Unexpected Delights

Just one stanza for you in this post, but what a stanza.  I have been reading poetry written in the reign of Henry VII and the first decades of the reign of Henry VIII.  This is the period of literature filled with what C S Lewis in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century called ‘bad poets’.  Lewis’s verdict is damning: “This is the real midwinter of our poetry; all smudge, blur, and scribble without a firm line or a clear colour anywhere.”

Detail of a stork from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F. 4. 15 (French, 1564)

This stanza, however, stopped me in my tracks.  It’s from The Castle of Pleasure, an allegorical dream vision by William Neville, second son of Richard Neville, 2nd Baron Latimer.  Here are firm lines and clear colours.  The poem begins with a description of the narrator reading the story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Before the narrator falls asleep and is taken on his journey to the Castle of Pleasure by Morpheus, there is a single lovely stanza describing all the activities of nightfall.

The nyght drewe nye, the daye was at a syde,
My herte was hevy, I moche desyred rest
Whan without confort alone I dyd abyde,
Seynge the shadowes fall frome the hylles in the west.
Eche byrde under boughe drewe nye to theyr nest,
The chymneys frome ferre began to smoke,
Eche housholder went about to lodge his gest,
The storke, ferynge stormes, toke the chymney for a cloke,
Eche chambre and chyst were soone put under locke,
Curfew was ronge, lyghtes were set up in haste,
They that were without for lodgynge soone dyd knocke,
Which were playne precedentes the daye was clerely paste.

[The night drew near, the day was at its edge, my heart was heavy, I greatly desired rest, when without comfort I remained, alone, seeing the shadows fall from the hills in the west.  Each bird drew near to their nest in the trees,the chimneys began to smoke from their fires, each householder busied himself to accommodate his guest, the stork, fearing storms, took the chimney as his clock, each chamber and chest were quickly locked up, curfew was rung, lights were quickly put in position, those who were still abroad soon began to knock at doors asking for lodging, all of which were clear signs that the day was fully spent.]

The longer lines and longer stanza give Neville room to explore this moment.  He takes a familiar rhetorical set piece and enlivens it with particular contemporary detail, the chimneys, the curfew, the business of lodgings and guests.  There is a great mix of familiar evening tranquility, but also a sense of humanity’s hustle and bustle, all the things that have to be done before darkness falls.  The bustle perhaps shades into anxiety: storms are feared, valuables locked up, travellers worry about being left without shelter.  There is also a very subtle grasp of metaphor: day reaches its edge, shadows fall from hills, the stork needing a clock.  It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly not smudge, blur and scribble.

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