Posts On Several Occasions: Or, A Specimen Of The Ongoing Development Of The Digital Miscellanies Index, A Freely Available Online Index Of Poetry In Eighteenth-Century Miscellanies

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Wednesday 3 February 2016

Poem of the Fortnight: Horse-Feathers

Poem of the Fortnight: Horse-Feathers

This time we take a look at a poem in the Digital Miscellanies Index that deals with death— surely one of the most common themes of literature— but does so through an unusual subject: the demise of an unnamed horse. It reads as follows:

Here lies not in but on Earth’s Womb,
An Horse expos’d without a Tomb:
No Winding-sheet, not his own skin,
Nor laid by any of his Kin.
Yet was no Jade; Death had a Race,
And took him for his sprightly pace.
Now see his funeral Exequies,
Th’Ravens in black do solemnize:
Unto the skies they him Exalt,
Being sepulchred in Airy Vault.
In Living Tombs, he thus out-prides
Mecha and Egypts Pyramides.
Change now his Epitaph; say not, Here lies
A Horse; but rather, Here he flies.
Mourn not his fate, my friend since thus
The Horse is now transform’d to Pegasus.

Certainly, the poem pokes fun at the highfalutin death-lyric. We cannot seriously believe that Nature outperforms the sculpted wonders of the human world with an equine carcass open to the sky. It is far too crass to read a mourning mien in the aspects of the scavenging ravens. Luckily, the poem stops short of trying to convince us that the stench of rotting horse is akin to perfumed incense in this dubious mausoleum.
Nevertheless, there is some touching imagery at the heart of this burlesque. The horse transformed to Pegasus is an efficient metaphor: the soul released from the body, now liberated and at peace.
In the modern imagination, the horse has been stabled, somewhat unfairly, in quarters adjacent to the things of childish fantasy. No longer a necessary fact of life—of transport, toil and weaponry—we tend to associate horses with rotund Thelwell children wearing knee-high boots, chasing fatter ponies through the English countryside. Worse still, the fearsome creatures that haunted the pages of the bestiary—the winged horse and the unicorn—have been tamed and, in an alarming number of cases, dyed pink, by the likes of Barbie and My Little Pony.
Michael Feber’s A Dictionary of Literary Symbols reminds us that, for the early modern reader, Pegasus was a far more imposing and altogether more grown-up character, rich in his poetic resonance. Pegasus was known to have been beloved of the Muses “because he created the spring Hippocrene on Mt. Helicon by stamping the ground with his hooves, after which he flew up to heaven.” (p. 99) When C.S. Lewis adapted the trope—though admittedly, once again, for children—he made sure he revived, for a fleeting moment in modern fiction, this older incarnation. The Magician’s Nephew documents the creation of the first Narnian Pegasus. This is a cab-horse, originally called Strawberry, who is given wings and a new name in reward for his faithful service. The passage is a fitting place to finish. Like our poem, it assumes a tender new significance when we imagine the horse as a human soul released at last through death:

“Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses,” roared Aslan in a voice that shook the ground. “Your name is Fledge.”

The horse shied, just as it might have shied in the old, miserable days when it pulled a hansom. Then it roared. It strained its neck back as if there were a fly biting its shoulders and it wanted to scratch them. And then, just as the beasts had burst out of the earth, there burst out from the shoulders of Fledge wings that spread and grew, larger than eagles’, larger than swans’, larger than angels’ wings in church windows...He gave a great sweep with them and leaped into the air. 

What the DMI tells us so far:
  • The poem appears in one miscellany ‘The Academy of Complements with Many New Additions [ESTC R28041]’, published in 1684.
  • It is included under the title ‘Song 81’ but is also one of the few poems in this miscellany to be given a second, descriptive title, albeit a fairly unimaginative one: ‘On a Horse.’
  • Like all the other ‘songs’ in the collection, it is left unattribtued.
  •  I have catalogued it under four genre labels: ‘Couplet’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mock-Epitaph’, and ‘Song’.
  • Both ‘Epitaph’, and ‘Mock-Epitaph’ have been listed as genres so that, whatever an individual user of the DMI might make of the poem’s treatment of the epitaph, they will find their way to it here.
  • There are two themes: ‘Animals’ (to which is added the note ‘horse’), and ‘Death’.

