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

piglets-sleeping-in-straw-bed-a15337

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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Whether Men do Laugh or Weep

Whether men do laugh or weep,

Whether they do wake or sleep,

Whether they dies young or old,

Whether they feel heat or cold;

There is, underneath the sun, 

Nothing in true earnest done.

 

All our pride is but a jest;

None are worst, and none are best;

Grief and joy, and hope and fear,

Play their pageants everywhere:

Vain opinion all doth sway,

And the world is but a play.

 

Powers above in clouds do sit,

Mocking our poor apish wit,

That so lamely, with such state,

Their high glory imitate;

No ill can be felt but pain,

And that happy men disdain.

 

Thomas Campion (From English Renaissance Poetry, NYRB, Ed. John Williams)

‘There is no new thing under the sun.’ So goes the King James Bible version of Ecclesiastes 1:9, although we tend to shift it around to ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Thomas Campion may not have heard that exact line, and, as a Catholic (before the main Catholic English bibles were printed) may never have read the line in English; but he was a great Latinist, and so it is very likely he had read the lines in the Vulgate. In any case, he says something a little different from the Biblical verse. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ is often taken to mean that originality is not possible, that humans will always behave in more or less the same way, and that the new fashions and ideas are really old fashions and ideas in a new guise. In the context of the Ecclesiastes, it adds weight to the idea that all human endeavours are futile. Campion instead writes: ‘There is nothing underneath the sun / nothing in true earnest done.’ It is not that everything is futile, or anyway, not just that everything is futile, but it is insincere too. ‘It’s all bullsh*t, Baby*’, as a more modern demotic would have it.

The last line of the second stanza will be recognizable to most as almost Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and like that line, it betrays cynicism about people’s motives – they don’t act the way they do because they want to, but because they’re bound to.

There is often much that is classical in Campion’s songs and poetry, of Arcadia and the Graeco-Roman Gods, and they seem to their appearance here at the beginning of the last stanza, mocking man’s ‘apish wit’. As with many renaissance poets, he can blend Judeo-Christian and pagan mythology without embarrassment: Ecclesiastes in the first stanza, the pagan Gods in the last – though he does not name any Gods, so it is at least arguable that he is referring to God and the saints. But the last two lines, if Campion means them in earnest, certainly suggest a way of thinking with its origins in ancient Greece, the idea that there is no objective good and bad at all, only pain, and that one’s life should be organised around avoiding pain as much as possible. This is the very rational, very unchristian, doctrine of Epicurus.

Epicurus practised philosophy in what came to be known as the Hellenistic period, in the wake of the Alexandrian conquest that finished off the old Greek states for good, and with them their idealism. The Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics philosophised in a world where they could not hope to alter events, but had to resign themselves to them, or withdraw from them. Ecclesiastes too was probably written in one of the (many) periods in Jewish history where the Hebrews were subjugated by a greater power, unable to control their own destiny. Political powerlessness breeds fatalism. So whence comes Campion’s fatalism? It could be simply another inheritance of the classics he was so influenced, but it could equally have been born from the circumstances of his own age.

Campion was, as I noted above, a Catholic. Catholicism in no way that I can see informs his work – his is simply not a poetry of religious ideas. But it affected his life. He attended Oxford, but did not graduate – and this is thought to be because Catholics were forbidden at the time from holding degrees from English universities. Many English Catholics in the Elizabethan era rebelled against their sovereign, from those in the north who took up arms against their queen, to the many who were ordained overseas as Jesuits to return and preach in their country, who were often hanged and quartered for their trouble (the most famous of whom shared the poet’s surname –one Edmund Campion), and those involved in plots to put Mary Stewart on the throne. But Campion was not a soldier, nor a priest – he was a poet and songwriter. He made his living in Tudor society as best he could, perhaps as a lawyer when younger, certainly as a doctor when older, and was involved in the great web of patronage around the Howard family, that sometimes crypto-Catholic, sometimes overtly Catholic noble household of great standing and high ambitions. For someone who was not inclined to wholly endorse Elizabeth’s settlement, but was not prepared to suffer the consequences of rebelling against it, a studied classical cynicism was just the thing.

