Then place my purboil’d Head upon a Stake

Colin Burrow

  • Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse 1625-1660 edited by Peter Davidson
    Oxford, 716 pp, £75.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 19 818441 7

The traditional view of mid-17th-century verse is that it consists of ‘mere anthology pieces’. As a statement of fact this has a ghost of truth to it, since much of the verse from this period originally circulated in miscellaneous collections – manuscript gatherings of verse, or volumes of elegies by various hands. As a statement of value, though, that ‘mere’ is profoundly wrong. Mid-17th-century verse rarely asks to be read as part of the oeuvre of a single author. Instead, it thrives on miscellaneity. This long and damnably difficult to live through period produced an extraordinary quantity of poems which deserve to be appreciated as ephemera. Poems to named individuals, poems on generically delicious mistresses, poems of venomously individual hatred, poems which are unattributable, poems which only made sense in 1643, poems which seem to drift out of the air onto the page: verse of this kind is happiest in a miscellany, which allows readers to reflect on where it came from, when it was written, to whom and why.

At a pinch one could make a recipe for the poetry of this period that consisted mostly of flowers. Take 135 violets, 51 marigolds, armloads of lilies and at least two thousand roses. Add a handful of swan’s down, a pinch of panegyric and a soupçon of sedition. Leave to ferment in the blood of a king. That would produce most of the verse of this period, in which conventional elements are graciously reassembled in posies for readers to sniff and to pluck. Consider this delicious morsel of anonymity, ‘On a Lady Sleeping’, plucked by Peter Davidson from BL MS Add. 25,707:

Calmely as the mornings soft teares shedd
Upon some rose or Violet bedd
May your slumbers fall upon you
All your thoughts sit easy on you
Gently rocking heart and eyes
With their tuneful Lullabyes

There are no firm divisions between objects here, or between objects and non-objects. Tears fall, slumbers fall, thoughts sit, and all turn finally into lullaby. It sounds a familiar tune – William Strode could turn it out by the yard (‘Oh Lull me, lull me charming ayre,/My sences rocke with wonder sweete,/like snow on wooll thy fallings are’) – yet its delicacy is unmistakable.

The chief reason critical taste has for so long been dead to the delights offered by this kind of verse is our unhealthy preoccupation with big names and big authors. The rot began in the 1640s, when there was a rash of collections of verse (many posthumous) by single authors, in which printers tried to give a canonical stamp to work which was more appropriately read within a manuscript culture. John Suckling’s Fragmenta Aurea appeared in 1646, four years after the poet’s death, probably by suicide, in France. Its printer places poems to the King at the start of the volume in order to make it look like a piece of aggressive nostalgia from a dead and exiled royalist. This gave Suckling’s slender output just the sort of grandeur it did not need and could not sustain. His best writing has a sociable zip, and should be read in a context which preserves the sense of a spur-of-the-moment improvisation between friends, in which a reader could participate and which perhaps he or she could even continue. The dialogue poem between Suckling and Thomas Carew, ‘Upon my Lady Carlisles wallking in Hampton Court Garden’, is a classic piece of sociable writing, a teasing in-joke of a poem driven by friendly, parodic mischief. ‘T. C.’ starts the dialogue as a Platonic courtier who hears music in the voice of the notoriously lovely Lady Carlisle (‘Heardst thou not musick when she talk’t?’); Suckling ends it with the confession that while he saw her ladyship walking in the garden he was stripping her naked in his mind:

I was undoing all she wore,
And had she walkt but one turn more,
Eve in her first state had not been
More naked, or more plainly seen.

Many poems from this period were originally contributions to similar dialogues, which answer or parody poems by friends or anonymous fellow labourers. When such poems are printed as The Poems of —, or even with more of a recognition of incompleteness as in Suckling’s The Golden Fragments of —, the effect is often that of hearing a mono remastering of a stereo original. Carew’s poems, also gathered into print after his death (in 1640), struggle for life when they are removed from the miscellaneous manuscript forms in which they first circulated. His defiantly careless poem on Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden whose martial feats in Germany seemed so glamorous to many poets in the 1630s, is an answer to a request for a warlike elegy from his friend Aurelian Townshend. Printed without its companion piece and pretext, as it was in the 1640 volume of Carew’s verse, the poem seems to support the popular view of a ‘Cavalier’ poet: big collars, big hats, big hair, long nights with claret by the fire, and verse which, like the wettest sort of spaniel, is for ever trying to leap into ladies’ laps:

Nor ought the thunder of their Carabins
Drowne the sweet Ayres of our tun’d Violins.

