Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 May 2016

'Death and the Doctor' - David Garrick

‘As Doctor ** musing sate,
Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’

‘Death and the Doctor’
David Garrick
(published 1763)

Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry.  Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character.  Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.

The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs:  this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’.  If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!).  Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative!  Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence.  As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?

In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate.  At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?).  He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality.  A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.

Death of course takes a rather more practical view.  ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’.  There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims.  The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health.  Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows.  For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims.  Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling.  ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services.  The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’  Splendid, isn’t it?  Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility.  Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself.  The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick. 
Happy reading!!

You can find this poem:
 
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0530.shtml
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse.  Go on, you know you want to look…)

More about the lovely David Garrick:

(I didn’t want to reproduce this image directly in case of copyright issues, but do follow the link to the Walker Art Gallery website.  Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)

(Wikipedia, for details about this fascinating chap’s exciting life!)

(And to cross reference, why not check out Encyclopaedia Britannica?  This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)

(And if you’re really getting into this by this point, why not look at the info about him at the Twickenham Museum?  Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)

(Ok, by this point you’ve probably realised that Garrick is still quite a popular guy… If you want to get even more detail the links on this page are definitely for you!!)

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/david-garrick
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)

Sunday, 13 March 2016

'An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize' - Oliver Goldsmith

‘She strove the neighborhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’

‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith
(1748)


Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).  This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.

Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing).  It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’.  The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’.  It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement.  All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her!  It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.

This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza.  Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’.  A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.

My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’.  It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject.  Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.



He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented.  It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty.  There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem.  The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires.  Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem.  However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology).  Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them.  As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.


You can find this poem:

(Poetry Archive – an exciting website I’ve only recently discovered – definitely worth having an explore!)

(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks.  If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
 
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:

(Wikipedia! A great place to start finding out about this clever chap!)

(Encyclopædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated.  This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)

Information for this blogpost was discovered in:

Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds!  This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too!  Seriously, check this book out!!)

Monday, 18 January 2016

'A Night-Piece on Death' - Thomas Parnell


‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb’ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.’
(lines 9-16)
 
A Night-Piece on Death
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
(published 1722)
 
Surely the eighteenth century was the great age for poetic descriptions of landscape: in just a few lines Thomas Parnell captures his reader and takes them out by the hand to wander through a cool, still night.  This is not a long poem, but it has a lot to say.  It also has a lot of really splendid images: when he begins by describing ‘the blue taper’s trembling light’ (line 1), for example, we can instantly see inside his cosy little study, and see the frail quiver of the candle flame.  Parnell writes that ‘No more I waste the wakeful night’ (line 2), and he doesn’t waste words either. 
 
The poem starts off late at night in a study; the poet has been reading the works of ‘The schoolmen and the sages’ (line 4), trying to find the path to wisdom.  But ‘at best’, he decides, such books can only ‘point […] the longest way’ (line 6).  The real way to understand the world here ‘below’ the heavens, is to go outside and experience it first hand: ‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky, / Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie’ (lines 9-10).  Beautiful, isn’t it?
 
Thomas Parnell.  Image courtesy of
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Then as he walks he sees ‘a place of graves’ (line 19), and gently the poem grows more solemn.  Another subtle shift here is that the poem suddenly begins to address the reader (or, to use the jargon, talking in the second person):
 
‘There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
“Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”’
(lines 23-28)
 
Ok, so it sounds a little gloomy perhaps; but it’s also a fair point.  It’s also interesting that Parnell is now addressing his reader directly.  Somewhat paradoxically, he has now become like the ‘schoolmen and sages’ whose books he had been reading, as he now begins to write about the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his midnight ramblings.  (Needless to say, late-night wanderings around graveyards are NOT recommended for today’s readers!)
 