Of course, it wasn’t just Catholics who couldn’t speak their minds in Elizabethan England. There were certain topics on which everyone had to watch their words. Ben Jonson found this to his cost when he was hauled in front of the authorities to account for satirical elements in his play ‘The Isle of Dogs’, which has unfortunately been lost to posterity. Kyd and Marlowe were two more playwrights who ran into trouble for offending the pieties of the day. Better be like Shakespeare and, if one wants to comment on court life, recreate the courts of generations past, those overseas or in a semi-mythical past, and let the audience make the connection to the modern day. Or, like Campion here, speak in the greatest generalities. An Elizabethan listener would likely have thought of Elizabeth’s royal marches at the sound of the word ‘pageant,’ even if Campion’s lines speak of a pageant of abstract entities. ‘Wit’ was a greatly valued characteristic in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and strongly associated with the court and the monarchs, who like to test their own verbal dexterity on their cleverest courtesans: and yet here, the Gods, or God, looks down on such cleverness with scorn – rather Campion does. He can safely excoriate the powerful of his own age by talking about the powerful of all ages.

Many of Campion’s poems were also songs, and many of their tunes have survived to the modern day. I must profess ignorance on this one – I don’t know whether Campion (or his collaborator Rossiter) ever set this to music, or, if they did, whether it survived for posterity. All that seems to come up on the web is Vaughan Williams’ song. Williams song in any case is worth listening to, a mixed choir and piano arrangement. It’s beautifully uplifting – and that makes perfect sense to anyone who has experienced the relief of just not caring anymore…

*This is almost a quote from People Ain’t No Good, a lovely bit of miserablism from that most poetic of modern crooners, Nick Cave

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And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (http://tudors.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Wyatt)

The above image is from HBO’s series The Tudors, and shows the lovelorn poet Thomas Wyatt wooing a somewhat less enamoured Anne Boleyn. In this scene of the series, Wyatt reads the below poem to Boleyn, and then she swiftly tells him never to see him again – not because of the poem, but because she knows the King of England wants her. We don’t know if such a scene ever took place, or indeed if Wyatt’s poem was inspired by his infatuation with the future queen, but of all the many liberties taken with history by that TV series, that was one of the more plausible ones: Boleyn really did terminate their relationship soon before being wooed by Henry VIII, and Wyatt really was besotted by her. Although it didn’t, alas for Wyatt – and for Boleyn – have the desired effect on its subject, it is indeed an arresting poem.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart,
Neither for pain nor smart;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Thomas Wyatt

Notes: Grame- Sorrow; the ‘pity’ of the last stanza sometimes has an accent written on the second syllable; ‘Alas’ is sometimes written in French ‘Hèlas’

Wyatt is often credited (alongside Henry Howard) with bringing the influence of Petrarch into English poetry, an influence that would have such a great impact, for good and bad, through the English Renaissance and beyond. But there is much about this poem that is very un-Petrarchan. The language is plain and straightforward, and there are none of the elaborate metaphors and oxymorons that characterise Petrarchan poetry. Wyatt is not talking to his muse, to a distant and unobtainable image of feminine perfection, such as Petrarch, Dante and so many of their imitators, but a real woman, albeit one suddenly unobtainable. It is a poem with something of what has been called the ‘native’ tradition of English poetry, typified by Skelton and, especially, Gascoigne. The novelist John Williams, who edited the NYRB’s English Renaissance Poems, characterised this group rather nattily as ‘mortals speaking to mortals’. In this poem a mortal, that is normal – and, frankly rather desperate man, vents his feelings to his belle, aloof and cold-hearted, perhaps, but accessible enough to address directly.

