Tag Archives: Renaissance Poetry

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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To His Mistress Going to Bed

The retired England footballer Michael Owen recently sullied (albeit slightly) his squeaky clean image with a rather tasteless tweet directed at his wife, and shared, as is the modern morè, with the whole world via Twitter. The tweet consisted of a picture of one of his dogs lying adjacent to and staring longingly at his other dog’s testicles with the caption ‘I wonder if Mrs Owen will be so obliging tonight’. England baulked, and Mrs Owen, if the follow up tweet is anything to go by, obliged him not, skulking on her sofa flicking him the v’s (v for eff off, that is, not v for victory). Better luck next time, Michael.

The erstwhile England wonder kid can at least take solace in being part of a long English tradition of publishing one’s personal entreaties for, er, intimacy to one’s lover. John Donne’s To His Mistress Going To Bed is one of the best, and one of the bluntest.

To His Mistress Going to Bed
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou Angel bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.

To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need’st thou have more covering than a man.

Donne is called a Metaphysical poet sometimes, but this is not because he is interested in metaphysical enquiry and not in the physical life of the body; this poem is very physical indeed – Mary Whitehouse might have called it filth had she been around at the turn of the 17th Century. Rather, it is a term coined by Samuel Johnson to describe, disapprovingly, poets of that era who used clever conceits and bizarre metaphors, rather than more natural means, to win the hearts (or beds) of their sweethearts. Poetics aside, however, this poem shows by the end that Donne can use very, er, natural methods to forward his amours.

Donne starts by begging his mistress’s sympathy for a situation just too hard to bear. For most of the rest of the poem, he begs her remove her clothes, item by item, before finally extolling the virtues of complete nakedness. You might think of that outrageously decadent perfume commercial from a Christmas or two ago, where a leggy actress strides through a mansion flinging off her clothes until she’s wearing nothing but perfume; alternatively, think of a romantic scene in a period drama where a couple must tackle the complex rigours of the woman’s apparel before getting down to action – or not, as the case may be. In humour, the poem sits somewhere between these two scenes, though more of the second: it has a little of the erotic charge of the first, and all the lusty comedy of the second. Incidentally, it provides a quite detailed list of the forbidding clothing of sixteenth and seventeenth century lady that might for a while fend off a woman’s interested suitor, or husband even: girdle, breast-plate, busk, gown, white undershirt, coronet, gems…

The flattery is over the top, and for a man who was an ordained clergyman, and went on to write some of the most famous devotional poetry in the English language, Donne is remarkably playful with religious imagery. I wonder how well some of Donne’s Godlier readers would have taken the joke. And how effective was it, I wonder, as seduction? His lady’s girdle, he says, is like the heavens, but encompassing a fairer world: one can imagine this line inspiring groans in his beloved, though not of the kind he is after.

There are many dirty jokes in the poem, though. Donne makes a play on the whiteness of the lady’s under garment commenting that evil spirits as well as angels dress like this, but there is an easy way to tell them apart:

By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

Down wanton down! There is another intriguing pun at the end of the next stanza. Donne imagines he is entering into a contract with his lover. The line ‘where my hand is set my seal shall be’ is one borrowed from a contract, especially a last will and testament – so in one sense, Donne imagines the consummation of their love to be the kind of legal bond, akin to signing and sealing a contract. Well that is all of a part with good, healthy Christian (if not puritan) sexual relations. But he may also be making a very physical pun:’hand’ could well mean just that, his hand, which, since he has dispensed with her underclothes, is busy fondling his lover – roving ‘Behind, before, above, between, below’ as he has put it; the ‘seal’ could be a play on semen – that is both in the sense that its ejaculation confirms the act of sex, and its physical sense as a hot liquid.

Sorry! Sorry – that’s a bit much, isn’t it, for a Sunday afternoon read? You come here for edifying poetry, not this smutty filth… apologies all round. It’s just a theory really, perhaps one I could have kept to myself – though I’m not the first reader to find traces of semen in Donne’s poetry. But since we’re on the subject of smut, is there a more outrageous, queasier ‘come hither’ in English poetry than this:

Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself;

Don’t answer that question. I could go on and on taking lines in this poem, analysing them, affecting mock-outrage, and making wisecracks, but – as Donne shows us in the poem – things have to end somewhere. I noticed reading around about this poem, that an awful lot of commentary on it comes from a feminist and post-colonialist angle, inspired especially by that joke about America, and the regular references to Donne’s manhood. The critique goes something like this ‘Donne is an evil dead white male who sought to dominate his lover, just as those infamous evil dead white men, European colonists, sought to dominate new territory and its peoples’ (I paraphrase slightly). I don’t think so. This is not about domination, it is a witty and intimate invitation, and the phallic references are not so much egotistical as desperate – Michael Owen would understand

