Reading John Aubrey

In an 1852 journal entry, Henry David Thoreau describes visiting the Cambridge library and looking over an aged volume by Samuel Purchas, possibly Hakluytus Posthumus (1625). The experience of reading the book, says Thoreau, was “like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat.” This is his way of recommending something. For Thoreau, old books like Purchas’s “suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” And yet, he complained, they were “rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers.”

I’m not sure it’s true, or means very much, to say that the old books are no longer “implied by our literature and newspapers,” but there is something especially rich and peaty in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakepeare and Marlowe and Jonson, of course, are just a beginning. There are in addition the poets (too many to mention) and the philosophers, plus Burton and Browne and Traherne, and translators of genius like Philemon Holland, Thomas Urquhart, and John Florio, whose 1603 version of Montaigne T.S. Eliot considered the best work of translation in the English language.

The flavor of that golden era resurfaces here and there throughout the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth. You taste it in Swift, for example; in Walton’s The Compleat Angler; in Gilbert White; in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; in Charles Lamb; and even, I suggest, in certain writings of our own Benjamin Franklin, and in Moby Dick. By the twentieth century, however, it appears only in works of self-conscious copy-catism, like Holbrook Jackson’s pleasantly Burtonesque The Anatomy of Bibliomania or John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor.

For the best of the authentic old flavor, you must take a slice of the old books themselves. This I recently did. Visiting a favorite used bookshop, I was able, in the panicked last moments before my wife finally extracted me from the stacks, to pick out a copy of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. I had first discovered Aubrey (1626-1697), as most people do, through quotations from his work borrowed by other writers. Rose Macaulay, for example, published a wonderful commonplace book titled The Minor Pleasures of Life, which includes more quotes from Aubrey than from any other author.

The Penguin edition of Brief Lives, introduced and edited by Oliver Lawson Dick, is a mere selection from Aubrey’s original, but it still includes more than 120 of his short biographies. Aubrey’s subjects span the Elizabethan era through to the restoration of Charles II. He seems to have been related to half of the people he mentions, and many were still living when he wrote. Reading the book from cover to cover is like watching old England march by in grand procession – poets, mathematicians, peasants, doctors, divines, alchemists, soldiers, scientists, astrologers, aristocrats – while an inveterate gossipmonger whispers in your ear all their public foibles and personal shames.

Aubrey’s diction and spelling (preserved in my copy) reek gloriously of the seventeenth century. The preposterous, winning names of some of his subjects are enough in themselves to summon the era – names like Hasdras Waller, Ithamara Reginalds, Hierome Sanchy, Venetia Digby, Carlo Fantom, Wenceslas Hollar, Caisho Borough, Leoline Jenkins, and Sylvanus Scory. Aubrey’s gift for physical description and telling anecdote are unbeatable, his stories by turns poignant, superstitious, snarky, and uproariously bawdy. Every paragraph is a pleasure and a surprise.

Of a Lady Honywood, for example, Aubrey writes:

“Said she (holding a Venice-glass in her Hand), I shall as certainly be Damned, as this Glasse will be broken: And at that word, threw it hard on the Ground; and the Glasse remained sound; which gave her great comfort.”

Of John Hoskyns:

“Now when I have sayd his Inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his Memory to be excellent, for they are like two Bucketts, as one goes up, the other goes downe.”

Of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke:

“She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back’t Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.”

Of James Harrington:

“Anno Domini 1660, he was committed prisoner to the Tower; then to Portsey castle. His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gentleman of a high spirit and a hot head) was the procatractique [originating] cause of his deliration or madnesse; which was not outrageous, for he would discourse rationally enough and be very facetious company, but he grew to have a phansy that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and sometimes to Bees.”

Of Sir William Petty, when he was challenged to a duel:

“Sir William is extremely short-sighted, and being the challengee it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates for the place, a darke Cellar, and the weapon to be a great Carpenter’s Axe. This turned [his opponent’s] challenge into Ridicule, and so it came to nought.”

Of Shakespeare Aubrey reports (how reliably I don’t know) that as a young man he was briefly apprenticed to a butcher in Stratford and used to make florid speeches whenever he prepared to kill a calf. Francis Bacon Aubrey assures us was a pederast. He tells us also that William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, liked to meditate in the dark and had caves dug on his property just for this purpose.

It goes wonderfully on and on.

I don’t suppose that Aubrey’s Brief Lives is quite the sort of thing that Thoreau had in mind with his image of a rich old book like “an impassable swamp, ten feet deep in sphagnum.” He may not have approved. But where Purchas’s books may or may not have failed make a promising seedbed for future literatures to spring in, there can be little doubt, I think, that Aubrey’s did. At least I like to imagine there’s a direct line of descent from Brief Lives to the modern literature of celebrity gossip, hearsay, and personal sniping that is so ubiquitous in the tabloids and newspapers and blogosphere of the English-speaking world. No one today, however, can match Aubrey for humor, wit, and limitless antique charm.

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Marginalia, no.327

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

~ Insurance policy for a violin

It’s one of those exclusion clauses you don’t even blink at because you’re sure it will never apply. But the gods are not mocked and I had just started playing when Uncle Jim, the lazy bastard, shifted on the couch and detonated the warhead in his back pocket. What a mess! He apologized, and of course it was an accident. But we all know you can’t trust Jim to compensate you for things like that. He’ll buy you a burger at In-N-Out one day and call it even.

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Marginalia, no.326

I gazed at her with the reverence of an ornithologist at the glimpse of an Auckland Island merganser.

~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road

In the nineteenth century, when Europeans and other mammals tried to settle the Auckland Islands, the local mergansers showed the world that they would not give up their roosting grounds without a fight. Rather than fly off when threatened, as any bird might do who was used to the predatory habits of mammals, they scurried along and made a stand at the nearest pile of rocks. History teaches us that valiant actors of this sort are generally honored, as the Auckland Island merganser was, by the tribute of total extinction.

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Marginalia, no.325

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.

~ John Aubrey, Brief Lives (Edward de Vere)

In Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights we find the brief tale of “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” in which something similar happens. A rich and powerful merchant, Abu Hasan decides to marry and throws an opulent wedding feast. Finally, summoned to the bridal chamber, “he rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in so doing, for that he was over full of meat and drink, lo and behold! he let fly a fart, great and terrible.” The wedding guests pretend not to have heard anything, each of them “fearing for his life.” But Abu Hasan flees, like Edward de Vere, and travels the world for ten long years. When he finally comes home, hoping all has been forgotten, he discovers instead that people high and low now date certain events by whether they occurred before or after “the night when Abu Hasan farted.” The moral of the story, I suppose, is that there’s no starting over again once you’ve put yourself in bad odor with the neighbors.

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The Woods

Sunol Wilderness landscape, California

It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.

It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.

This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.

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Mountains of salmon. My youthful misadventures in Alaska are recounted in an essay published today over at The Dabbler.

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Marginalia, no.324

When it does not give you trouble it takes it away – takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and vistas and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life.

~ Henry James, The Patagonia

James’s narrator refers to travel by ocean liner, but the same might be said – and has been said – of wine and war, sleep and sex, gardening and gambling, illness, sports, reading, television, and death, among other things. I’m spoiled, I suppose, in that I have any leisure at all, though I’d like to have more. Enforced leisure might help to dispense with the guilt. Tourist cruises sound awful, but I wonder, do they sell passenger space aboard container ships?

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