Monday, January 06, 2014

Fulke Greville (1554-1628)

Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628)


MYRA

I, with whose colours Myra drest her head,
I, that ware posies of her own hand-making,
I, that mine own name in the chimnies read
By Myra finely wrought ere I was waking:
Must I look on, in hope time coming may
With change bring back my turn again to play?

I, that on Sunday at the church-stile found
A garland sweet, with true love-knots in flowers,
Which I to wear about mine arms was bound,
That each of us might know that all was ours:
Must I now lead an idle life in wishes,
And follow Cupid for his loaves and fishes?

I, that did wear the ring her mother left,
I, for whose love she gloried to be blamèd,
I, with whose eyes her eyes committed theft,
I, who did make her blush when I was namèd:
Must I lose ring, flowers, blush, theft and go naked,
Watching with sighs, till dead love be awakèd?

I, that when drowsy Argus fell asleep,
Like jealousy o’erwatchèd with desire,
Was ever warnèd modesty to keep
While her breath, speaking, kindled Nature’s fire:
Must I look on a-cold, while others warm them?
Do Vulcan’s brothers in such fine nets arm them?

Was it for this that I might Myra see
Washing the water with her beauties, white?
Yet would she never write her love to me;
Thinks wit of change when thoughts are in delight?
Mad girls may safely love, as they may leave;
No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive.


Sometimes, though not as often as we pretend, a poem leaps out of the page and hits you between the eyes. Thus it was for me with Myra.

It’s a poem whose strength and inclusiveness (not the most expected virtue of a lyric in that era) are manifest in the opening lines. The lines all start with “I”, but  it’s Myra who swamps them with her tender thoughtfulness. In the first line “colours” must mean something heraldic or emblematic, such as a Greville ribbon. Myra, we gather, made her own decision to wear this ribbon; but the posies that he wore were made up for him by her. Perhaps, like other powerful persons, he enjoyed the holiday of “going along with it”. She even scrawls his name, while he’s still asleep, using I suppose the cold charcoal of the morning hearth (for clearly, this was a consummated relationship). All of this persuades us that the poem’s penultimate line is in earnest: Myra loved madly enough, when she did.


The second stanza summarizes their love-play thus: “that each of us might know that all was ours”. Not the other person, but all. For in the ecstasy of consummation’s early days, we know that we have inherited the earth. That New Testament allusion is mine, but it’s almost forced on me by the “church-stile” of line 7 and by the poet’s sour reference to “loaves and fishes”. For now, of course, everything’s changed - he’s really holding out for a miracle. 

The third stanza is bound together by a theme of delightful guilt. Proud of their secret “understanding” – it really affects them as insight – they enjoy being what other people call “in the wrong”.  I assume that it was a bit naughty for Greville to try on her mother’s ring – irreverent, perhaps. 

The fourth stanza yields up another intimate fragment of their relationship. “O’erwatchèd” (half-hinting at a misprint for “o’ermatchèd”) compresses two meanings – jealousy is tired from staying awake too long (cf King Lear II.2.168) and is outdone in watchfulness by a more desperate passion. The narrator remembers that there was still a pressure to be “modest”; he felt it, but her close breath dispelled it.

The first four stanzas all lead up to a “Must I?” from the narrator. The tone of his questions is open to interpretation: is it bewilderment (Has she really left me?) or is it rebelliousness (Am I really going to play this passive and feeble role?)?

The final line of the fourth stanza moves us decisively towards the latter intepretation. The line is highly compressed. “Vulcan’s brothers” means men in Vulcan’s position, men who behave as Vulcan did. Vulcan, the divine smith, forged a supremely fine net in which he snared his wife Venus and her lover Mars in flagrante. Surely this seemed a triumph both insubstantial and painful, at least once love came to be understood in courtly terms; in effect, it’s Vulcan who ends up trammelled in his own net. 

So the narrator appears to draw back from self-flagellation and forbid himself the anguish of a rejected lover; as most people do, in due course. In the last stanza his problem has disappeared. He can stand back, and reflect, objectively: “Yet would she never write her love to me”. The lines that follow sketch a rather complex train of thought. The fourth line means: of course, I never asked her to. And the final line admits that even if Myra had committed herself to writing, it would mean nothing, for what you can write is not substantial – it isn’t (for example) a kiss, it’s only the word “kiss”, which is just a hollow word once the love itself no longer exists. The last line also reflects back over his own evocation (in print, as he anticipated) of that past relationship. His poem, too, cannot reincarnate their past selves. And thus, since the deadness of that love is finally emphatic, the poem ends by accepting irrevocable change.