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Volpone’s Song to Celia

Aubrey Beardsley's Front Cover to Volpone

Aubrey Beardsley’s Front Cover to Volpone

This week’s poem is from Volpone, by Ben Jonson, a biting, hilarious satire set in Venice about a man undone by his own greed and lust, who undoes a good many others in the process – and has some rather wicked fun on the way (though not as much as he intends). Volpone spends most of the first act lying in bed – apparently a deathbed – as his servant Mosca leads in a procession of well-wishers, wishing mostly of course to be written into the rich Volpone’s will. Each is persuaded by the crafty Mosca, and by encouraging wails and grunts from Volpone himself, that they are the main beneficiaries of Volpone’s Will, but in the meantime leave the not-so-sick man an expensive gift as a token of their love and good faith. Volpone – Italian for fox – and his servant Mosca – mosquito – thus trick them out of their money. They have, we can assume, made a great living out of such scams before, and this is their most successful yet. Volpone is side-tracked from this scheme, however, when he hears of the legendary beauty of the wife of one of his well-wishers, and, having ventured out in disguise and espied her, is determined to bed her.

Mosca devises an ingenious plan to make this happen. He explains to one of the well-wishers, Corvino, that a doctor has recommended an unusual treatment to help the ailing Volpone: a young maiden must lie with him. Though there is little chance of success in this treatment, on accunt of Volpone’s supposed incapacity, Volpone will look favourably on anyone who has tried to aid his unlikely recovery. Corvino, thinking that this will seal his place in Volpone’s will, agrees to provide his wife for such purposes, of whom he is normally extremely jealous.

A further obstacle to this plan is Celia’s great modesty and moral uprightness – having been taken to Volpone’s chamber, where he lies groaning in pain, she steadfastly refuses, on pain of death even, to assent to the plan. Mosca tactfully suggests that she will be more forthcoming if she and Volpone are left alone, for no woman likes to be immodest in front of her husband. When her husband and Mosca have left the chamber, Volpone throws off his disguise and immediately begins wooing Celia in the most tasteless way imaginable. Oblivious to her misgivings – to her horror, in fact – he woos her with the following song:

 

Come, my Celia, let us prove,

While we can, the sports of love;

Time will not be ours forever;

He at length our good will sever.

Spend not then his gifts in vain.

Suns that set may rise again;

But if once we lose this light,

Tis with us perpetual night.

Why should we defer our joys?

Fame and rumor are but toys.

Cannot we delude the eyes

Of a few poor household spies,

Or his easier ears beguile,

So removèd by our wile?

Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal;

But the sweet thefts to reveal,

To be taken, to be seen,

These have crimes accounted been.

 

Michael Jamieson, the editor of the Penguin edition of the paly, informs us that ‘educated members of the audience would recognize that the opening lines are adapted from Catallus’s Vivamus, mea Lesbia’. Wikipedia’s translation of this poem runs as so:

 

Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.

As for all the rumors of those stern old men,

Let us value them at a mere penny.

 

Suns may set and yet rise again, but

We, with our brief light, can set but once.

One never-ending night must be slept.

 

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.

Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.

Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.

 

Then, when we have counted up many thousands,

Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number,

And become jealous when they see

How many kisses we have shared.

 

Now that’s rather beautiful, I think. Guy Lee’s translation is even nicer – I would recommend his edition to those interested in Catullus. To give you an idea, here is how he renders lines 4-6:

 

Suns can set and rise again;

For us, once our brief light has set

There’s one unending night for sleeping.

 

Catullus, The Complete Poems, Ed. Guy Lee, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford 1990

 

Volpone’s poem owes an awful lot to Catullus’s, and suffers badly in comparison. Catullus could be accused of being amoral, but he is, in his own terms, sincere – he really does think his love more important than the opinion of the old men; he really does think that we must value our daily pleasures all the more because one day death will put them to an end. His invitation, moreover, is seductive because his affection for Lesbea strikes us as very genuine: as the lines on hundreds and thousands of kisses attest. Volpone, we suspect, is much less worried about death than about Celia’s husband running through the door, while his imagery could do little to persuade Celia that it is her pleasure and not only his own he has in mind. The argument running through Volpone’s song is cynical and self-serving – there is no such thing as sin, as long as one doesn’t get caught, so let’s get to it!