Each stanza consists of a tercet in iambic trimeter (bada bada bada  – to save thee from the blame / of all my grief and grame) sandwiched between the poem’s refrain. As C. Jobin has pointed out down in the comments, one of Wyatt’s great skills was the adaptation of Italian forms to the English language with its accentual (‘stress-timed’) rhythm, as opposed to the syllabic rhythm of most Romance languages. Unlike French, Italian and Spanish poets, who must count the number of syllables in a line, an English poet should (while paying heed to the number of syllables) instead count the number of stresses. The correct placement of stressed and unstressed syllables will affect how natural the poem sounds in the reading. A skillful poet can vary the meters of individual lines of the poem, according to the rhetorical tone required, without breaking the underlying rhythm of the poem. Wyatt does this exceptionally well, only faltering on the words ‘pity’ and ‘cruelty’, which we feel compelled to pronounce pity and cruelty. This aside, he follows the natural rhythm of English very well.

This might be the first poem in the English language to start with the word ‘and’. Of course, starting with and may have been put there as a necessary unstressed syllable before the stressed ‘wilt’. But it somehow  creates a quite modern impression. We seem to be are coming onto the scene in media res, as they say on screenwriting courses, as if the girl has just declared her intention to break their engagement, and the poet is giving his heartfelt response. Having asked her if she really will leave like this, he does not let her get a word in, but appeals rather ‘say nay, say nay’ – a refrain that is repeated at the end of each stanza. This emotional ejaculation makes up the first four syllables of the first tercet, and the effect is to make the start of the poem more conversational . This may not have been Wyatt’s intention, but it could be said to reflect the state of mind of the scorned lover.

The poet goes on in his incredulous way, pleading the woman to stay, listing the brief reasons why she shouldn’t leave. For anyone used to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney et al, it is very direct and undecorated. There are, as I said, no elaborate metaphors – no metaphors at all, in fact – and no clever conceits. The ideas expressed may be conventional – some lines indeed are very similar to traditional marriage vows, and many are quite formulaic – but they are apt.

Where the poem really succeeds is in the marriage of a formal poetic form with a natural English rhythm, which makes it sound like an authentic (if unsuccessful) attempt at wooing, and more importantly to allow the charming voice of the 16th century poet to emerge.

The poem is also, how to put this? … abject. He appeals to the woman’s pity for him rather more than we might think manly these days. Sixteenth century men had a very different idea of what emotions were worthy of poetry. Could you think of a poem from subsequent centuries quite so pathetic and desperate? Certainly, it is hard to imagine any poet of the twentieth century laying down such emotions so baldly. Such sentiments are nowadays more likely to be heard in pop music – off the top of my head, say, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, but I’m sure you could think of a half-dozen others. Thus (if we were being a bit silly), we could say that Wyatt with all his other achievements wrote an early example of the ‘Don’t leave me, baby’ genre of lyrics.

Interestingly, this poem was put to music by the early 20th Century composer Peter Warlock, who turned many poems into songs. His composition is a eerie with a lovely piano melody, although the song lacks the human warmth and natural rhythm of the poem read by the spoken voice.

N.B. I amended parts of this post in response to C. Jobin’s comments below. Thanks to her for her important observations.

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Auguries of Insolence

I was asked my age in class the other day, and wheeled out the old lie/joke that really means, I’d rather you didn’t ask.

‘Twenty-one,’ I said.

‘You look like you’re forty-six,’ the eleven year old girl replied.

That number was no accident – she knows for a fact I’m thirty-six.

I explained to her (though surely she already knew), that it is polite to tell people they look younger than they are.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘You look sixteen.’

‘Gah!’

I think the ideal lie is something like, guess someone’s age, then subtract ten years, but if I told her that then she would tell me I looked thirty-six, so I took a different tack.

Next lesson, in the back of her book I wrote the following lines from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

‘Special homework just for you,’ I said. ‘Read the poem and explain the meaning to me.’

‘It means don’t tell lies.’

‘No it doesn’t. Read it.’

‘But I can’t understand…’

‘Really?’

‘Your handwriting.’

‘Ah…’ I read it out to her.

A minute later she handed her book to me with her gloss on the poem:

It means be nice to the old teacher.

Gah!

(Just a short, light-hearted post this one. If you’re looking for a more serious consideration of Blake’s poem, um, I dunno – try Google or something? More substantial posts to follow soon ^^)

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