One positive thing was achieved by the collections of poems which appeared in the 1640s: they allowed the poetry of the 1630s to make a point about the harsher times and literary tones of the following decade. When Carew remarks to Townshend that ‘Tourneyes, Masques, Theatres, better become/Our Halcyon dayes’, his claim would have sounded either polemically nostalgic or vainly escapist, depending on how you stood in the arguments of the 1640s. These poems drift teasingly through time. And poets who lived through the 1640s to see their own collections of verse into print deliberately exploited the ambiguities that the lapse of time allowed. Herrick’s ‘Corinna’s going a Maying’, printed in the Hesperides of 1648, might simply be a piece of nostalgia for the 1630s, before Parliament began its attacks on maypoles, church ales and Christmas. Printed in 1648, however, it would have read like a wilful act of resistance to the austerities of the Parliamentarian regime. That was precisely the effect that Herrick wanted to create: he wanted to comment on the present times and he wanted to be able to deny that he was doing so by claiming that his volume was just another backward-looking miscellany of poems from earlier and happier days.

Peter Davidson has, to his great credit, created a book which allows the verse from this period to speak its own language. Poems talk to each other throughout his collection: Townshend’s request to Carew for the poem on Adolphus and Carew’s answer come within a few conversable pages of each other. Carew’s mythological erotic fancy

Aske me no more where Jove bestowes,
When June is past the fading rose

(it goes to his mistress, naturally) is repeatedly answered and parodied, eventually turning into Thomas Jordan’s satire on the events of 1642: ‘Ask me no more why there appears/Daily such troops of Dragoneers.’ Davidson, whose penchant for manuscript miscellanies is often apparent in the texts which he chooses to follow, does not seek to nail his poems to precise contexts or subdue their miscellaneous delights to the tyranny of organisation by author or date of composition. He lays them out in groups (poems of friendship and love, poems on music, spiritual poems, poems on the good life, a whopper of a section containing poems of war and revolution, and a rather disappointingly thin group of Restoration pieces). That eclecticism is good, as is the understated way in which historical events are laid out in an appendix rather than placed firmly up against particular poems. There are no dates of composition in the main body of the text, though if you can spare another finger to keep in another appendix, that information, too, is meticulously recorded. The sections of the anthology are arranged so that it moves (roughly) through the century. This keeps the changing backdrop of events in place, but only as a backdrop. As a result one is often gloriously not quite sure where one is. To be uncertain for a moment whether Richard Corbet’s ‘Distracted Puritan’ (‘Come heare me pray nine times a day,/And fill your heads with Crotchets’) comes from the 1640s or from the 1620s gives a very good impression of the way poems from the earlier part of the period were transformed into propaganda pieces by the events of the Civil War. Anacreontic poems written by the hearth in a literal winter in the 1630s can seem to anticipate the metaphorical winter which lay in wait for many expropriated Cavaliers in the later 1640s. Davidson’s layout gives the sense of temporal slippage and circumstantial uncertainty that a reader of a manuscript miscellany would have had, while also offering the pleasure of continually realigning poems against their times and occasions, of feeling them polarise into political camps as the century goes on.

About eighty of the three hundred-odd poems Davidson includes are either printed for the first time here or have been drawn from very obscure sources. Some are in Gaelic, some in Welsh, and a good many are by women. Alastair Fowler’s New Oxford Book of 17th-Century Verse widened the canon, but no other collection of poetry from this period takes so seriously or represents so fully the geographical and social diversity of 17th-century Britain. There are poems by the group of male and female poets at work in Tixall in Staffordshire, pieces by Devonian clergymen, a poem transcribed from the long gallery in Apethorpe in Northamptonshire, polemics by the Welsh Puritan Morgan Llywd, and a lament over the battle of Inverlochy by a woman from the Campbell clan. At times poems have a friendly responsiveness to each other; at other times they seem to fight across the pages. The Ranter Laurence Clarkson adopts the voice of Christ himself to rant heretical views on the Trinity (‘Though called God, yet that is not my Name,/True, I be both, yet am I not the same’). Beside him Joseph Beaumont, Crashaw’s friend and fellow believer in the beauty of holiness, lolls on the breasts of the Virgin, ‘A double Mount of Lillies, in whose Top/Two milkie Fountaines bubled up’. How could these two poets have thought of themselves as part of a single polity?