Others, I think, would be reminded by that opening ‘Come’ and the love/prove rhyme of Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd who sang ‘Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove’ (which itself borrowed the rhyme and much of the pastoral imagery from folk lyrics). A comparison is telling, however: Marlowe’s Shepherd had a wide (if overly idealized) idea of what pleasures entailed – from the outdoor delights that nature provides to the beautiful goods one can make of its materials, with coral clasps and amber buds and the like. Volpone, on the other hand, can imagine only one kind of delight: ‘love’s fruit’, sex that is. While Marlowe’s poem conjures images of romantic walks in an Arcadian setting, Volpone’s conjures tawdry images of sex in the house under the prying noses of servants. Volpone isn’t taking Celia anywhere. For reasons that are clear, Volpone is in an almighty hurry to get her clothes off. Even the poem itself sounds somewhat hurried, with the meter the same as Marlowe’s, but the lines much shorter, as if Volpone is squeezing his argument into as short a poem as he can.

To put it briefly, all that is good in the poem is from Catullus and Marlowe, and all that is bad is down to Volpone. In the context of the play, of course, this is very funny, as is Celia’s definitive response:

Celia:   Some serene [i.e. poisoned mist] blast me, or dire lightning strike

This my offending face.

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Long have I lov’d this bonny Lasse

Since it is Valentine’s Day tomorrow, and love is in the air (or, anyway, its commercial exploitation is), and as last week I semi-promised something relatively sweet and tasteful, here is a love poem from the sixteenth century. It is written in a dramatic dialogue, a mode that is unusual these days, but was fairly common in the sixteenth century, from the silk-weaver, playwright and ballad writer, Thomas Deloney. As might be expected from a man who makes silk, his poem is smooth, comforting and sensual…

 

Long have I lov’d this bonny Lasse

 

Man:             Long have I lov’d this bonny Lasse,

                             yet durst not shew the same.

Woman:         Therein you prov’d yourself an Asse,

Man:             I was the more to blame.

                   Yet still I will remain to thee,

                             Trang dilly do, trang dilly,

                             Thy friend and lover secretly

Woman:                   Thou art my owne sweet bully.

 

Man:             But when shall I enjoy thee,

                   Delight of thy faire love?

Woman:                   Even when thou seest that fortune doth

                   All maner lets remove.

Man:             O, I will fold thee in my armes,

                             Trang dilly do, trang dilly,

                             And keep thee so from sodaine harmes.

Woman:                   Thou art my own sweet bully.

 

Woman:                   My husband he is gone from home,

                   You know it very well.

Man:             But when will he returne againe?

Woman:                   In troth I cannot tell

                   If long he keep him out of sight,

                             Trang dilly do, trang dilly,

                             Be sure thou shalt have thy delight.

Man:             Thou art my bonny lassy.

 

Thomas Deloney

 

From the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, Sel. David Norbrook,Ed. H.R. Woodhousen

 

[Bully = sweetheart; Lets = obstacles; Even most likely pronounced as one syllable: e’en]

 

Sweet and tasteful, as I promised, but not exactly innocent. The rub comes at the end when we realise that these two lovers, whose natural, affectionate speech has cheered us, are conducting an extra-marital affair. Read a second time, the opening lines are bittersweet: the man did not dare to show his love, and in this, his lover tells him, proved himself an ‘Asse’. By the time he declared his love, that is, the object of his affections had already married. The moral of the story here is, hey, you had better not hide your love away.

But there is more that is sweet here than bitter, with the language affectionate and unaffected. When we think of English love poetry of the 16th and 17th Centuries, we will often think of the complex, sometimes tortuous metaphors of Shakespeare and Donne, the intricate imagery of Spenser, or the wry courtly poetry of the Cavaliers, but Deloney’s English reads much more, one can be sure, as it was spoken by most Englishmen and women of the period. With John Taylor and later John Cleveland, he gives us a taste of the speech and wit of the man on the street, or in his lover’s bed, in Renaissance England. The women, evidently, were witty enough too – in contrast to the traditions of courtly poetry, where the woman is an oft-silent object of the poet’s affection’s, Deloney’s woman expresses her love quite as lustily as the man.

What with the ‘Bonny’s and ‘Lasse’s readers could think for a moment that they are reading a poem from Scotland or the North. In fact, Deloney was from Norwich and lived most of his life in London. So it seems that fine adjective ‘Bonny’ was current even in the south of England back then. The affectionate unself-conscious phrases that the lovers use towards each other – bonny lass, sweet bully, fold thee in my armes – make this an enjoyable poem for Valentine’s Day, one your sweetheart can understand without reaching for a dictionary or checking classical references – which can be very time-consuming when their spouse is due back any time soon.

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