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.

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