The Obscure Mr. Townshend and his “Metaphysical” Poem

The English poets who followed the Elizabethans, that is, those poets from the beginning of the Seventeenth Century to the English Revolution, largely disappeared into oblivion until they were rehabilitated, at least some of them (particularly John Donne), by T.S. Eliot in the Twentieth Century. Part of the reason was the derisive opinion of Samuel Johnson.  Johnson was of the school of British dogmatic critics; one of those who believe that art must be measured according to rigid standards set down by the critic. (In our day, another British poet, Philip Larkin, attempted to exercise the same kind of dogmatism in his jazz criticism. The difference is that British opinion-makers followed Johnson’s critical taste slavishly, but nobody really acknowledges Larkin as even particularly knowledgeable about jazz.)

Johnson’s disliked the poets he called “metaphysical” because he thought them greater “wits” than poets. Poets to Johnson (and Dryden, whom Johnson followed in his criticism of the “metaphysical” poets) were supposed to “imitate” something—life or nature or something. Their crime, he says, is that “they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts and were careless of their diction.” Even with respect to their “wit,” he found them peculiar: “Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.” (Perverseness is something that Johnson was on the lookout for—he also accused Milton of it.) Johnson, Lives of the Poets (Seciton on Cowley).

Eliot’s essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) undoes Johnson’s argument without upsetting the literary tories who revere Johnson as a minister of culture. He says that it is “extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry” and “to decide what poets practise it and in which of their verses.” The metaphysical poets are supposed to be distinguishable from the cavalier or courtly poets, who are said to be descended from Ben Jonson. But Eliot finds that Donne (the chief of the metaphysic poets) to be no more jarring or more inclined to use far-fetched imagery than any of the Elizabethans, including Shakespeare. Moreover he doesn’t find anything that unites Donne with the other so-called metaphysical poets.

So Eliot turns Johnson’s test on its head. Instead of trying to find the faults of the group, he proposes a test “by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical,’ consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but ought not to have disappeared.” He takes as the point of departure Johnson’s observation that the object of these poets was “always analytic.”  Eliot agrees and says that unlike poetry after the Revolution, the earlier poets (including the Elizabethans) regarded thought as much of an experience as anything sensual. In fact, they allowed thought to affect the responses of their senses. “Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”

Eliot says that something happened between then and Romantic England. The first was a tendency whereby the writing became more refined and the feeling more crude. The second thing that happened was Milton and Dryden. “It is interesting to speculate whether it is not a misfortune that two of the greatest master of diction in our language, Milton and Dryden, triumph with a dazzling disregard of the soul.” Eliot maintains that it is one the duties of a poet to think and not merely react. “The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.”

Of course this is precisely the kind of poetry that he, William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound were trying to write and promote at the time. And the influence of that poetry as well Eliot’s thoughtful criticism has made the “metaphysical” poets, at least Donne and George Herbert, more “canonical” than the Cavalier poets championed by Johnson, and probably more studied (if course catalogues and scholarly articles are used as evidence) than even Dryden himself.

In the end, however, the debate is somewhat empty for the reason that Eliot first states—that the group really has no independent existence, because one can’t even figure out who is supposed to be included. The name doesn’t even make much sense. “Metaphorical” would more aptly describe Johnson’s major diagnosis of (proper) group membership among the true poets. The poems of the royal courtiers (especially once Charles was crowned) were largely a dreary lot, focusing on themes like bacchanal delights and pastoral love which were so hackneyed that even fourth generation imitators of Petrarch seemed fresh by comparison. Over this lot Donne rose like a Colossus. The elements that made Donne unique, those very things that made Dryden and Johnson dislike him, influenced all the poets of the day and were imitated (whether consciously or not) by even the Cavalier poets. The influence of Donne is such that unsigned manuscript poems of the period, such as “Victorious beauty” (see below), have been variously attributed to Donne, Aurelian Townshend and William Herbert 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Other poets sometimes dabbled in analytic imagery while remaining firmly “Cavalier” in all other respect. Eliot considers this week’s poem to be a metaphysical poem, but Aurelian Townshend was quintessentially a court courtier in almost every other poem.

