine outside their lover’s door, and it sounds very much like the poet here is speaking from inside the bedroom, or at least imagining himself to be so. Or perhaps he is down in the kitchen calling his lover up – in any case, there is no wooing to be done. The beginning of the poem is also ever so slightly sensual, or voyeuristic even: we are watching a woman get dressed here, and Davenant lingers on the details of her doing so  – going so far as to refer to her ‘dock’ – her rump – under the pretence of concern that she keeps herself warm. NOTE: As Cynthia has pointed out in the comments, the voice here could as easily be the woman’s maid or long-time companion rather than her lover, which explains why she’s making her breakfast. Nevertheless, I still detect a little of what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ in the way the poet describes the lady.

The poet contrasts the lady to the people in the neighbourhood who have long-since got up and started their day’s business. The intent here is partly to tease: he cannot surely expect her to follow the example of apprentices, chimney-sweeps and trades-women; she is a lady, after all. But he (or she, if it is a maid speaking) knows she cannot take gladly to being compared to such people. Perhaps the poet is engaging in a little stealth-boasting here too, signalling to his readers that the woman he is addressing is no mere commoner, and on a different social level than apprentices, kitchen girls or chimney sweeps (or, er, prostitutes), which is the very reason she does not actually need to be up as early. I suspect that by modern standards, most everybody in Stuart Britain could be classed an early-riser, but then as now the working classes would be up and about ahead of their social betters. I wonder a little about those French chimney sweeps. Could that be a reference to the play this lyric was taken from, or is a bit of social background from contemporary London? Were Huguenot refugees in seventeenth century London monopolising the chimney cleaning industry? It seems plausible. The other figures alluded to the poem also help to build a picture of a London street of the mid-seventeenth century – young girls selling vegetables, boys shining their masters shoes – before the focus of the poem moves on, and finishes with the comforts of the upper-middle class home, that is, a lovely warm breakfast.

Gruel has a grim association to the modern ear, associated with poverty and flavourlessness, but here it denotes a kind of porridge, and not a particularly bad kind. Sugar sops is bread dunked in sugared water or ale – the English have ever loved food that is comforting though not particularly nutritious. Mace is a kind of nutmeg. I’m not sure how the 2nd century Greek physician would have known of such comforts, but Davenant was presumably well read in the classics, as most poets of his era were, so I guess we’ll have to take his word for it. Another habit the English have preserved down the ages is starting the day with a hot drink, the ‘caudle cup’ of the poem. Since the poem predates the widespread use of tea in England, I’m not quite sure what that hot drink would be – something tasty and not particularly nutritious, I would hazard.

One habit we (unfortunately) haven’t preserved down the ages is starting the day with a nice drink of beer, the pre-tea thirst-quencher of choice in pre-Empire days. ‘Nutbrown ale’ sounds tasty– it’s like something you’d read in the explanatory notes on the label of your craft beer – but there may be a sensual undertone there too. The epithet ‘nut-brown’ had been used since medieval times to describe the skin tone of a working girl, of the kind that poets were sure were less trouble (to woo, to bed and so on) than the pink-skinned daughters of noblemen. Thomas Campion explains her so, giving her the Classical name of Amaryllis:

If I love Amaryllis, 

She gives me fruit and flowers: 

But if we love these ladies, 

We must give golden showers. 

Give them gold, that sell love, 

Give me the nut-brown lass, 

Who, when we court and kiss, 

She cries, “Forsooth, let go!” 

But when we come where comfort is, 

She never will say no. 

I care not for thee Ladies, The New Oxford book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed. Emyrys Jones, Oxford, 1991

The ‘Nut-brown maid’ was also a character in an old ballad, known for her steadfast loyalty to a knight despite the great travails he and she had to go through. It would probably be a bit far-fetched to read much into that, to say for example that Davenant is hinting his lady friend be more like the humble and loyal nut-brown maid, but the association lingers there, perhaps part of the subtle teasing that underlines this otherwise affectionate get out of bed poem.

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Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.

(http://www.attalus.org/poetry/asclepiades.html)

Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.

 

Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?

 

Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.

 

But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.

 

(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.

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Of a Contented Mind

800px-Thomas,_Lord_Vaux,_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Thomas Vaux by Hans Holbein

Thomas Vaux was a Catholic nobleman in the nervy middle years of the 16th Century. Friends with Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, he was much more troubled than they by the religious developments of Henry VIII’s reign, and effectively withdrew from public life for the latter years of the Henrican era and the even harsher (if less bloody) reforms of Edward VI’s minority, only to re-enter public life at the accession of Queen Mary. His descendants lived through more troubled times still for England’s loyal Catholics, as Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was anathemised by the Pope, and Catholicism became straightforwardly treasonous in the view of the queen’s ministers. As Jesse Childs’ details wonderfully in her great book God’s Traitors, the family would be caught up in the war of espionage, propaganda and legalistic harassment between the state and its agents on one side, and the Vatican, the Catholic exiles and occasionally the French and the Spanish on the other.

Poetically, Vaux is often classed with a group of mid-sixteenth poets often known as the ‘natives’ who resisted (or simply never paid attention to) the new Italian forms and Petrarchisms that had such an impact on poets from Spenser and Sidney to Shakespeare and eventually Milton. This group is typified by George Gascoigne, and includes such poets as Barnabe Googe and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as Thomas Vaux. The writer and anthologist John Williams, who championed this group, explained that readers should read the poems as if ‘mortals listening to mortals’: ‘if we listen to the poem, we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses, beneath the bare and essential speech, the human cadence of the human voice, speaking to us as if we were alive.’

