Farewell Frost, (or Waking the Dead)

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.

“Defeat, like familiarity, obviously breeds contempt”?

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.

Stasis

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.

Mr. Alexanders Picture of a Grasshopper; Too Beautiful Not to Borrow

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6 thoughts on “Farewell Frost, (or Waking the Dead)

  1. If you’re the grasshopper, let me be the sun under which you rise, unfold & take off! Here’s to the Spring; & to rising and living, not falling and dying.

    All my Love,

    S.

    x

  2. Some years before Herrick wrote of ‘Terean sufferings’, Ovid had done so (his description in the Metamorphoses of Philomela’s tongue, severed yet still flapping, being rather memorable). He also wrote of the arrival of spring, and your sharing of Farewell Frost reminded me of his playful etymology on the subject, more relevant now than it was last month.

    nam, quia ver aperit tunc omnia densaque cedit
    frigoris asperitas fetaque terra patet
    Aprilem memorant ab aperto tempore dictum

    – Ovid, Fasti IV, ll. 87-89

    (Because spring gives everything its apertion then, and banished is the bite of the bitter winter cold, and the fertile soil is open:
    That, they say, is why April – the apertural time – is so called.)

    Somewhat more optimistic than Eliot, another poet who – in The Waste Land – remarked both upon Philomel(a)’s torment and, famously, upon April.

    I find McElligott’s suggestion that ‘perhaps defeat, like familiarity, breeds contempt’ to be overly glib, and feel it should itself be questioned (especially if it has undermined your self-worth). It hinges on the saying that familiarity breeds contempt, an adage that is unscholarly, hackneyed and flawed: it rings true sometimes, but booms untrue just as often. Furthermore, defeat or failure, which are subjective anyway, are arguably not active agents, and thus undeserving of being credited with breeding ability. And contempt is a very strong concept. It might be more accurate to speculate, then, that ‘perhaps limited success does not encourage courtesy’. In my opinion, McElligott’s statement, albeit out of context, is a ‘powerful quotation’ only in the sense that bullsh*t is powerful. (By the way, Herrick’s diaper is raising a smirk with each rereading.)

    For my part, while I have no experience of academic spurning that compares to yours, I keep wishing for the magic formula that would make my messages impossible to leave unacknowledged, particularly those containing direct questions: I have not found it with you, I have not found it with many. It might or might not be wrong to interpret this as failure, but nonetheless, it does not feel OK. On the other hand, I do not send out every reply that good manners behove. When we put ourselves at the mercy of others, we are doomed: we cannot hop nor even stay balanced on grass, for the blade becomes a knife-edge. But if we keep writing, keep sending, keep waiting, then we remain open to benevolent treatment: we are grace hopers.

    A number of your Aprils have been more Ovidian than Eliotic. May this year’s prove to be another.

    • Thank you very much, as ever, for your great insight.

      Shamefully, I’ve never looked into the ‘Terean sufferings’ – perhaps because Herrick has never been my primary interest – but I remember well the description of Orpheus’ head travelling downstream still with voice, and Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ makes reference to the bleeding head on the Capitol Hill that Livy describes in his Early History. It’s great to discover this link to the Philomela episode; the growing collection of fetal references surrounding the severed limbs (or legacies) still living on, are particularly strong in reaction to the King’s execution. Herrick is more likely to be putting on a brave face than showing any kind of optimism, although what I will say is that such verse epitomises why I prefer the literature of that age. I find The Waste Land totally leaden, but such is Eliot’s versatility that some of his other work has the wit of earlier ages: ‘the alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)’, as he said of Marvell. My supervisor and I have in common that we have time for Eliot the critic where most revel in trying to slaughter him.

      A very interesting take, too, on McElligott’s phrase (which I have actually slightly misquoted, now I notice it, but not so to deter the sense). Perhaps I am guilty of being so caught up in the anecdote (and this author’s prose is rich in them, to positive effect – I might not have told about Tony Turd yet) that I don’t stop to think. I don’t normally stop to think too much, come to think of it. There is little I do not find useful or that I openly disagree with, and if something arises, the agenda (i.e. the ‘Marvell never married’, or ‘Marvell the paedo’) normally smacks you in the face like a wet fish early enough to shape some critical judgement. It’s a controversial approach to studying, perhaps. I am happy to be informed rather than some standard practices of presentations and essays centered around deconstructing critics and picking apart their every word. It hasn’t done me any harm: I’ve amassed a healthy topic which has met with approval from a high profile circle, and amassed a huge bibliography along with it. On the other hand, that nothing has crossed my mind about that phrase, now you point out its flaws, is a little more disturbing. J.M.’s point in the introduction that royalism had received less attention is fairly indisputable. As such, the sentence is a throw-away one, and I’ve only latched onto that, because perhaps, like him, the phrase is useful for victimisation. It is a colourful way for J.M. to paint the current critical climate into which the book enters (indeed, one of his allusions using colour was so potent that it was mentioned in the yet unpublished review of the book); likewise, it was a colourful way for me to exercise a little frustration.

      I loved the transformation to ‘grace hopers’. To think of the grass becoming dangerous brings to mind Marvell’s mower cutting himself down, the mower mown. April saw its fair positives; perhaps it was just that the action happened around me. Something is still missing. I am at the mercy of another university, and there is no way of knowing what the outcome is. Chillingly, there is only more to lose now. Thank you for your message, and your presence, and reminding me what is real.

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