To Parnell, the graves are a symbol of labour at rest.  Once again his delightful turn of phrase produces such poignant images as ‘The flat smooth stones that bear a name, / The chisel’s slender help to fame’ (lines 33-34).  As is frequently the case with graveyard poetry in the eighteenth-century, the emphasis is firmly upon death as a social leveller – in this graveyard are the poor, the ‘middle race of mortals’, and those who ‘in vaulted arches lie’ (lines 37 & .  40). The rich and great might try to preserve their fame after death through elaborate tombs, but as Parnell neatly notes they are those ‘Who, while on earth in fame they live, / Are senseless of the fame they give’ (lines 45-6).  The ‘they’ in the second line here refers to the ‘Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones’ (line 43) that adorn the graves of the rich.  In other words, while alive, these people paid little or no attention to the fame of their ancestors, proclaimed in the same manner in which they themselves have since attempted to proclaim theirs.  It’s a bit of a sweeping swipe at the aristocracy, but all the same rather cleverly put.
 
Then things get a bit more spooky, as he imagines the ghosts rising up from their graves as ‘pale Cynthia fades’ (line 47); Cynthia here refers to the moon, via Greek mythology.  The poet hears ‘a voice begin’ (line 55), and the lines between imagination and the supernatural become delightfully blurred.  The voice is that of Death, the ‘King of Fears’ (line 62), but the words he speaks are rather less terrifying than might be expected.  According to this voice, ‘Death’s but a path that must be trod, / If man would ever pass to God’ (lines 67-8).  Mocking the traditional eighteenth-century funeral fare of ‘flowing sable stoles, / Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles’ (lines 71-2) and so on, the voice then proceeds to paint a rather cheery picture of death that draws upon Christian religious belief in rebirth and resurrection.  Accordingly, the voice suggests that life is like a long prison sentence from which worthy souls may ‘Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun’ after death, and ultimately ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (lines 82 & 90).  Certainly a very upbeat ending for a poem that is, essentially, all about death!
 
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
 Thomas Parnell was ordained as a deacon in 1700, and installed as a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1704, so perhaps it is not surprising that his poem takes religious belief as its centrepoint.  At St Patrick’s, Parnell met Jonathan Swift, and both men were later members of the informal social grouping known today in academic circles as the Scriblerus Club.  Although this grouping included some of the most acclaimed literary figures of the early eighteenth-century (such as Alexander Pope and John Gay), Parnell’s poetry was not published until 1722, four years after his death.
 
If you want to find out more about Thomas Parnell:
(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, but sounds more intellectual!)
 
You can find this poem:
(Can’t wait to start reading?  Know how you feel… Check out this free copy online at the Poetry Foundation!)
 
(English Poetry 1579-1830: a fascinating database of poetry with a healthy smattering of notes and commentary.  Compiled by David Hill Radcliffe, Virginia Tech.  Great stuff!!)
 
David Fairer & Christine Gerrard (eds), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)  pp. 66-67.
(Want a copy you can hold in your hand?  This anthology has this poem and loads more inside! It’s often used as a student text, so check for second-hand copies on eBay or similar before purchasing if you’re shopping on a budget!)
 
Information for this blogpost came from the following source:
Bryan Coleborne, ‘Parnell, Thomas (1679-1718), poet and essayist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21390> [accessed 18 Jan 2016]
(If you are fortunate enough to have a subscription to this database, or to study at an institution that does, do have a read: it’s a fascinating little article!)
 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' - Anna Seward

‘O'er marum borders and valerian bed
Thy Selima shall bend her moping head,
Sigh that no more she climbs, with grateful glee,
Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;
Nay, e'en at founts of cream shall sullen swear,
Since thou, her more loved master, art not there.’

(lines 39-44)

An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy
Anna Seward
(1792)

If you like cats, and if you have a favourite feline, you will probably want to give it a hug after reading this poem.  Not that it is as morbid as the title implies; in fact, it is really quite sentimental.  In its simplest terms, this is a poem about the affection between a cat and its owner. 

The poem is narrated from the perspective of the cat, who has lived for years in the home of her owner, Acasto.  The narration then gets distracted a little as the cat spends time describing herself, demonstrating typically feline self-appreciation through her claim to being ‘The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race’, with ‘The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail’ (lines 2 & 8).  Yet this immodesty is tempered by the cat’s subsequent acknowledgement of her own limitations – ‘pain has stiffened these once supple limbs’ (line 10).  The cat feels old, and that she has almost run out of her lives: ‘Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains, / And e'en the ninth creeps languid through my veins’ (lines 11-12).  Yet still the cat feels her future has ‘Much sure of good […] in store’ (line 13), when she finishes the last of her lives and floats off to cat-heaven. 