This brings us to Townshend. There is almost nothing useful known about him, even after the meticulous rummaging through court records and contemporary correspondence done by E.K. Chambers in his definitive collection Aurelian Townshend’s Poems and Masks (London: Clarendon Press: 1912). We don’t know exactly when he was born (although not later than 1583) or when he died (although there is no record of him after the Commonwealth). He is mentioned occasionally by other literary figures, usually incidentally. (For example,  he is noted as one of the friends of poet Thomas Carew, who in 1640 lamented his death.) We know that he was involved with writing with Inigo Jones two masques for the court of Charles I in 1632. The verse of the first, Albion’s Triumph, was probably entirely Townshend’s and Townshend wrote the published description. In the second, Tempe Restored (which turned out to be largely plagiarized from the Ballet comique de la Reine written by Baltazarin de Beaujoyeulx for Henri III in 1582), the Queen, Henrietta Maria and 14 of her ladies performed. It was perhaps during this production that Townshend first heard her Majesty sing (see below). Inigo Jones, as an aside, had replaced Ben Jonson as the Court’s masque producer, but Jonson retaliated by satirizing him (and possibly Townshend) in his The Tale of the Tub (1633).

Townshend’s literary output (at least those things that can be attributed to him) is low and takes place after the masques. Some of the poems he dedicated to individuals can be dated from their subject matter. The one period of his life that is fairly well documented (mainly by his own letters), however, took place many years before when he spent the three years in Europe (1600-02) courtesy of Sir Robert Cecil, who sponsored him in order that he gain enough polish, especially in French and Italian, to become the secretary to his son, the young William Cecil. Townshend was in his late teens or early twenties at the time, and his correspondence (included as an appendix to the collection by E.K. Chambers) shows him a dutiful but not particularly astute observer for Sir Robert and someone not particularly careful with money. There is no evidence that he actually became the secretary to William, but Townshend wrote verses, “Victorious beauty,” (see below), to Catherine Howard, who married William in 1608. The verses evidently had some popularity since they were widely circuated and later set to music. In any event, it is likely that Townsend ministered to Sir Robert during his final days in 1612.

After William’s marriage, Townshend again went to France, this time with Edward Herbert (later 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury). Among the train were Inigo Jones and Edmund Tavener. The entourage met Henri IV and had other adventures including delivering Herbert’s challenge to a discourteous Frenchmen. After Townshend’s return, aside from his dealings with the Cecils, until the time of the masques 20 years later, the only records are those relating to his marriage to Anne, widow of William Agborough, whose son Townshend adopted, and the births of his children George (1622), Mary (1626), James (1627), Herbert (1631) and Frances (1632).

Although he was never asked to participate in the productions of masques after 1632, he produced a number of poems, although none were published in his lifetime. The last record of Townshend  is his petition to the House of Lord seeking protection from Isaac Tulley, silkman, on a claim of £600. Townshend claimed to be a servant of the King. His petition is described

“Mr Aureliand Townesend, a poore & pocky Poett, but a marryed man & an howsekeeper in Barbican, hard by ye now Earl of Bridgewaters. Hee hath a very fine & fayer daughter, Mrs to the Palsgraue first, and then afterwards ye noble Count of Dorset, a Priuy Councelour & a Knight of ye Garter. Aurelian would bee glad to sell an 100 verses now at sixepence a peice, 50 sillinges an 100 verses.”

His oeuvre has not elicited high critical praise in general. Eliot called his best work “faint, pleasing tinkle.” Hugh Kenner sees some similarities between him and the later (and much more lyrical) Andrew Marvell. His champion, E.K. Chambers justified his own edition of the “scanty harvest” of Townshend on the ground that “in his day he walked with wits and poets, and, for certain touches of rareness here and there in his song.” So with that, not overly extravagant praise, I insert the best of Townshend’s “metaphysical” poems.

A Dialogue betwixt Time and a Pilgrime

(composition date unknown; from G.K. Chambers ed.)

by Aurelian Townshend

Pilgr. Aged man, that mowes these fields.
Time. Pilgrime speak, what is thy will?
Pilgr. Whose soile is this that such sweet Pasture yields?
Or who art thou whose Foot stand never still?
Or where am I? Time. In love.
Pilgr. His Lordship lies above.
Time. Yes and below, and round about
Where in all sorts of flow’rs are growing
Which as the early Spring puts out,
Time fals as fast a mowing.
Pilgr. If thou art Time, these Flow’rs have Lives,
And then I fear.
Under some Lilly she I love
May now be growing there.
Time. And in some Thiftle or some spyre of grasse,
My syth thy stalk before hers come may passe.
Pilgr. Wilt thou provide it may. Time. No.
Pilgr. Alleage the cause.
Time. Because Time cannot alter but obey Fates laws.
Cho. Then happy those whom Fate, that is the stronger,
Together twists their threads, & yet draws hers the longer.