‘The Mortals’ would perhaps be a better name for the group, contrasting them quite nicely with those poets who are so better remembered and were awfully (sometimes tediously) fond of that renaissance trope about poetry making its subject and writer immortal. And, as Williams suggests, there is a great deal of the fallibly human in their poetry. One of Gascoigne’s better known poems is ‘Gascoigne’s Woodsmanship’ which details the numerous mistakes and bad luck of his many failed careers. (I do intend to have a closer look at Gascoigne’s poem one day) That poem could be seen as archetypal of the natives’ style and their tone. It starts as so:

My worthy Lord, I pray you wonder not
To see your woodman shoot so oft awry,
Nor that he stands amazèd like a sot,
And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.

One easily imagines Gascoigne sitting in a London tavern reflecting with some rue – and some mirth – on his life’s misses, as his audience chuckle and sympathise, now and again adding their own reflections and occasionally raising the tone with a classical or Biblical allusion, though nothing too clever.

And one imagines the Catholic nobleman and poet Thomas Lord Vaux (wearing his title lightly in Henry or Edward’s reign) in a similar mode. Not in London perhaps, but at his manor in the midlands, or that of a fellow recusant, explaining  -or justifying – his withdrawal from public life. His justification would perhaps run a long similar lines to this poem…

 

When all is done and said, in the end thus shall you find,

He most of all doth bathe in bliss that hath a quiet mind:

And, clear from worldly cares, to deem can be content

The sweetest time in all his life in thinking to be spent.

 

The body subject is to fickle fortune’s power,

And to a million of mishaps is casual every hour:

And death in time doth change it to a clod of clay;

Whenas the mind, which is divine, runs never to decay.

 

Companion none is like unto the mind alone

For many have been harmed by speech; through thinking, few or none.

Fear oftentimes restraineth words, but makes not thought to cease;

And he speaks best that hath the skill when for to hold his peace.

 

Our wealth leaves us at death; our kinsmen at the grave;

But virtues of the mind unto the heavens with us we have:

Wherefore, for virtue’s sake, I can be well content

The sweetest time of all my life to deem in thinking spent.

 

Thomas Vaux, From English Renaissance Poetry, Selected by John Williams, NYRB

 

I wonder whether, ‘when all is said and done’ (or done and said) had as hackneyed a ring to it in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first; I suspect not quite as much so. Though the language is sometimes almost too plain, and the imagery hardly original, there are some nice lines of poetry in there, and the poet expresses his thoughts in balanced, precise lines; those thoughts are not as trite as they might first appear – they are, given the poet’s circumstances, deadly serious.

 

The first stanza is straightforward Platonism, though Platonism expressed with the charming bumptiousness of a lord of the manor. Plato decreed that thinking, particularly thinking of abstract thoughts, was the noblest of pastimes, as compared to the lower class, plebian business of dealing with particulars and actually – ugh! – doing stuff. For Plato and his compadres, contemplation actually was a near-religious act, as it brought us away from the shadowy corrupt world of our senses and closer to the real world of ideal objects. That is why Vaux uses a phrase like ‘bathe in bliss’ (also for its alliteration of course).

 

After the elevated imagery of the previous stanza, the second brings us down to earth – that is, down to the image of our death, and our bodies turning to mud in the grave. There is again a strong flavour of Platonism, what with that philosopher’s separation of soul and body; but there is also something very medieval about the imagery too. Fickle fortune makes an appearance, and death is something ever-present, waiting to waylay the unsuspecting person. The point is to drive home the importance of our immortal souls, or minds, as opposed to our all too vulnerable, corruptible bodies.

 

The third stanza is, I think, the most revealing about the times Vaux lived in, and about his own attitude towards the temper of those times. ‘[M]any have been harmed by speech’ he tells us, ‘Through thinking few or none’. He is not exaggerating! Henry Howard, Vaux’s friend and fellow poet, met a nasty end after crossing the king, and did not help himself with a couple of thinly veiled and sharply observed criticisms of the monarch in his verse. But those were actually thought through verses – if not at all wise to publish. A man who really may have been harmed by his own thoughtless speech, was Sir Nicholas Carew, who lost his temper with Henry at a game of bowls one day, and soon after lost his head. It didn’t help Carew that he was of royal blood himself – Henry didn’t like rival bloodlines hanging around; and his demise may also have been related to some natty properties of the noble’s that Henry had his eye on. And also to the fact that in his younger days, Henry may well have slept with his wife. No one likes a guilty reminder hanging around. Whatever the particulars of Carew’s demise, Vaux was certainly wise to refrain from speaking his mind too clearly in Mid-Tudor England.

 

What Vaux is advocating, ultimately, is a kind quietism. In one’s own mind, one can let one’s thoughts range freely, but in the perilous public sphere, one is better advised not to speak freely. In fact, one had better stay away from that sort of thing altogether. Of course, he dresses this up in Platonic philosophy and medieval wisdom – and, in the last stanza, he insists this is all done ‘for virtue’s sake.’ Self-preservation must have played on his mind somewhat too.

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