Davidson is particularly sensitive to the problems of attribution and dating posed by writing from this period. A historical life can be used as context for a poem which the historical figure almost certainly did not write (so Davidson reproduces a number of first-person laments supposedly spoken by Charles I), and this forged context can form part of the way the poem asks to be received. The scholar who austerely seeks to detach the poem from the author to whom it is misattributed may clock up points in heaven as an enemy of Confusion and Misattribution, but he destroys the effect which the work seeks to have on its readers. The poems ‘by’ Charles I were meant to be read as poems-by-Charles-I-which-you-know-aren’t-really-by-Charles, and they were meant to be read by people who wanted their King to combine the voice of the psalmist with that of Christ himself (‘Was ever grief like Ours?’ he regally complains. Would Our Lord have used the royal ‘we’?).

There are some particularly rich examples of this sort of semi-knowingly misattributed verse in the scant body of poems said to be written by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, of which Davidson offers a particularly good sample. We meet Montrose first in the company of love poets. He then reappears among the poets of war and revolution as a would-be avenger of the death of Charles I, who in a poem ‘Written with the point of his Sword’ threatens to ‘write thy Epitaph with Bloud and Wounds’. Montrose was captured by the Covenanters in May 1650. He was sentenced to be hanged and then dismembered. Montrose retorted that he was prouder to have his head set on a spike than he would have been to ‘have his picture hung in the King’s bed-chamber’. The same defiance runs through the poem attributed to him about his death:

Let them bestow in ev’ry Airth a Limb;
Open all my Veins, that I may swim
To thee my Saviour, in that Crimson Lake;
Then place my purboil’d Head upon a Stake ...

A ‘parboiled head’ is not a pretty thing to contemplate on the eve of one’s death. As Davidson notes, Montrose was so closely guarded that it is extremely unlikely that this poem could have found its way out of his cell. It is probable, though not provable, that it was written as a propaganda piece by a supporter of Montrose’s cause. This uncertainty as to its provenance is a vital part of the poem’s literary effect. If it was written by a man on the eve of his dismembering it shows an extraordinary ability to look on one’s own body as an ingredient for a stew; if it was written by a supporter of Montrose it must be seen as an attempt to disgust its readers into opposition to the Covenanters. The poem is a shifting, multi-aspected, interesting thing precisely because of the uncertainty which surrounds its authorship. Printed in the collected poems of Montrose himself, or, say, of John Cleveland (in whose collection of 1653 Montrose’s lament for Charles I first appeared), it would lose this quality.

Although Poetry and Revolution provides poems such as Montrose’s with a perfect habitat, it inevitably freezes out other kinds of verse. In the latter part of the volume Davidson’s Britain becomes a place of violently opposed voices. Royalist satires attack the hypocrisies of Puritans, while members of religious sects rant against their Royalist adversaries. Davidson allows these strident voices to drown out those of their more moderate contemporaries. In the few years between about 1650 and 1654, for instance, a number of instinctively Royalist poets tried to make something of Cromwell. Dryden and Waller tried to make a not quite regal, not quite Machiavellian Republican image of this not quite kingly figure. They were fearfully ashamed of their panegyrics after the Restoration, but the Augustan terms in which they praised the Protector resurface in poems which welcome the Restoration of Charles II – written by, among others, Dryden and Waller. Davidson leaves these waverings and temporisings out of his literary Britain. Cowley figures in the section of political verse when he is hammering the Roundheads in his unfinished epic The Civil War. But the more complex Cowley of the ‘Davideis’, whose political affinities are still agonisingly hard to decipher, or the Cowley of the Pindaric odes, who tried through gritted teeth to sound like a Republican poet, don’t find their way in. As a mass of Royalist satires thunder out against Roundheads, and as a mass of congratulatory poems flutter around the returning Charles II, one begins to feel that Davidson’s Civil War may be rather too simply a two-sided affair which one side won. One longs for voices of irresolution, or for the odd grumble at the Restoration. His recipe for Civil War verse has a little too much in common with that laid out in ‘A New Kickshaw for the queasie Stomack of Sathan’:

Take the Whites of a Puritans lifted-up eyes
And the Saffron engendred on a Presbyters gums ...
Stow it in an Excise-mans Conscience well sear’d,
And in a French-mans Codpiece 2. hours let it stew,
Then strow it o’re with a Puritan’s beard;
’Tis a dish for the Devil and for his Dam too.

Parboiled heads and puritans with rolling eyes were some of the ingredients which made up the verse of this period, but creative uncertainty is a more prominent flavour in 17th-century political verse than Davidson’s selections would sometimes imply.