Poem ID: 44194

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Tuesday 5 January 2016

Poem of the Fortnight: Blackness and Beauty

Poem of the Fortnight: Blackness and Beauty

In consequence of a prolonged bout of flu that lifted only to make way for a severe attack of Christmas fever, I haven’t been able to publish a poem for over a month. With my apologies, here is a ditty from the DMI on the perfect theme to get the New Year off to a decent start...racism:

Bess black as Charcoal,
Was found in a dark-hole,
With Kit at the Cat and the Fiddle;
But what they did there,
None safely can swear,
Yet Gentleman, Riddle my Riddle.
Troth I would be loath,
Were I put to my Oath,
To swear Kit with Bess did ingender;
Yet it would tempt a man,
Bridle all that he can,
His present well wishes to tender.
But ‘twas found at last,
E’re a twelve month was past,
That Christopher Bess had o’re master’d
For her belly betray’d her,
And so she down laid her,
And brought him a jolly brown Bastard.

As far as style is concerned, ‘Bess black as Charcoal’ is a simple aabccb meter, common in ballad and song but, admittedly, more unusual among the printed miscellanies of this period. There is some procrustean clipping and stretching of words throughout, characteristic of a competent but mediocre poet: Kit’s adoption of the formal ‘Christopher’ in the final mention of his name is not strictly necessary, except to fill the trisyllabic meter of the line. Nevertheless, the poem gets away with its small liberties, which is just as well; there’s nothing worse than racism that doesn’t scan.

Many a scholarly work has examined the issue of race in early modern England and to describe the many nuances of what ‘blackness’ meant in the seventeenth century would be to distend this blog to gross proportions. In brief we might ask, more simply, is the poem cruel? Is Bess’ blackness painted in chiaroscuro with the beauty and the virtue of the White? Not exactly.

But without explicitly flinging insults such as those that Shakespeare’s other moor, Aaron of Titus Andronicus, remembered as he cradled his own mixed-race child, the poem does evoke them. Just as Aaron gloated that “Coal-black is better than another hue in that it scorns to bear another hue”, this “jolly brown bastard” gives away its parents’ misdemeanours and its darkness comes, in turn, to symbolise them. Like Milton’s Sin and Death—the mate and child of Satan—Bess and her baby rise from blackness, taking its shape, embodying the filth and squalor wherein the grotesque is engendered. With a cheerful meter and a shallow joke, the poem makes the serious and terrible connection between darker skin and dark morality. Like all the worst discriminations, unthinking nastiness is hidden in good-humour.

What the DMI tells us so far:
·      The poem only appears in one miscellany, ‘The New Academy of Complements’, published in 1681.
·      ‘The New Academy’ is a miscellany in parts which gives this no other title but ‘Song 28’.
·      It is accordingly given the genre-label ‘Song’ as well as ‘Joke/jest’ and ‘Lampoon’.
·      Its themes are listed as ‘Beauty’, with the note ‘Light and dark’, ‘Darkness’ (with the note ‘Race’) and the ever-popular category ‘Sex and bawdy humour’.
·      ‘The New Academy’ is not a collection which specialises in poems on race, indeed, this is one of the only examples I have found in it so far. Its eclectic mix of poems implies that it is sampling its ‘songs’ from elsewhere, but whatever the original source, the DMI at present remains silent about any but this publication.

Poem ID: 43838

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Tuesday 10 November 2015

Poem of the Fortnight: Pandering to Pindar

This week we pause in our discussion of individual poems to examine, more broadly, a type of poem: the pindaric. The re-emergence of the pindaric in the seventeenth century and the relative frequency with which it appears in these miscellanies raises questions about whether we should include this label in the list of ‘genres’ on the DMI data-entry interface from which, at present, it is absent.

In my last post, ‘Doggerel Fights’, we met with the pugnacious Pindar of Thomas Brown’s imagination who avenged himself against the feeble imitations of subsequent centuries by beating up a bad modern poet.

Brown tells the hack in question:

Thou write Pindarics, and be damn’d,
Write Epigrams for Cutlers;
None with thy Lyrics can by shamm’d
But Chambermaids and Butlers.

For Brown, the ‘pindaric’ is clearly a distinct poetic genre, like the epigram or lyric. When I enter data for a poem and am given the option to tick as many ‘genres’ as apply, ‘epigram’ appears on the list, as does ‘lyric’, but not that form inspired by Pindar.

According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the original Greek pindaric was triadic in structure: strophe (two or more lines repeated as a unit), corresponding antistrophe, and concluding summary line or ‘epode’.

