Friday, November 26

I'm with Harington

I don’t know quite how it happened, but today I found myself looking through my “Penguin Book of Elizabethan Verse”, and turning to the poems by Thomas Bastard. I couldn’t remember having read him before; he has a pretty memorable name. Anyway, the biographical note made me warm to him immediately:

A country clergyman who made pitiably small headway in life, Bastard published his book, Chrestoleros, in 1598. It was much ridiculed, but Harington defended it. Bastard died, touched in the wits, in a debtors’ prison in Dorchester.

I don’t know which bit I like best: “pitiably small headway” or “touched in the wits”. Here is one of the poems from "Chrestoleros":

De Sua Clepsydra

Setting mine hour-glass for a witness by
To measure study as the time did fly:
A lingering muse possessed my thinking brain:
My mind was reaching, but in such a vein,
As if my thoughts, by thinking brought asleep
Wingless and footless, now like snails did creep.
I eyed my glass, but he so fast did run,
That e’er I had begun, the hour was done.
The creeping sands with speedy pace were flit,
Before one reason crept out of my wit.
When I stood still, I saw how time did fly:
When my wits ran, time ran more fast than I.
Stay here: I’ll change the course, let study pass,
And let time study while I am the glass.
What touch ye, sands? are little mites so fleet?
Can bodies run so swift that have no feet?
And can ye tumble time so fast away?
Then farewell hours, I’ll study by the day.

Is it me, or does it peter out at the end? But there’s so much to like about it, notwithstanding that it took me three tries before I unravelled the syntax of the opening lines. The main reason I like it is that little tight knot of argument at its heart, that I can’t quite get my head around but I know it’s the reason I woke up today and trudged round the supermarket and hoovered the apartment and cleaned the bathroom and read a little poetry magazine from cover to cover and my will to live didn’t break. Sometimes poets do that to you: threaten to break your will to live. Then just when it’s getting tricky someone comes to your rescue. Today it was the cavalry: Thomas Bastard was supported by the script-writers on “Star Trek: the Next Generation”. In an episode I’ve seen loads of times before but I like to take time out at 5 o’clock and watch the repeats, Captain Picard is having a heart transplant, and of course it goes wrong, and the surgeon in his best concerned actor’s voice exclaims “I can’t stop the heterocyclic declanation!” You have to be drunk with friends to write that kind of stuff, don’t you? Then there was a commercial for a toothpaste which said “It’s your mouth: brush it your way.” What does that mean? It’s so dumb it’s approaching brilliant.
Thomas Bastard (1566-1618), I’m with Harington and defending you. It’s all yours:

The little world the subject of my muse,
Is an huge task and labour infinite;
Like to a wilderness or mass confuse,
Or to an endless gulf, or to the night:
How many strange meanders do I find?
How many paths do turn my straying pen?

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