Because we’re unlikely to see Townshend here again soon, it’s perhaps worth setting out one or two more. The first is proof that “metaphysical” poets could also be Cavalier courtiers (or perhaps more precisely the reverse). This is perhaps one of the worse examples of the narcissistic indulgences of the Caroline Court and the servility it expected of its courtiers.

On his hearing her Majesty sing

(G.K. Chambers ed.)

by Aurelian Townshend

I Have beene in Heav’n, I thinke,
For I heard an Angell sing,
Notes my thirsty ears did drinke.
Never any earthly thing
Sung so true, so sweet, so cleere;
I was then in Heav’n, not heere.

But the blessed feele no change,
So I may mistake the place,
But mine eyes would think it strange,
Should that be no Angels face;
Pow’rs above, it seems, designe
Me still Mortall, her Divine.

Till I tread the Milky way,
And I lose my sences quite,
All I wish is that I may
Hear that voice, and see that sight.
Then in types and outward show
I shall have a Heav’n below.

The tribute to Henry Cecil’s wife (now Countess, Henry having succeeded his father to the title Earl of Salisbury in 1612) follows. It is difficult to see what readers saw of John Donne in these verses. Perhaps it only has to do with the fact that Donne himself also wrote an overly servile poem-letter to her in August 1614.

To the Countesse of Salisbury
(Chambers ed.)

by Aurelian Townshend

Victorious beauty, though your eyes
Are able to subdue an hoast,
And therefore are unlike to boast
The taking of a little prize.
Do not a single heart dispise.

It came alone, but yet so arm’d
With former love, I durst have sworne
That where a privy coat was worne,
With characters of beauty charm’d.
Thereby it might have scapt unharm’d.

But neither steele nor stony breast
Are proofe against those lookes of thine,
Nor can a Beauty lesse divine
Of any heart be long possest,
Where thou pretend’st an interest.

Thy Conquest in regard of me
Alasse is small, but in respect
Of her that did my Love protect,
Were it divulged, deserv’d to be
Recorded for a Victory.

Finally, I set out a poem Townshend wrote to his daughter, Mary. The poem hints at her conquest of a Prince, which Chambers speculates is Charles Louis, Elector of Palatine, who came to England to seek assistance of Parliament in connection with the German wars. He came in 1635, 1642 and 1644, but it is thought the affair took place in 1642. Chambers notes: “One of his mother’s letters mentions his amorous reputation in 1636 but if 1642 is really the date of Lord Pembroke’s note, the intrigue with Mary Townshend must have been an incident of his second visit As she was baptized on 8th April, 1626, she had entered early upon her career of gallantry.” It is she, the “very fine & fayer daughter,” that the “poore & pocky Poett” referred Parliament to in his petition. The following poem and the one above to Lady Salisbury were set to music by William Webb and Henry Lawes (Webb on the Salisbury poem, Lawes on the Mary Townshend poem) in John Playford’s Select Musicall Ayres and Dialogues (1652). Other poems by Townshend would be published in Ayres and Dialogues by Henry Lawes in 1655 and other collections for a few years after that.

(Chambers ed.)

by Aurelian Townshend

Let not thy beauty make thee proud
Though Princes do adore thee,
Since time & sicknes were alow’d
To mow such flowers before thee.

Nor be not shy to that degree,
Thy friends may hardly know thee.
Nor yet so comming or so free,
That every fly may blow thee.

A state in every Princely brow,
As decent is requir’d,
Much more in thine, to whom they bow
by Beauties lightnings fir’d.

And yet a state so sweetly mixt
With an attractive mildnesse.
It may like Vertue sit betwixt
The extreams of pride and vilenesse.

Then every eye that sees thy face
Will in thy Beauty glory,
And every tongue that wags will grace
Thy vertue with a story.

  1. September 8th, 2010
  2. May 25th, 2016

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