The seventeenth century pindaric was far looser in form, being “irregular rhymed odes in which the length of line and stanza is capriciously varied to suggest, but not reproduce, the style and manner of Pindar”. Abraham Cowley’s book of Pindarique Odes, (1656), is usually credited with the reintroduction of the form, which went on to inspire Dryden’s ‘Alexander’s Feast’, Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

In my work on the DMI, I have come across many poems, by Cowley and others, which call themselves as ‘pindarics’ or ‘pindaric odes’. In Lycidus or the lover in fashion, (1688) for example, the poem ‘Hail thou sole empress of the land of wit....’ (‘Written by a Lady’), is included under the title ‘A Pindarick to Mrs. Behn on her Poems on the Coronation.’ Another, unattributed, from the same miscellany, calls itself ‘On Beauty. A Pindaric’.

The best that can be done for these, and other such poems, is to click the box for ‘Imitation (in the style of...)’ when prompted to select the applicable genres. But the pindaric is not mere imitation. Cowley and the rest had reinvented the form for an early modern readership, for whom the term had a new resonance, whether or not it was associated with the quasi-mythological figure of Pindar himself.

The system for marking genres in the DMI is subjective at the best of times but here, the limitations of a finite list help us to think more carefully about the classification of these poems. Oddly enough, the discussions raised by its apparent shortcomings raise new questions about what we mean by ‘genre’ in the first place.

Nevertheless, I think perhaps that the pindaric deserves to be included on the list. And in any case, from Brown’s description of Pindar, I wouldn’t like to chance an insult to that form: one risks a bruise or two.

Monday 26 October 2015

Poem of the Fortnight: Doggerel Fights

Poem of the Fortnight: Doggerel Fights

This week— trouble on Mount Helicon! In another poem unearthed during data entry for A collection of miscellany poems, the poet Thomas Brown attacks the unspecified ‘Mr. D’ for his abuses against poetry, the classical tradition, and (worst of all) of Englishness itself:

Thou Cur, half French, half English Breed,
Thou Mungril of Parnassus,
To think tall lines run up to feed
Shou’d ever tamely pass us.
Thou write Pindarics, and be damn’d,
Write Epigrams for Cutlers;
None with thy Lyrics can by shamm’d
But Chambermaids and Butlers.
In t’other World expect dry blows,
No tears can wipe thy stains out;
Horace will pluck thee by the Nose,
And Pindar beat thy brains out.

The vision of violent poetic justice at the pearly gates is a rather pleasing one, as is the reimagining of the doggerel-writer as a literal dog. Nevertheless, this is something of a case of the pot calling the kettle unpoetic: if Thomas Brown really is the author here (as two miscellanies claim), then he is not himself above a down-stoop to the jejune* ballad meter and all of its attendant levity. Worse still, the second-line/fourth-line rhymes of each quatrain are disyllabic, that is to say weak or, if you’re feeling misogynistic, ‘feminine’. To my ear they are each so forced that I hope for the author’s sake that this is a cunning meta-poetic joke; an attempt to beat the dreadful rhymer at his own unsubtle game.
Perhaps it is inevitable that, in the competitive pursuit of literary fame, one bard will readily rage against a rival. Almost as inevitable as the fact that ‘cutlers’ in the second line of stanza two sets up the rhyme for ‘butlers’ at the end.

What the DMI tells us so far:
  •       The poem appears in four miscellanies, from 1699 to 1736.
  •       The first two are from near-identical editions of A Collection of Miscellany Poems, Letters &c. By Mr. Brown..., 1699 and 1700. Here, the poem is attributed to the poet Thomas Brown (bap. 1663, d. 1704).
  •       After the 1700 edition of Brown’s poems, ‘To Mr D’ appears again in two more miscellanies, The Merry Companion or, a cure for the spleen, (1730) and A Collection of Merry Poems, (1736).
  •        Its title is originally listed as ‘To Mr. D---- upon his most incomparable Ballads, call’d by him Lyric Odes.’ Later, the full surname is added: ‘To Mr. D’Urfey, upon his incomparable Ballads, called by him Lyrick Odes.’ It may not be a coincidence that later addition appears published after Brown’s death (in 1704), in the collections of 1730 and 1736 respectively.
  •       The DMI lists its genres as ‘Lampoon’, ‘Quatrain abab’, and ‘Satire’.
  •       Its themes are ‘Dunces’, and ‘Poetry/literature/writing’.