[I don’t know if it’s only a happy accident, but to “print a kiss” also suggests a prim, perfunctory formality that is applied, perhaps, to a forehead. Such formal kisses are, of course, often deceptive – they are not “real” kisses expressing real feeling.]

Somewhere at the back of this poem lies Horace; say, the Pyrrha ode (I, V). Temperamentally, the poets are different. One of the pleasing features of Greville’s poem is the pressure of material to get into it; Horace, by contrast, gives the impression in his odes of yielding up, with reluctance, the minimum of detail, buffed to perfection.

The corresponding weakness of most of Greville’s poems (if it is a weakness) is that they lack unity. He is a gifted aphorist, but his aphorisms, by seeming complete in themselves, induce a certain reluctance to carry on reading. New material, usually quite good material, is “built on”, like a house extension in a different style. You would learn lines of Greville by heart, but not whole poems. Even in this poem, it may be felt that the fifth stanza is taking us off in new directions that we scarcely bargained for.

The correct title of the above poem is Caelica XXII. It's thought that the early poems in Caelica were written before 1586, when he was Sidney's close pal. I should not mind being given Caelica as a Christmas present, but it sounds a weighty one. These are the other poems I have read:


Fye foolish Earth (Caelica XVI). The rhyme of “glory” and “sory”, which is the spine of this poem, is Greville’s favourite one. Here, however, he tries to keep the terms in contrast. The image, of the earth being the cause of its own night, is tenderly powerful (cf. the opening lines of Scene 3 of Dr Faustus). But Greville makes rather a mess of his analogy with love and hope. The latter is seen, contradictorily, as both disturbance (7) and comfort (11). The last line drags in “legions” for the rhyme, which doesn’t so much cap the poem as set if off bubbling again.


Absence, the noble truce (Caelica XLV). This song of praise to the pleasures of absence is so persuasive that the reversal in the last stanza is disappointing. “For thought is not the weapon” is too cheaply said (mainly for the rhyme with “cheapen”). Thought never imagined that it was!


All my senses (Caelica LVI). This is amused, and wordly. Greville, seeing his lover lying naked, falls into a train of besotted fantasy, and misses his opportunity to have her.  I am unsure about the action. “I stepped forth to touch the skye”, says Greville (an odd anticipation of the common ‘60s expression for orgasmic or chemical highs – Neil, Joni and Jimi...). The line implies that he was watching her furtively, and she was unaware of his presence, but when she saw him she ran off. Why then is the lover’s wonder considered the cause of his failure? She would have run off as soon as she saw him whether he paused to drink her in or not. The unpleasant conclusion is that Greville is chiding himself for not committing rape: he should have rushed in and pinioned her, not lingered in “conceipts” about “dainty thrones”. Rape must have been considered (at least, by noblemen) a less unacceptable action than we think it today. That’s the most natural inference to be drawn from the stories of Arcadia and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Accordingly I believe it’s quite possible, a century or two earlier, that Malory and Chaucer were indeed guilty of the rapes that they were accused of; though this has of course been hotly denied, really on the grounds that it’s horrifying to imagine someone with the sensibility and humanity of these great writers behaving in such a way. (cf. – with especial reference to girls of a lower social class – Andreas Capellanus, Malory iii 3, and Parzival XI, 555, where the ferryman leaves his daughter, the maid Bene, alone with Gawan: “He would not have cared if the lovely maiden had been forced to anything...”)


Who Grace for Zenith had (Caelica LXXXIII). This is a poem in Poulter’s Measure which doesn’t have the clownish movement we have been taught to expect. Perhaps a poem such as this could provide a clue to how the “clownish” Poulter’s of Wyatt and his followers might have sounded – because it can’t have seemed clownish at the time. This poem invites, I think, an exaggerated medial break in the alexandrine (not like Spenser’s alexandrine). The medial break is in effect a seventh foot, which balances the alexandrine against the fourteener. The latter always ends with a full pause, so that the measure flows haltingly, suiting Greville’s aphoristic temper. The opening lines, evoking the height of past ecstasy, lighten the whole poem; the rest of it (the longer part by far) anatomises the rejected Greville’s dismal “Constancy”, but the opening is never quite forgotten.  


When as Mans life (Caelica LXXXVII). A poem with many fine lines, but imperfect. I cannot see an explanation for the “But” that hinges the poem (7).


Three things there be (Caelica CV). A powerful poem, obscure in parts but persuasively suggestive. It helps when you work out that in line 17 “Man” is a vocative and “vertue”, which should be capitalized and italicized, is the subject of the next four lines.  


Syon lyes waste (Caelica CIX).  A sombre lamentation, with a pattern of feminine rhymes. Greville’s longing is indivisibly for mercy (her “ever springing fountains”) and for a fearsome judgment; the result is a very serious pastiche of Old Testament prayer: self-righteous and embattled.