In the cat’s imagination, heaven is a place ‘where the fish obligingly lie on the shore and birds have no wings’, as Katherine Rogers so succinctly puts it (p. 89).  If you were just beginning to feel a bit tearful over the ailing cat, this wonderful piece of humor should give you a much-needed lift; personally, the only cats I have ever known have been quite attached to the occupation of hunting, and would probably be quite sad to have the whole thing made so easy and effortless.  Fortunately, this cat at least seems rather keen on the idea; yet still she wants ‘Some days, some few short days, to linger here’ (line 30).  And this is where the really sweet part comes, because the reason for wanting to linger is so that, through the ‘softest purrs’ (line 32) she can try to convey to her owner the simple truth that heaven would not be perfect without him.  Preferring the scraps of food from her masters’s table to the beautiful ‘golden fish and wingless bird’ of heaven (line 38), she wants somehow to let him know that, even in heaven, ‘Thy Selima shall bend her moping head, / […] / Since thou, her more loved master, are not there’ (lines 40 & 45).

If you have a cat, you will probably want to give it a hug now. 

Happy reading!

You can find this poem:-

http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/old-cats-dying-soliloquy
(free online copy of the poem!! Purrfect to get reading right away!!)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 319-20.
(yes, I’m going on about this one again…but it really is a very fascinating book!!  Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I’m really not on commission…)

You can find out more about Anna Seward here:-
 
(this is a shockingly short entry, but still conveys something of her life)

The following book was used in this blogpost:-

Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (University of Michigan Press, 2001)

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes' - Thomas Gray

 
‘The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
      With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
     What cat’s averse to fish?’
                                                    (lines 19-24)

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
Thomas Gray
1747

In some ways it’s a shocking title: a beloved pet has died in tragic circumstances.  Yet, in typical eighteenth-century style, there is an element of satiric bathos.  It is a poem about death, a tribute to a treasured feline companion; yet it is also an attempt to construct a funny side to an otherwise dismal situation.  Certainly, it would seem to have been an attempt that succeeded: Horace Walpole, the owner of the unfortunate cat, had the first verse of the poem engraved onto a pedestal upon which he displayed the China vase in which his pet had met its end (apparently this is still on display in Walpole’s gothic mansion Strawberry Hill). 

The artist and writer William Blake was commissioned to produce an illustrated edition of Thomas Gray’s poetry; I’ve included one of the illustrations here, because I think it helps to understand the doubling of images in the poem.  What makes it funny is the way that the events are presented with such exaggerated solemnity: the two goldfish are ‘genii of the stream’, while the tragic victim is the ‘hapless nymph’.  The serious aspect of the final moral that ‘all that glisters [is not] gold’ also transforms the incident into a useful life example.  The concept itself is by no means original: Shakespeare includes an almost identical phrase in the play The Merchant of Venice, and, long after Gray’s death, Tolkien incorporated a similar idea into his description of the returning king, Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings.  Yet the glorious juxtaposition of humour and solemnity that Gray achieves surely makes this the most unique and stunning depiction of this proverb.

Happy reading!
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section!
 
Picture: Illustration for Gray's 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,' William Blake, 1798.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, p. C.8. (It should be noted, that the original was much better quality than my low-resolution image)
 
You can find this poem:

A lovely free version of the poem available online!  This site also has a wealth of information surrounding Gray to suit all levels of interest and enthusiasm!

Another free version of the poem available online! if

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, pp. 3050-3051
If, like me, you prefer a good solid book, this is an excellent place to find the poem! 

 
For more information about Thomas Gray:

Wikipedia!! Always a good place to start…

http://www.thomasgray.org.uk/
A stunning resource!! Don’t be put off by all the talk about scholars and academics: this site is for anyone interested in Gray and his poetry!

Strawberry Hill, the gothic-castle-home of Horace Walpole, is now an exceedingly interesting museum: definitely worth a look!