Sunday, April 3, 2011

"Finishing a book ... is a race against the clock of the next pandemic"

From James Shapiro's review [LRB, gated] of Plague Writing in Early Modern England:

Shakespeare’s most explicit evocation of plague and its symptoms, weirdly, appears in an extended metaphor in Love’s Labour’s Lost, written around 1595. In the final scene the witty young lover Berowne, bantering with Rosaline, tells her that his three friends are stricken with love for her friends. He teasingly urges her to ‘Write, “Lord have mercy on us” on those three./They are infected; in their hearts it lies;/They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes.’ He then adds that Rosaline herself is unknowingly plague-stricken: ‘You are not free,/For the Lord’s tokens on you do I see.’ It’s hard to decide what’s more disturbing about the exchange: the casual joking about spotting ‘the Lord’s tokens’ on her skin – as close to a death warrant as you could get – or the joke about inscribing the warning ‘Lord have mercy on me’ on the infected.
There couldn’t have been many in the playhouse unaware of what Berowne’s words signified. Elizabethan authorities required plague-infested houses to be sealed, with their inhabitants – infected along with healthy – inside. To warn passers-by that it was a plague-infested dwelling, a red cross was either nailed to or painted on the door and a printed bill was hung above on which was written ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us.’ Survivors of the plague that two years earlier had killed more than 10,000 Londoners would have been agonisingly familiar with those words. How could Shakespeare or anybody in the audience think this funny? It’s the sort of thing that reminds us how little we know about what it was like to live back then, how unfathomable and alien Shakespeare and his world can seem.

The rest of the review is quite entertaining; the fact that it's a hatchet job only becomes apparent halfway through. Gilman (the title of this post is a quote) sounds appealingly unhinged. There are some factoids I should have known but didn't: e.g., that on account of the plague, "from 1603 to 1610 public playhouses were probably closed two-thirds of the time." One major oversight: in his list of dramatic references to the plague (meant to show that there weren't any, really) Shapiro misses the most obvious and vivid, from Epicoene ("he" is the sound-averse Morose):
O, i' the Queens time, he was wont to go out of Town every Saturday at ten a Clock, or on Holy-day Eves. But now, by reason of the sickness, the perpetuity of ringing has made him devise a Room, with double Walls, and treble Cielings; the Windows close shut and calk'd: and there he lives by Candlelight.

This passage is about as direct as, e.g., the prologue to the Decameron. More generally I don't think there is anything particularly alien about gallows humor in love songs; it is uncharacteristic of early Shakespeare, but 1595 is not that far from Donne's love song with "a bracelet of bright hair about the bone." (Tangentially: much is lost when spellings are modernized; "ghest" is so much better than "guest" in this context.)

A few further notes. (1) 16th and 17th cent. writing about the plague -- such as it is -- and about death in general is I think best understood as essentially medieval. Most of the power of medieval writing comes from its pervasive consciousness of death; the passing bells outside the tavern, the shifting silences immediately underneath the revelry, and the courage in being able to revel at all. See, e.g., the Pardoner's Tale:
Thise riotoures thre of whiche I telle, 
Longe erst er prime rong of any belle, 

Were set hem in a tauerne to drynke,

And as they sat, they herde a belle clynke
Biforn a cors, was caried to his graue. 

That oon of hem gan callen to his knaue: 

“Go bet,” quod he, “and axe redily 

What cors is this that passeth heer forby

And looke that thou reporte his name weel.”

“Sire”, quod this boy, “it nedeth neuer-a-deel

It was me toold er ye cam heer two houres. 

He was, pardee, an old felawe of youres,

And sodaynly he was yslayn tonyght, 

Fordronke, as he sat on his bench vpright

Ther cam a privee theef men clepeth Deeth, 

That in this contree al the peple sleeth,

And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo,

And wente his wey withouten wordes mo.

He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence

(2) It is interesting that Gilman settled on Jonson as plague-writer-in-chief, because the best-known poetic response to the AIDS epidemic, Thom Gunn's Man with Night Sweats, is openly Jonsonian. (See the Isherwood elegy for instance.) I had always thought of the Jonson angle and the AIDS angle as merely a happy coincidence -- Gunn being a formally restless poet in the same way as Lowell -- but there's probably more to be said about this. Jonson is a poet I initially dismissed as boring but his plain style is really a very distinctive and beautiful thing, which is also just right for situations when you want to speak indirectly about something powerful without hamming it up either in the obvious way or the significant-silence way.

(3) Speaking of which, cf. Peter Howarth on R.S. Thomas (in the LRB archives):
His pared-down lines no longer sound as though he were slicing away all self-deceit; those famous line-breaks now seem more like theatrical pauses, halting mid-sentence to let the echo reverberate round his empty church.
(4) Re the plague, I think Empson noted somewhere that the ending of the famous Nashe poem about the plague says the same thing in three strikingly different registers:

Mount we unto the sky;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord have mercy on us.

But I hadn't realized -- what now seems obvious -- that the last line would in its context have evoked chiefly a civic rather than a religious register.

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