Seventeenth Century Aristocracy Of Spirit
Rare Poems of the Seventeenth Century. Chosen and edited by L. Birkett Marshall. (Cambridge. 7s. 6d.) Postman's Horn. Anthology of Letters of the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Arthur Bryant (Longmans, lOs. 6d.)
Reviewed by IRIS CONLAY
The seventeenth century is perhaps the most deeply charged period of all our history. We had experienced our lusty youth with all its glorious idealism in the Crusading era then we saw life in primary colours. We grew older and more complex under the Tudors. Problems were never quite so simple again and we saw life in infinite varieties of shade.
In earlier times men fought with outward weapons. Material conditions were their enemy. In the seventeenth century came the change, the root of the contest now was in men's minds and the field of battle was within rather than without.
It is no romantic belief in the greatness of these people over those of other generations that prompts my statement that the seventeenth century is the most important in our history. These men could be as trivial and vain and unseeing and materialistic as the rest, but I rate the true value of the period on one rare qualitythe close contact allowed between philosophy and affairs.
From this contact arises a certain aristocracy of spirit which is particularly evident in Rare Poems and Postman's Horn. Neither of these .books is of first-class importance in itself. One chronicles poetry from the lower reaches of the literary output of the time, and the other is a mere collection of domestic letters written, a few by persons of note, but many by nonentities who had little more to say than the usual solicitudes of daily life.
Yet they vivify history. Having read historians' accounts and learnt the facts, imagination reaches out for a personal contact with those marble deeds and hopes to touch not cold stone and deadness, but warmth and livingness.
Mr. Birkett Marshall and Mr. Bryant, in giving us direct access to these minor and often homely writings, have given us the very pulse of the people to hold and we find it beating strong with livingness.
Postman's Horn, the most homely of the two, records so many delightful details of home life that it is difficult to make selections. Sir Thomas Browne, for instance, must have paused in writing the Religio Medici to think a great deal about his grandson. He writes:
" Dear Daughter.-Your Tommy grows a stout fellow. He is in great expectation of a tumbler you must send him for his puppet show; a punch he has and his wife and a straw king and queen and ladies of honour and all things but a tumbler which this town cannot afford. It is a wooded fellow that turns his heels over his head."
Richard Langhorne, later to be a martyr for his faith, writes to a fellow Catholic, William Blundell, to refuse acceptance of his barrister's fees: " You are a perfect friend to all intents and purposes, and that is a jewel rarely found in this world. You are the person whom I must love and honour with all my might."
Old men complain of growing old, saying that "old friends drop away and I shall stand alone." Young men have no money. and at the university they allow their bills to accumulate beyond their parents' allowances. Poets pour out alternate adulation and invective against the frigid Objects of their passion. Men of the world exchange confidences, philosophers discourse and gossips tattle, but the budget brought by Postman's Horn has in it all the elements which make up the life of every man since the beginning.
Rare Poems is perhaps the more specialised book of the two, but it is not merely the furniture of a scholar's library; it has enormous appeal for all poetry readers. From its simplicities (and this age wrote directly having not yet learnt the tricks of conceits that were to so colour the verse of the next period) emerge all the Elizabethan's terrors of youth's departure. From Baron and Prestwick and Jenkyn and Elys one would think it were sin to grow old.
From the sadly lyric Beedome comes an exquisite insanity of passion: " When the sail mines of that face In its own wrinkles buried lies And the stifle pride of all its grace By time undone, fals slack and dyes Wilt thou not sigh. and wish in some vext fit That it were now as when I courted it? "
a passion that gave to the actions of these people a quality of desperation and gave their lyrics profound melancholy.
Deeper notes of philosophic thought are sounded also, sometimes the simpler expression of an early age makes an appearance. Particularly, do I admire the quiet effectiveness of Rowland Watkyns; The Wish:
" A little house, a quiet wife Sufficient food to nourish life.
Most perfect health and free from harm, Convenient clothes to keep me warm. The liberty of food and mind, And grace the ways of God to find. This is the sum of my desire, Until I come unto heaven's attire." Revisiting My Pygmy Hosts, by Paul Schebesta (Hutchinsao, 18s.) This is Schebesta:s third trip in Pygmyland. As in his earlier books, he passes on his understanding of the strange rites and customs of these people to us making the strangeness intelligible.
Blame It on Betty, by Geoffrey Clayton (Harrap, 7s. 6d.) I liked the idea of owning two swans and calling them Marks and Spencer. If the idea tickles you, too, you'll probably like the rest of the book.
Physic and Fancy, by Christopher Howard (Hutchinson, 6s.) Philosophy compounded with physic makes good material
for note-book jottings. This bedside book is one for doctors as well as patients.