When all this All (Caelica ?). The cosmological first stanza is splendid, especially the line “And makes this great world feel a greater might”. But, as in XVI above, when the real subject turns out to be the lover’s rejection, we feel that Greville has somehow undercut the seriousness of his poem. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by contrast, the personal theme and the larger images (say, of a rose, or of winter) are mutually ennobling. Nevertheless the poem ends with a wonderfully resonant question:

What can be good to me since my love is
To do me harm, content to do amiss? 


The world, that all contains (Caelica ?). A beautiful poem about change (surely it anticipates the concept of space/time). In the ninth line, “cleaveth” looks like a mistake in my edition; it should be “cleareth”. I wish the earth was not made to “stand still”; Greville may proceed to save his argument intellectually, but the concession stalls the poem. The last lines (concerning Myra) are pleasing, but we don’t believe (since we are talking sober truth now) that Myra is an exception to the world’s patterns.

Man, dream no more (Caelica ?). This is one of his happiest poems, a ringing call to Christian piety. The strength of these lines is notable:

            For God’s works are like Him, all infinite;

            First, let the law plough up thy wicked heart,

            When thou hast swept the house that all is clear,


Chorus Sacerdotum from Mustapha. This poem, with its admired opening lines, would gain greatly if printed as four six-line stanzas, as indicated by the rhyme-scheme.  In Line 21, “still” means “instil”.


What can one say, in conclusion, from this small sample? First, that Greville, like other poets who happen to be powerful statesmen, is hampered. One is aware of a consistent undercurrent of unease; his lines are not free expression, for they are infected by a habit of speaking what is politic. When I flick forward a few pages in my anthology to George Herbert, the immediate and striking impact is of freedom. Comparison with Herbert also provokes the reflection that Greville’s religious poems do not involve us as they should do. Greville addresses Man, but he speaks from a high dais and seems not to be preoccupied with his own “wicked heart”. Perhaps the high dais is “philosophy”.

So I prefer his sexual poems – at least, I prefer “Myra”. Here he did not have to be so incessantly on his guard; everyone knew sex was just sinful, and this blanket concession, so impossible to square with the practicalities of desire, perhaps allowed the subject a breathing space. I don’t believe, by the way, that Greville was really unfortunate in his amours. I think he was promiscuous, forceful and expert. He was certainly in a position to be. But this intuition doesn’t spoil the poems; if anything it makes them more interestingly complex.  

[I encountered Myra and some of these other poems in an anthology that has become a favourite of mine: A Treasury of Seventeenth Century English Verse from the Death of Shakespeare to the Restoration (1616-1660), edited by H.J. Massingham (first edition 1919); a book that, were there nothing else, would be sufficient to call into question the idea that there were no English studies worth the name before Scrutiny came along. As Massingham immediately confesses, Greville’s poems were no doubt written before 1616, by which time he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and in his sixties.]




[This image is used on Cambridge University's literature timeline to represent Fulke Greville. In fact it's the Cobbe Portrait of an unknown sitter, c. 1610, recently claimed by Stanley Wells to be William Shakespeare, though this remains thoroughly controversial. The more traditional claimant is Sir Thomas Overbury. Looks too young to be Fulke Greville, anyway. But it's a splendid portrait.]

[But should you say, in necessary shorthand, “Greville”, or “Brooke”? Usage is unsettled – a sure sign of the author’s failure to achieve first-class canonical status. “Brooke” would be more logical, on the model of “Byron”, for example. Greville, however, is the name used in his poems (e.g. Caelica LXXXIII) – as a Langlandian pun on Greiv-Ill – and is, of course, less likely than “Brooke” to cause confusion with other poets. Besides, Greville was not raised to the peerage until 1621, when he became 1st Baron Brooke. If, as is supposed, the name Brooke was temporarily replaced by "Broome" in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, this had nothing to do with Greville. It was probably because of another noble family, the Lords Cobham, whose family name was Brooke. Either it was fear of offending them (having, probably, already offended them by using the name of their ancestor Oldcastle for the unforgettable rogue we know as Falstaff), or it was fear of offending the King at the performance of November 1604; earlier in the same year Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham and his brother George Brooke had been arrested for treason - the latter was executed.] 

[This is as good a time as any to provide an invaluable link: http://www.luminarium.org . This contains what is, by current Internet standards (2002), a “wealth” of scholarly material. There are two excellent essays on Fulke Greville; one is concerned with his Calvinistic thought, the other with patriarchal poetry about women’s bodies (Sidney, Greville and Herrick). However, an author such as Marlowe attracts a wilder sort of company, both for good (Drew Milne) and ill (assorted cranks).] 




(2003, 2014)

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