Happy Birthday Sir Philip Sidney

Image result for sir philip sidney

Scholar, Knight, Diplomat, Traveller, Linguist, Poet, Politician, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth, Master of Ordnance, Soldier; shot in the leg in the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands during the 80 years war against Spain.  An avid proponent of the Protestant cause.  He died aged only 31 from gangrene.  Born November 30th, 1554.  A true renaissance man.

 

The Bargain; by Sir Philip Sidney

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
by just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
there never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
my heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

Not Shakespeare

john-ford-playwright

Elizabethan England was awash with playwrights.  Nowadays everything appears to distill down to only one.  In his day Kit Marlowe was the greater writer.  John Ford was a slightly later contemporary.  A prolific playwright and a great poet, he was born 22 years after Shakespeare in 1586 and his most productive period was in the Jacobean and Caroline eras under James I and Charles I.  He first published 2 years after the death of Elizabeth.

As with many of his era we have no birth cert, but he was baptised on this day, so that’s close enough.

Beauty’s Beauty: by John Ford

Can you paint a thought? or number
every fancy in a slumber?
Can you count soft minutes roving
from a dial’s point by moving?
Can you grasp a sigh? or, lastly,
rob a virgin’s honour chastely?
No, oh no! yet you may
sooner do both that and this,
this and that, and never miss,
than by any praise display
beauty’s beauty; such a glory,
as beyond all fate, all story,
all arms, all arts,
all loves, all hearts,
greater than those, or they,
do, shall, and must obey.

Canary Wine

Malmsey

In Elizabethan England the prize wine on the market was Malmsey, a fortified wine from the Canary Islands in Spain. It is  a wine celebrated in the writings of Shakespeare.  Indeed the popularity of the sweet white fortified wine predates Elizabeth’s reign.  The Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV, was killed by being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478 during the wars of the Roses.

Made from the Malvasia grape, thought to have originated in Greece, the vines thrived on the volcanic soils of the Canary Islands.  In those days only a fortified wine could survive the long sea voyage from Spain to Britain.  Indeed prolonged maturation in the cask on board ships at sea actually improved the quality of these wines.

In Shakespeare there are multiple references to “Sack” and “Sweet Sack”.  These are the sweet fortified whites that were popular.  Some from Jerez, but the best from the Canaries.  The name “sack” causes some confusion as the French term “sec” means dry, but these wines are clearly sweet.  It appears to be a derivation from “sacas” a Spanish word used in past times to refer to exports.

The Poet Laureate of England in 1630, Ben Johnson, petitioned for the salary of the post to be raised.  His wish was granted and a tierce of Canary was added for good measure.  A tierce was a large barrel, equivalent to 42 Imperial Gallons or just about half a standard modern bottle of wine per day for the year.  Just the right amount to lubricate the pen of a good poet.

The supply of this vintage ran into difficulty in 1666 when the Canary Islanders rebelled against the London based Canary Island Company and smashed all their wine casks, so that the streets flowed with wine.  The British company responded by banning imports from the Canaries and moving production to Madeira.

The tierce of Canary became a tierce of Madeira until the appointment of Henry James Pye to the post in the 1790’s.  Pye was appointed for political and not poetic reasons.  His work was scorned in his own lifetime and ever since.  The barrel of wine was converted into a stipend of cash, probably because he was suffering under a weight of debt.  Pye received €27 a year to churn out bad doggerel.

But how bad can his poetry be?  Oh let me promise you it is execrable.  What is worse is that it is mostly interminably long.  It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke about the 2 Jewish women in a holiday resort in the Catskills.

Woman 1:  The food this year, it’s not so good.

Woman 2: And the portions, so small.

If you are going to serve bad fare, at least make the portions mercifully small.  So here is a small portion of the work of Henry James Pye, the worst English Poet Laureate, born this day in 1745.  Read it and weep.

The Snow-drop; by Henry James Pye

Hail earliest of the opening flowers!
Fair Harbinger of vernal hours!
Who dar’st unveil each silken fold
ere Sol dispels the wintry cold,
and with thy silver leaves display’d
spread lustre through the dreary glade.
What though no frgarance like the rose
tincturing the Zephyr as it blows,
thy humble flowers from earth exhale
to scent the pinions of the gale;
What though no hues of gaudy dye
strike with their dazzling charms the eye,
nor does thy sober foliage shew
each blended tint of Iris’ bow;
Yet in thy meek unsullied grace
imagination’s eye shall trace
the glowing blossoms that appear
proudly to paint the vernal year,
and smiling Maia’s blushing dyes,
and jocund Summer’s cloudless skies,
and Autumn’s labors which succeed
to bid the purple vintage bleed,
our hopes anticipating see
led on in radiant train by thee.