It is good to see the warmer weather returning, and to feel the sunshine gracing us again. It makes quite a considerable difference to monotonous days. The weather this past week first brought to mind the setting of Robert Browning’s ‘A Lover’s Quarrel’: “Oh, what a Dawn of Day! / How the March sun feels like May”. However, at the back of my mind, a slightly more convoluted idea was forming, taking its roots in Robert Herrick’s ‘Farewell Frost, or Welcome Spring’.
FLED are the frosts, and now the fields appear
Re-cloth’d in fresh and verdant diaper.
Thaw’d are the snows, and now the lusty spring
Gives to each mead a neat enamelling.
The palms put forth their gems, and every tree
Now swaggers in her leafy gallantry.
The while the Daulian minstrel sweetly sings,
With warbling notes, her Terean sufferings.
What gentle winds perspire ! As if here
Never had been the northern plunderer
To strip the trees and fields, to their distress,
Leaving them to a pitied nakedness.
And look how when a frantic storm doth tear
A stubborn oak, or holm, long growing there,
But lull’d to calmness, then succeeds a breeze
That scarcely stirs the nodding leaves of trees :
So when this war, which tempest-like doth spoil
Our salt, our corn, our honey, wine and oil,
Falls to a temper, and doth mildly cast
His inconsiderate frenzy off, at last,
The gentle dove may, when these turmoils cease,
Bring in her bill, once more, the branch of peace.
Robert Herrick, ‘Farewell Frost, or Welcome Spring’
The identity of the seventeenth-century citizen, and much of their livelihoods in turn, revolved around ideology: moral instruction and religious practice. Today, far-removed, we revolve around different factors. Whether financial, material, status, pride, or perhaps family, children, and day-to-day survival, much of this boils down to occupation. What is evidently comparable, though, is the scale of the effect on livelihood.
Robert Herrick was a Royalist, and what many would call a ‘Cavalier’ poet. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, a book of elegies, Lachrymae Musarum, featured a poem by Herrick, and has been described as ‘the funeral of active royalism’. With the execution of the King in 1649 went the magnanimous figure of God’s representative on Earth, and the nucleus of a system of beliefs that kept a sizeable proportion of the population with a sense of purpose.
Likewise, to many 21st century folk, jobs are the intellectual, physical, and often social, centerpiece of their lives, the means of survival, and the sense of accomplishment. With the numbers of unemployed rising, that sense of purpose is becoming ever more elusive as this economic crisis continues to unfold.
Chase and Status
Two current concerns in the early modern studies are writing lives and displaying lives. But my wider concern here is representing lives and understanding lives. It can be easy to seek comfort in the past, but we risk alienating the people who count the most: those of this day and age.
The old adage states that we learn something new every day. Sometimes, whether we realize it or not, that something is only the perilous indictment of human nature. In a book I reviewed last year on Royalism in the final years of the English Civil War, the author questioned why Royalism, in his view, had received considerably less attention than Parliament and the English Republic. His answer was telling: ‘Defeat, like familiarity, obviously breeds contempt’. Is that a general rule? Personal experience does not discredit the theory.
Since leaving Geneva and hallowed status behind, it is remarkably transparent how the process of communication, which always seemed to work relatively seamlessly as an academic staff member, has now dried up. Since the beginning of 2009, some of my finest work (by request) and/or important queries have been sent through electronic channels, and precisely nothing has come back in return. There is no dispute that these recipients are extremely busy people: academic professors and journalists. What is unduly provocative, however, is that the professors in question either instructed me to get in touch, or actively contacted me in the first place.
What troubles further is a slight air of suspicion. Last month, I submitted a polite but detailed query about a particular article in the Sunday Times, bringing up my dissertation topic and why it was relevant. No reply came, but an article has since emerged from the journalist on the topic of privacy. There is no direct parallel, but connection enough just to set alarm bells ringing a little.
This is not an isolated event. An esteemed academic recently got in touch to compliment one of my syllabuses, informing me of the intention of adapting it for their own course, and expressed keenness to see my work. Having sent it across, the communication stream went quiet, and it was later discovered that, for all the best intentions and purposes, this most esteemed and distant colleague may be co-authoring two books on the subject. Is there reason to feel slightly aggrieved? A compliment has been traded for an awful lot more.
While there are all manner of reasons and explanations why the tide goes quiet, it just seems unusual that a number of promising situations have shrivelled thanks to the vacuous silence from other parties – silence which comes with my departure from Geneva and downwards spiral. There is evidence too of co-operation when my academic status was intact. Prof. Scott Paul Gordon contacted me last year about second hand books, before offering his assistance. Around my difficulties at that time of working and living in two different countries, he very kindly took the time to help assess which books he could offload for a knockdown price, and could not have been more helpful.
This is not to say, of course, that Prof. Gordon would not have offered the same help had I not been affiliated with the Genevan English Department, nor that the replies hoped for from more recent activity would have been forthcoming had I retained my status. But I cannot help paranoia when evidence mounts like this. With that powerful quotation in mind about failure breeding contempt, I just wonder if there are others out there who feel a sudden change in attitude towards them following a ‘negative’ change in their circumstances. Somehow, I’m sure I am not the first.
One of Robert Herrick’s contemporaries, fellow Royalist poet and Cavalier (in the true sense of the word), Richard Lovelace, wrote a moving ode entitled ‘The Grasse-hopper’. Lovelace was a champion of his cause, by the sword and by the pen. However, he was incarcerated several times for his cause and died lonely and forgotten, an epitome of how fortunes can change.
But ah the Sickle! Golden Eares are Cropt;
Ceres and Bacchus bid good night;
Sharpe frosty fingers all your Flowr’s have topt,
And what sithes spar’d, Winds shave off quite.
Poore verdant foole! and now green Ice! thy Joys
Large and as lasting, as thy Pierch of Grasse,
Bid us lay in ‘gainst Winter, Raine, and poize
Their flouds, with an o’reflowing glasse.
Thou best of Men and Friends! we will create
A Genuine Summer in each others breast;
And spite of this cold Time and frosen Fate
Thaw us a warme seate to our rest.
Our sacred harthes shall burne eternally
As Vestall Flames, the North-wind, he
Shall strike his frost-stretch’d Winges, dissolve and flye
This Aetna in Epitome.
Richard Lovelace, ‘An Ode, To My Noble Friend, Mr. Charles Cotton, The Grasse-Hopper’, 13-28.
Due to idleness, naivety, passivity or apathy (the ambiguity allows plenty of interpretation) the grasshopper freezes. With undertones of patriotism and allegiance, Lovelace tries to inspire a warmth through love, and the warmth or springtime he envisages releases the creature. It is not clear, however, whether the grasshopper defrosts and lives, or evaporates and dies: it is a beautiful stasis between life and death.
I join many others out there as grasshoppers of this winter. We exist as fragile poetic fragments, unsure whether we survive and continue (waking the dead), or whether we see our existences evaporate and vanish (‘dissolve and flye’). Rather, we are at the mercy of others empowered to make these interpretations for themselves – if they have a care to notice in the first place.