Poem ID: 7114

For a more in-depth explanation of how the DMI works, see the FAQ page:

*I make no apologies for the use of the word ‘jejune’. It isn’t deployed often enough, and nicely conjures up the wincing disapproval of one of Bertie Wooster’s aunts.

Monday 12 October 2015

Poem of the Fortnight: 'The Contented Whore'

This is the first of a series of fortnightly blog-posts exploring some of the most interesting and unusual poems that I (Rebekah King) have come across during my data-entry work for the DMI.

Having recently graduated with a master’s degree in English Literature 1550-1700, I’ve become involved in the DMI in the capacity of a foot soldier to the captain-of-the-regiment that is Carly is herself. Over the next few months, I’ll be helping to build the database that will form the foundation of the final DMI site, cataloguing each miscellany and all the individual poems therein.

I am hoping that these short blogs will not only entertain, but will offer an insight into some of the ways in which the DMI may be ultimately used to track a poem and its variants through the printed collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Firstly then, here is a pseudo-ballad recorded variously in the DMI as “Song LXVI”,  “Song 136”, “The Contented Mistress”, and “The Contented Whore”. I came across it whilst entering data for 'A collection of miscellany poems' by the poet Thomas Brown:

To Charming Caelia’s arms I flew,
And there all night I feasted;
No God such transports ever knew,
Nor mortal ever tasted.
Lost in the sweet tumultuous joy,
And pleas’d beyond expressing:
How can your Slave, my Fair, said I,
Reward so great a Blessing?
The whole Creation’s wealth survey,
Thro both the Indies wander:
Ask what brib’d Senates give away,
And fighting Monarchs squander.
The richest spoils of earth and air;
The rifled Ocean’s treasure;
‘Tis all too poor a bribe by far
To purchase so much pleasure.
She blushing cry’d--- My Life, my Dear,
Since Caelia thus you fancy.
Give her, but ‘tis too much, I fear,
A Rundlet of right Nancy.

A ‘rundlet of right Nancy’ refers, in this context, to a barrel’s-worth of alcohol. I’m not entirely sure what kind. With his lofty proclamations answered in a bathetic request for drink, it seems that the muse of our would-be Astrophil is less than stellar after all. One wonders whether this is, in fact, the same all-too corporeal Celia of whom the narrator of Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ speaks, lamenting in his ‘amorous fits’ that ‘Celia, Celia, Celia....’(best not to finish the rhyme, I think). Whoever she is, her ‘blessings’ come at a distressingly reasonable price. What’s a poor poet to do? It is almost as if these women aren’t interested in playing the courtly objects of idolatry in the first place. This is undoubtedly one of the more succinct and successful parodies of the highfalutin love-lyric that I have come across in the database so far.

What the DMI can tell us:

  •  At the time of writing, the DMI claims that the poem appears in eight miscellanies, dating from between 1699 and 1756.
  •  In 1699 the title is given as ‘The Contented Whore’, under which epithet it appears twice more before it becomes ‘Song LXVI’ in the 1729 miscellany of drinking songs 'The Triumphs of Bacchus: or, The Delights of the Bottle'.
  • After that, the original title of the poem is lost but echoed again in 1735 when it is listed as ‘The contented Mistress’, the original ‘whore’ having been, perhaps, somewhat reformed in the intervening years.
  • The first two appearances of the poem claim that it is a translation/adaptation of a work by Martial. These are also the only versions to attribute the English rendition to the poet Thomas Brown (bap. 1663, d. 1704). All subsequent miscellanies from 1727 onwards leave it anonymous or unattributed and remove all references to Martial, along with any Latin epigraphs.
  • The DMI lists the main genres of the poem as ‘Imitation/translation/paraphrase’ and as a ‘Quatrain abab’.
  • Its subject matter is listed as ‘Sex and bawdy humour’ as well as ‘Sex/relations between the sexes’, which, in this instance, seem to be more or less the same thing.

A note on themes and genres in the DMI: At present, the themes and genres of a poem are being chosen manually from a fixed list of prearranged options. Necessarily, these are somewhat limited and limiting, and require highly subjective decisions on the part of the junior researcher (i.e. me). Nevertheless, the broader categories into which we are placing each poem may well allow the user to appreciate its character and position within a literary context, and might even act as a kind of shorthand-blurb for each entry. Some of my subsequent blogs will investigate the issues arising from this more eccentric aspect of the data entry process.

Poem ID: 7093

For a more in-depth explanation of how the DMI works, see the FAQ page: